Stanley Aronowitz is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at CUNY Graduate Center and the author of The Knowledge Factory (Beacon), and The Last Good Job in America and Other Essays (Rowman & Littlefield). His latest book is How Class Works (Yale).
Despite decades of battering by divorce and the proliferation of
single-parent households, the family remains a source of inexhaustible
One of the many casualties of our national obsession with the war on
Iraq is the emerging crisis of America's public colleges and
Micah Sifry's August 1, 2001 Nation Online article, "Greens at the Crossroads," sparked a number of letters from many of those active in the Green movement. We've published six of them below along with a reply from Sifry.
New York City
Micah Sifry gets some things right. The Minnesota Greens' decision to run a candidate against Paul Wellstone is wrong; at this moment retaining a Democratic Senate is an important part of progressive strategy. And while Ralph Nader has helped the Green Party grow, the Greens must stop hanging on his celebrity and build on their own candidates and issues. But in contending that the Greens are too far left and should stick to economic populism, Sifry misconstrues the party's nature and purpose.
Unlike most electoral parties, the Greens are a hybrid--a social movement as well as an electoral vehicle. Instead of reflecting the "left wing of the possible," whose boundaries have become so narrow that yesterday's centrists are today's liberals, we have a vision of change that seeks to expand people's idea of what's possible and persuade them to act on hope rather than despair. This vision includes proposals for economic democracy that entail a strong anti-corporate position; the Greens are on the cutting edge of campaign and electoral reform. But our concerns are far broader. Our signature issue, ecological sanity, marks us off from virtually every other formation in American politics. We take the global context seriously: We are the only party to argue that the crisis of global warming requires radical changes in our way of life, especially democratic transnational institutions that confront rampant oligarchic capitalism. And unlike the economic populists who disdain social radicalism because they believe it is "divisive," the party is feminist and opposes the death penalty and the war on drugs. In short, the Green Party aims to become an alternative to the two major parties, not a single-issue organization.
Sifry seems to think the Green Party should exercise centralized political discipline over local organizations. But decentralization is the hallmark of a democratic social movement. The results are inevitably messy and contentious. (Indeed, from my perspective, some Greens are too cautious about distinguishing themselves from politics as usual.) But this does not mean the Greens are fated to remain marginal. Opponents of Green politics may use decisions like Minnesota's as an excuse to discredit the party as such, but most of our potential constituents are capable of understanding that we are not a monolith.
This is a moment of turbulence, when many elements of conventional wisdom are in doubt. It is the Greens' role to deepen those doubts and convert them into action.
(The writer is Green Party candidate for Governor of New York State.)
New Haven, CT
For the record, however Micah Sifry chooses to describe or analyze the relationship between Ralph Nader and the Green Party, he should have included some crucial facts. For example, since the November 2000 elections, Ralph Nader has headlined about thirty-eight fundraisers for the Green Party and its candidates, including seven joint fundraisers for the national and one of the state Green parties. This has helped Greens to raise over $200,000. When the fundraisers have been with the national party, Nader has also allowed the use of his donor list for that state, to assure that the fundraisers have had the best
turnout possible. As part of those thirty-eight fundraisers, Nader has headlined fundraisers for the Green Party in conjunction with each
of the Democracy Rising super-rallies. Democracy Rising also shares the list of the DR attendees with the state Green Party where the Democracy Rising event is held.
Finance Director, Green Party of the United States (title for identification purposes only)
For the record, the relationship between Ralph Nader and the Green Party is as good as it's ever been. While Micah Sifry would not be incorrect to point to strains in that relationship, it is surely an overstatement to proclaim, as he did in "Greens at the Crossroads," that the relationship is "dysfunctional."
While it's true that Nader has not agreed to many things the party
has asked of him, it is also a fact that he has continued to actively
support our growth and development. For example, since the November
2000 elections, Ralph Nader has headlined, at last count, thirty-eight
fundraisers for the Green Party and its candidates, including seven joint
state/national fundraisers, helping Greens to raise over $200,000. Nader also talks up the Green Party in the media and in his many public appearances.
It would be unrealistic to expect a historic and powerful figure such as Ralph Nader and a 250,000-member political party such as the Greens to have a smooth relationship. We are grateful to Nader for everything he has done for our party.
