The Problem of the Twenty-First Century is the Problem of the ColorBlind
[Adapted from Dean Shirley Newman's Lecture Series (Facing Up to History: Racism's Pasts and Presence) at the University of Michigan, 22 March 2001]
A few years ago I had the fortune of spending a morning debating Dinesh D'Souza on the question of affirmative action. It was in Chicago at the South Asian Students' Association annual meeting. I was a bit apprehensive. I've debated people before, indeed I like the format at times. But D'Souza is a formidable debater: he does not listen to what you are saying, he has great one-liners to earn the audience's support and he is ruthless. Our contest went much as I had anticipated. He railed against quotas and preferences and asked how a society pledged to equality could countenance unfairness in the admission to colleges. He appealed to white fear, to the sense that one's qualified white friends would be disadvantaged. It is hard to argue against this except to say that there has been past injustice and that our present system still does not allow for fairness in the process. Fight for more fairness, he counters, not preferences. Indeed the logic of equality mobilized by D'Souza militates against the general liberal argument for affirmative action. He quoted from King on the "content of character" and not the "color of skin," a strong claim to race-free or color-blind egalitarianism or merit. To the point of past injustice, D'Souza took refuge in the weakness of the courts on the issue of remedy: who should bear the burden for the unfairness of the past? Should it be the descendents of the slavers, for instance, who did not themselves enslave people?
D'Souza and the neo-cons are onto something. They are not perverse fools who are out to hoodwink us into the gallows of the Klan (although it sometimes does feel like that, with Trent Lott in the wings, hooded and eager). What they have identified is the limits of the argument for equality in a bourgeois democratic system. When the bourgeois revolution was completed in the mid-1960s with the various laws that called for political and legal equality, these laws ended the value of "equality" (as a concept) in the fight for social justice. Once we won political equality in the bourgeois sense we won the right to be treated equally at the same time as we forfeited the right to the accumulated gains of the past, accumulated legally in the old system, but illegally in our own context. There was to be no retroactive redistribution of ill-gotten gains: these were to be protected by the law, in perpetuity. Since equality, within the bourgeois democratic set-up, means equality before the law and the franchise, the most that one could do was to call for an equality of opportunity (not equality of result): equality of opportunity was, and is, the grounds for the debate on affirmative action -- do all people have equal access to education? Are the standardized tests as standard as they appear? Should there be other means to ensure that people have the opportunity to enter college? And so on.
Bakke, Hopwood, these are the words of infamy for us, perhaps the same may happen to the Michigan case now before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals [Judge Friedman's ruling on 27 March is a blow to the Michigan case and to affirmative action -- one more victory to the Center for Individual Rights]: each time the neo-cons demonstrate that they have the upper hand in terms of the rhetoric of a bourgeois-democratic system. Our language in defense of affirmative action is inadequate, because we tend to weigh in with moral rhetoric about diversity which does not win us too many adherents. The fact is that the language of equality is over. We have already gained from the days of Jim Crow segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964's Title Six states that any institution that takes federal money cannot discriminate "based on race, color or national origin." Jim Crow is over, no doubt about that, even if Jeb Crow is still alive and well. We need to fight Jeb Crow with new tactics, with a new language, not with the language that served us well to overthrow Jim Crow
The problem of the 20th Century was the problem of the Color-Line (as W. E. B. Du Bois put it so well in 1899); the problem of the 21st Century will be the problem of the Color-Blind. The naked white supremacy of the Klan is alive and well, no doubt, but it is fundamentally illegitimate. Our principle contradiction now is not the Klan, or Jim Crow, but the language of equality itself, the idea of the colorblind, the notion of an ahistorical and almost Darwinist contest between equal citizens. George the Second won a perfect score from the Campaign for a ColorBlind America in 1998; in 1999 he said that "I support the spirit of no quotas, no preferences"; now, as President, he has surrounded himself with those who are fervent proponents of racism as the colorblind, people like Grand Wizard John Ashcroft and Elaine Chao. They tell us that we are already equal in opportunity (but for a few snags here and there) and that we should be able to compete without preferences and quotas (indeed Chao, like Susan Au Allen and other Asian conservatives suggests that quotas for African Americans and Latinos hurt Asians -- this is wrong and misguided as I've shown in the latest issue of Amerasia Journal). We may be equal as juridical subjects, but we are not subjected to the same pains and penalties as each other. Jeb Crow may not be Jim Crow, but it's racism nonetheless.