Co-Chair, Green Party of the United States
Micah Sifry quotes me and I feel takes my comments very much out of context. I agree in many respects with his analysis of the challenges facing the Green
Party. But in regard to the issue of the Minnesota Greens running Ed McGaa, he seems to have done little more than justify his own fear and outrage, and paint anyone who does not share his apprehensions as hopelessly naive and out of touch with political reality. Of course I know who Senators Orrin Hach and Patrick Leahy are and the importance of the Senate Judiciary committee, but was not prepared to compare and contrast them for Sifry. What Sifry did not say in his analysis of the Green Party speaks volumes. He did not say that Badili Jones, an
African-American, and I, a Latina, are part of a grassroots of "Citizen Leaders" who are driving the Green Party to become the mechanism for making real the myth of democracy. In addition to being co-chairs of the national Green Party both Badili, in Atlanta, Georgia, and I, in Toledo, Ohio, undertake the bulk of our activism on the ground and in our communities. We are both involved in numerous
projects including efforts to address issues of racism and how it has manifested since September 11, 2001. Sifry didn't say these things because he probably didn't know these things, and he didn't know because he didn't ask, and he didn't ask because he was too busy running around acting like "the sky is falling," and blaming it on the Greens. What I expressed to Sifry when he interviewed me in Philadelphia was that both the Democrats and the Republicans have failed the ordinary people of this country and that the Greens should
not be expected to insulate the democrats from their mistakes.
How presumptuous of Sifry to assume that my indifference to his concerns about the Senate race in Minnesota stems from ignorance. As the daughter of migrant farmworkers, as someone who has stood in welfare lines, as someone who has stood in unemployment lines, as someone who has known what it feels like to be hungry in America, I know very well the consequences of continuing with our
farce of a democratic political system. And I am far more concerned about
the reelection of Cynthia McKinney than I am about Paul Wellstone, and it isn't Greens who are running against her.
Co-Chair of the Green Party of the United States
East Windsor, NJ
Micah Sifry laments that the Greens "risk being hobbled by their own impatience." Just two years after our first major presidential campaign, nine months after being recognized by the Federal Elections Commission as a national party, one week after our first-ever midterm convention, the article holds us to awfully high standards of political maturity. I guess we could take that as a compliment of sorts, but I can't help feeling that Sifry is the one who's showing impatience.
He mentions "promising Green candidates in places like Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Texas," but cites a single problematic situation in Minnesota as evidence that "the Green Party is at risk of being fixed in the public's mind by the choices of its most flamboyant branch"--and he devotes more than half the text of his article to oy-vaying about that particular situation!
The movement for Green politics in the United States is clearly in its infancy. Based on reasonable standards of comparison (for instance, relative to initiatives like the Reform Party, New Party, Labor Party, and Citizens Party) the Greens are showing exceptional potential and impressive growth in all measurable areas: number of activists, registrants, votes, candidacies and electoral victories.
Constructive, empathetic criticism is most welcome, but we hope Sifry and all who wish to see a progressive challenge to the only-two-choices system will maintain some perspective. Even better--join up and help us achieve the standards we all agree to be desirable and ultimately attainable. We're on the road toward becoming America's third significant political party.
Green Party of New Jersey
Working with Anita Rios closely, as I do here in Ohio, I am not
surprised that she did not profess to an intimate familiarity with
Patrick Leahy or Orrin Hatch nor their possibly different approaches
to running the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate.
What would surprise me is if Anita had not talked passionately about
the need to empower the disenfranchised in this society. Nor provided
details of the challenges Greens face in organizing grassroots
opposition to corporate power. Opposition such as the rally Anita
helped organize near Toledo the weekend after the national convention
to urge the final and complete shutdown of the damaged Davis-Besse
nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Erie.
I also am not surprised that Sifry chose a comment by Anita
that supported his thesis regarding Greens' supposed lack of
As for surprises, know now that you should not be surprised if we
who fight in the trenches on a regular basis ignore the tut-tutting
of armchair politicos who profess to offer guidance on the "proper"
path. If the Greens eventually gain national power it will not be
because we artfully finessed conflict and setbacks. We will have
gained national power because we fought the tough conflicts and
overcame setbacks and defeated, in an upset of millennial
proportions, the entrenched powers that are sucking the lifeblood
from this nation.
Convener, Green Party of Ohio
New York City
Since readers can easily find my original article online, I'm not going to reiterate all my arguments here, but just respond to what I see as the key points made by these letters.
1. Steve Welzer says I'm being impatient with the Greens, who are still in their infancy. Maybe yes, maybe no. As I see it, the Greens were in their infancy all through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when organizers in a few states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine and New Mexico in particular) began building the electorally oriented state parties that became the core of the Association of State Green Parties (formed in 1997) that eventually absorbed its rival Greens/Green Party USA and became the Green Party of the United States in 2001. Some state parties are obviously much younger than others, having been spawned by the Nader campaigns of 1996 and 2000.
2. Besides, if the goal is to grow out of one's infancy, the question has to be: By what strategy? Steve is right to point to the Greens' growth and potential--all of which I noted at the beginning of my article. But new/minor political parties are incredibly fragile flowers. Stanley Aronowitz's wise letter suggests that he knows this. However, he misreads me when he says that I favor "centralized political discipline over local organizations." I don't (and in my book I criticize Ross Perot for trying to do exactly that to his Reform Party). The Greens of Minnesota are welcome to make whatever political choices they want: That is, as Anita Rios put it, what democracy looks like. But the rest of us, including Green activists and leaders throughout the country, can also either welcome those choices or criticize and attempt to revise them. That is not "centralized political discipline," but vibrant democratic discussion--another hallmark of a democratic social movement. And even though it is ultimately for Minnesotans to decide the US Senate race, since that race may well tip that body back into Republican hands, it is inevitably a question that Greens everywhere must face: Do you want your party to have that impact this year? Here's how the Miami-Dade Green Party answers that question (for the full text of their letter to the Minnesota Greens, click here): "We are a political party. So 'political fallout' is a perfectly valid factor in making decisions. Political fallout affects both our present and our future. The loss of a progressive voice. The loss of other potential allies to the Greens. And given the close split of the Senate, this could give Bush the full ultra-conservative control he seeks. We say, let Greens run for every state and local office we reasonably can. Let's get our best candidates and run for federal office as well. But let's pick and chose where that would most help us, and not hinder either Green Party image nor growth (they are intimately tied together)--and where it will not permit this nation to slide further down the slippery slope of repression."
3. Stanley makes a second criticism of me, that I believe the Greens have moved too far left and should stick to economic populism. Let me clarify on both points. I think the pressures of post-2000 Democratic whining, 9/11 and the war are impelling the Greens to push certain issues with a left style that may feel good and right to many core party activists, but will hinder the party's potential growth--especially at a moment when the party's anticorporate message couldn't be more in tune with popular sentiment. During the Green Party's convention in Philadelphia, I participated in a workshop on outreach to nonprogressives where Dean Myerson, the party's national coordinator, made a telling point. Greens, he said, need to recognize the difference between being activists, engaged in pushing their own issues, and organizers who seek to draw more people into the party by finding out what issues will move them. It's the difference between choosing to emphasize the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, or stopping plutonium-laden rockets from being shot into space versus stopping CEOs from gorging themselves with stock options. I don't think party organizers should drop their social vision (feminism, opposition to the death penalty, war on drugs, antimilitarism, etc) at all, but I question whether they should lead with it. Stanley is doing this with his own campaign for governor of New York: focusing on a "tax and spend" agenda that seeks to rebuild the state's public infrastructure with the help of those most able to pay for it, and telling Greens that he's a meat-eater who thinks war can sometimes be justified. If Greens want to participate in their own marginalization, they can keep using language and picking issues that set them apart from less politically active Americans. My study of the rise and growth of third parties in contemporary politics suggests to me that what matters to most voters is not how a challenger positions him- or herself on some right-to-left checklist, but how well he or she connects to people's desire for a better life and shows how to carry them forward.
4. Jack Uhrich and Ben Manski both say that Ralph Nader has done lots of good things for the Green Party since 2000. I don't dispute that at all. But their letters confirm my basic point: The relationship is dysfunctional. It's all on Nader's terms. The party is the subject of his decisions at every turn, never the other way around. Part of this is a reflection of the Greens' problems with formally empowering their own leaders (as a result they have lots of behind-the-scenes jockeying and tension). But most of it is a result of Nader's reluctance to be bound to anything he doesn't control. He says that he isn't a Green because he doesn't want to be drawn into internal party disputes. But, to take a current example, that hasn't stopped his latest comments on the Wellstone race, where he dismissed the Green Party's candidate as unlikely to get even a few thousand votes, from being interpreted as an intervention in the party's affairs. Hidden, unresolved conflicts between the Nader staff and the Green base continue to fester. If you doubt that, take a look at democracywrithing.org, a critique posted by Maine Green Party activists unhappy with the top-down nature of Nader's "Democracy Rising" rallies. One could argue that none of this is any better that the actual relations between any top Democrat and their party, of course. But I don't think Greens want to brag about being as bad as the major parties on this score.