What does it mean to say that the bourgeois revolution was generally complete by the late 1960s? This means that the tactical demand for equality had worn out its value. The struggle for a hundred years, from the mid-19th Century to the mid-20th Century, had been about equality: equality, however, was not the goal of the struggle only the tactical device toward the larger goal of human freedom. By the late 1960s, equality had been enshrined, but it had not itself led to freedom. Equality, as the foundation of a bourgeois-democracy, meant equality before the law, juridical equality, but not freedom. This equality was almost mathematical, with numbers on one side of the equation being bound to equal those on the other side. The world of mathematics, however, is axiomatic: the rules are made up and our operations conform to the premises we set up. The world is not an axiomatic place. We have to live within the contradictions of history. Bourgeois law treats the world as an axiomatic place, where those what come before the bar of the court, in its best world, are to be seen as equal once the state grants them equality. The grant of equality, indeed, is the final task of the bourgeois revolution. It cannot go any further than that. In that sense, "equality" has run its course.
The completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution means simply that the idea of "equality" is by now established as the norm and that racism is seen generally as abhorrent. It is hardly brave to speak out against racism. But since "equality," in the neocon framework, means equal treatment for all regardless of the depravations of history, then "equality" itself ceases to be a worthwhile horizon for progressive social change: its task is done. We need a new framework for our struggles, one that reflects the social conditions of those struggles, not a nostalgic politics against a Jim Crow that has become a Jeb Crow. For the former, Jim Crow, violence was the condition of its being, it was its first gesture; with Jeb Crow, violence is immanent, but it does not strike until the disobedient fail to act according to its orders (such as in Iraq and Florida -- you can rule yourselves as long as you do so according to our rules). If once people were violently enslaved to work, now they are left hungry, forced to seek workfare or else to do crime, do the time, and work for slave wages for the Correctional Corporations of America. Equality won freedom from slavery; equality can't win us freedom from the lockdown conditions in our cities, from the routine (and equal) police violence against crime.
If "equality" now privileges the language of the colorblind, then "freedom" is no better. The Right has kidnapped the word and reduced it to reflect on the relationship between the individual and the state, notably individual liberty from what is sees as state tyranny. But "freedom" is an expansive term, less able to be made mathematical than "equality." The horizon of our struggle should be freedom, not equality. For a brief instant in its history, the Indian judiciary tried to marry the notion of an expansive freedom to bourgeois democracy, first in 1951 (equality did not mean that "every law must have universal application for all persons who are not by nature, attainment or circumstances in the same position, and the varying needs of different classes or persons require separate treatment") and then in 1964 ("advantages secured due to historical reasons cannot be considered a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution"), but neither of these brave judgements stood the test of "equality." Property trumps justice in the courts each time.
One task of a movement driven by freedom is to raze privilege. For example, Lon Burnham (state representative from Fort Worth, Texas) has once more put forward his innovative, and simple, bill (this time H. B. no. 954) which makes the following case: "Consideration of Kinship to Student, Former Student, or Donor in Admissions Prohibited," in other words, legacy admissions must be stopped. Defend affirmative action, but end legacy admissions. Build power for the oppressed (and help ease their sufferings), but at the same time ensure that the by now "normal" advantages of the past are not flagrantly used on behalf of the well-heeled. If "equality" is now the norm, then it must be so not only against those of color, but also those who eat high on the hog. No need to be defensive about that. Affirmative action, anti-legacy, welfare: these are our tactical fights in a broad struggle for freedom. The goal is freedom, not equality. The neocons keep trying to reduce the horizon of freedom to equality, but those of us who spend our time with ideas need to join the intellectual charge against this reduction. We need to keep up, to stumble after, the movement in the streets that seek freedom against equality, that seek something more than Miranda and Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education and Sheff v. O'Neill.
We should not be interested in the blandness of "equality" which is as much a straightjacket these days as an impetus for further struggle. I went after legacy in the debate with D'Souza. He tried to make me out to be a surly, humorless Leftist who was jealous of the virtue of prosperity. He stayed with the language of the colorblind, a language that enrages us so much that we want to yell "racist." But that is the easiest way to lose the ideological fight. The only way to engage the colorblind is to reject its ground of "equality" and to engage it with freedom, not freedom as a moral imperative, but freedom as the only condition for real equal opportunity, to ensure that the votaries of the colorblind don't hide from their own premises and make us look silly. Equality in an unequal world is the silly thing.