5. Anita Rios is right that I didn't ask her about her local activism; I didn't have time, nor is it clear to me what that has to do with her role as one of the party's five national co-chairs. (I did do a longer interview with Badili Jones, one of her co-chairs, earlier in the weekend). I didn't ask her to "compare and contrast" Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy, but to tell me if she thought it would make a difference if the Senate was controlled by Ds or Rs, and then followed up by asking if it made a difference if the Senate Judiciary Committee was controlled by Hatch or Leahy. Her letter makes clear that she doesn't see a meaningful difference. As for Paul Dumouchelle's letter, I read only rhetoric of a peculiarly messianic kind. Parties grow or stagnate because of many things, including the decisions made by their leaders. They have to finesse conflict and articulate a strategy, not just a vision. At this time in our nation's history, we desperately need smart third-party strategies. My intention in writing this article (as well as my book) was to try to ask some hard questions about that problem. Hopefully, the discussion will continue.
MICAH L. SIFRY
In responding to comments on his article "Greens at the Crossroads", Micah Sifry made a major misstatement of fact: "As I see it, the Greens were in their infancy all through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when organizers in a few states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine and New Mexico in particular) began building the electoral oriented state parties that became the core of the Association of State Green Parties (formed in 1997) that eventually absorbed its rival Greens/Green Party USA and became the Green Party of the United States in 2001." Sifry's statement here is generally weak as a piece of historical analysis but that is not my concern. What is my concern, is that his statement that the Green Party USA has been absorbed by the Association of State Green Parties/Green Party of the US is simply untrue, although it is perhaps a wish fantasy in the minds of some of Green Party USA's rivals.
The facts are that the Green Party USA--which was organized in 1991 as a formal reorganization of the original US Green Party (Green Committees of Correspondence formed in 1984) still exists, with annual FEC filings, a national membership, a clearinghouse in Chicago, national officers, a website, two national publications, a Program and Platform and an ongoing political campiagn of radical grassroots organizing (which does not exclude electoral organizing as a strategy/tactic). This is a simple fact which no amount of denial or evasion can change. The Green Party USA is probably one of the very few Green parties in the world that has not succumbed to the reformist deformation of the original Green vision that has overtaken so much of the Green movement. Perhaps this is why statements of its "non-existence" appear in the press. I would appreciate a comment from Sifry.
The first moments of a recent documentary about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Rebels With a Cause, recall one of the signal images of the 1960s civil rights struggle: police training torrents of water from fire hoses on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. According to its makers, the student New Left and the antiwar movement derived their principal inspiration from the struggle for black freedom.
In this phase of the movement blacks and their allies sought three rights: integrated public schools; desegregation of public accommodations such as trains and buses, restrooms and water fountains, restaurants and, in much of the South, the right to walk down a street unmolested; and perhaps most important, voting rights. Nearly forty years later the Birmingham confrontation reminds us not only of the violence of Southern resistance to these elementary components of black freedom but also how clear-cut the issues were. The simple justice embodied in these demands had lurked on the margins of political life since the 1870s betrayal of black Reconstruction by politicians and their masters, Northern industrialists. Not that proponents of black freedom were quiescent in the interim. But despite some victories and defeats, mainly in the fight against lynching and legal frame-ups, these demands remained controversial and were largely sidelined. In 1940 Jim Crow was alive and well in the South and many other regions of America.
World War II and its aftermath changed all that. Under threat of a March on Washington by A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters union and other black leaders, in 1941 President Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in military-industry hiring. But when millions of black veterans returned from the war and found that America had returned to business as usual--even as the United States was embroiled in a cold war, claiming to be at the forefront of freedom and democracy--pressure mounted for a massive assault on discrimination and segregation. Shrewdly looking forward to an uphill re-election battle, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, and the turbulent 1948 Democratic convention passed the strongest civil rights plank of any party since the Radical Reconstruction laws of 1866. Consequently, the party suffered the first of what became a long line of defecting Southern political leaders when Strom Thurmond bolted and ran as the Dixiecrat Party candidate for President. In the early 1950s the NAACP mounted a series of legal cases against school segregation that culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, sustaining the plaintiffs' claim that the historic Court doctrine of "separate but equal" was untenable. The Court agreed that school integration was the only way to guarantee equal education to black children. The next year an NAACP activist, Rosa Parks, refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus--a disobedience that sparked a monumental boycott that finally ended in victory for the black community. In 1962, flanked by federal troops, James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi, and, under similar circumstances, a black woman named Autherine Lucy broke the color bar at the University of Alabama.
As important as these breakthroughs were, they were regarded by some as only the first stage of what was considered to be the most important phase in the struggle-- achieving black voting rights as a prelude to overturning white-supremacist economic and political domination of the South. Many on both sides of the civil rights divide were convinced that the transformation of the South by ending black exclusion was the key to changing US politics. The struggle for voting rights proved as bloody as it was controversial, for it threatened to reduce the Democratic Party to a permanent minority. In summer 1964, in the midst of a major effort by civil rights organizations to enroll thousands of new black voters, three field-workers were murdered and many others were beaten, jailed and in some cases forced to run for their lives. Fearing further losses in the less-than-solid South, the Kennedy Administration had to be dragged kicking, if not screaming, to protect field-workers in various civil rights groups. Indeed, it can be argued that beginning with the 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and perfected to an art form by Richard Nixon, the right's infamous Southern Strategy was the key to Republican/conservative domination of national politics in subsequent decades. But driven by the exigencies of the Vietnam War as well as the wager that the Democrats could successfully cut their losses by winning the solid backing of millions of black and Latino voters, Lyndon Johnson's Administration rapidly pushed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts through Congress. By 1965 a century of legally sanctioned black subordination apparently came to an end. The Democrats won black loyalty, which to this day remains the irreducible condition of their ability to contend for national political power.
Today the predominant commentary on the state of race relations in the United States no longer focuses on discrimination but on the consequences of the economic and cultural chasm that separates black and white: white flight from the cities; the formation of a black middle class, which in pursuit of a better life has tended to produce its own segregated suburban communities; and the persistence of black poverty. For after more than three decades of "rights," the economic and cultural reality is that the separation between black and white has resurged with a vengeance. Housing segregation is perhaps more profound than in the pre-civil rights era, and the tiering of the occupational structure still condemns a large percentage of blacks and Latinos to the bottom layer. What's more, the combination of the two has widened the educational gap that pro-integration advocates had hoped would by now be consigned to historical memory. In the wake of achieving voting rights and passing antidiscrimination laws, some now worry more about whether blacks will maintain access to the elite circles of American society, especially in education and the economy. Others have discovered that, despite their confidence that legal rights are secure, the stigma of race remains the unmeltable condition of the black social and economic situation.
But even voting rights are in jeopardy. What are we to make of the spectacle of mob intimidation of election officials and the brazen theft of thousands of black Florida votes during the 2000 presidential election--so egregious it led the NAACP to file suit? Or the ideological and political mobilization of a conservative Supreme Court majority to halt the ballot recount of George W. Bush's razor-thin lead? Or the refusal of a single member of the Senate, forty-eight of whom are white Democrats, to join mainly black House members in requesting an investigation of the Florida voting events? Vincent Bugliosi has persuasively shown that Gore's lawyer did not use the best arguments at the Court [see "None Dare Call It Treason," February 5]. And then there's the Congressional battle over George W. Bush's nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, during which Ted Kennedy concluded that he could not muster the votes to sustain a filibuster and had to be content with joining forty-one of his colleagues in a largely symbolic protest vote against confirmation. Ashcroft's nomination was perhaps the Bush presidency's blatant reminder that the selection of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell for leading foreign policy positions should not be understood as having any relevance to the Administration's stance on domestic racial politics. Contrary to progressives' expectation that the Democratic Party would constitute a genuine opposition to what has become a fairly strident right-wing government, as the events since November 7 have amply demonstrated, the Democrats seem to know their place.
These events--calumnies, really--cast suspicion on the easy assumption that the civil rights struggle, even in its legal aspect, largely ended in 1965. The deliberate denial of black suffrage in Florida was a statement by the Republican minority that it would not countenance the Gore campaign's bold maneuver, in tandem with the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, to register and turn out tens of thousands of new black and non-Cuban Latino voters. As if to acknowledge his indiscretion, after it became clear that he "wuz robbed," Gore ordered his supporters not to take to the streets; instead, he contented himself with a weak and ultimately unsuccessful series of legal moves to undo the theft. Thus even if their hopes for victory always depended on blacks showing up at the polls in the battleground states, including Florida, Gore and the Democratic Party proved unwilling to fight fire with fire. In the end the right believes it has a royal right to political power because it is grounded in the power of Big Capital and the legacy of racism; the Democrats believe, in their hearts, that they are somehow illegitimate because of their dependence on blacks and organized labor.
Yet inspired by the notion that the United States is a nation of laws, some writers have interpreted the 1960s judicial and legislative gains to mean that the basis has been laid for full equality of opportunity for blacks, Latinos and other oppressed groups. (I speak here of those like Ward Connerly, Glenn Loury and Shelby Steele.) They cite affirmative action as evidence that blacks may be able to attain places in the commanding heights of corporate office, if not power. But they forget that Nixon utilized affirmative action to derail efforts, inspired by the 1960s civil rights victories, to dramatically expand funding for education and other public goods. In the context of Nixon's abrogation of the Bretton Woods agreement, which destabilized world currencies, and the restructuring of the economy through the flight of manufacturing to Third World countries and capital flight from those same countries, affirmative action was the fig leaf covering the downsizing of the welfare state. As the political winds blew rightward, welfare "reform" became a mantra for Nixon's successors, from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan through Bill Clinton. Needless to say, providing spaces for black students in a handful of elite colleges and universities was not, in itself, a bad idea. That affirmative action accompanied the Reagan tax cuts, ballooning military spending, the gradual end of an income floor for the unemployed and severe spending cuts in housing, public health and education demonstrated its purpose: to expand the black professional and managerial class in the wake of deindustrialization--which left millions of industrial workers, many of them black and Latino, stranded--and the hollowing out of the welfare state, which in contrast to the 1960s gains widened the gap between rich and poor.
If only the most naïve believed that in time racism would disappear, many have misread William Julius Wilson's 1978 book The Declining Significance of Race to argue that black inequality is not a sign of the persistence of institutional or structural racism but is a remnant. On the contrary, Wilson claims that the persistence of black poverty may not be a sign of discrimination in the old sense but an indication of the vulnerability of blacks to structural changes in the economy. Race still frames the fate of many blacks, but there is also a crucial class dimension to their social situation: Despite having acquired comprehensive legal rights, both deindustrialization of many large cities and black as well as white middle-class flight have left working-class blacks in the lurch. Once, many had well-paid union jobs in steel mills, auto plants and other production industries. But since the mid-1970s, most urban and rural areas where they live have become bereft of good jobs and local services. There are not enough jobs to go around, and those that can be found are McJobs--service employment at or near the minimum wage. Cities also lack the tax base to provide citizens with decent education, recreation, housing and health facilities, and basic environmental standards like clean air and water. Lacking skills, many blacks are stuck in segregated ghettos without decent jobs, viable schools, hope or options.
To make things worse, the neoliberal policies of both Democratic and Republican governments have drastically slowed public-sector job growth and have eliminated one of the main sources of economic stability for blacks and Latinos. In fact, during his campaign Al Gore boasted that he was an architect of the Clinton Administration's program of streamlining the federal government through layoffs and attrition, which was undertaken to facilitate "paying down the debt." The private sector was expected to pick up the slack, and it did: In many cases laid-off public employees joined former industrial workers in the retail trades and in low-paid construction and nonunion factory jobs.
But the problems associated with race/class fail to detain some writers--e.g., John McWhorter and Stephen Carter. Having stipulated black economic progress without examining this claim in any depth, their main concern is how to assure that blacks obtain places in the elite intellectual and managerial professions. As if to stress the urgency of this problem, they adduce evidence to show that despite the broad application of affirmative action, blacks have fallen back in educational achievement. For example, while celebrating the civil rights movement's accomplishments, in Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, his book about the question of why black students still lag behind whites in educational attainment, linguistics professor McWhorter discounts the salience of racism. McWhorter allows that although some police brutality and discriminatory practices such as racial profiling still exist, these regrettable throwbacks are being eradicated. Accepting the federal government's definition of poverty (now $17,650 a year or less for a household of four), McWhorter minimizes these problems by citing statistics showing that under 25 percent of America's black population lives in impoverished conditions, a decline from 55 percent in 1960. Of course, these federal standards have been severely criticized by many economists and social activists for substantially understating the amount that people actually need to live on in some of America's major cities.
While $17,650 may constitute a realistic minimum standard in some rural areas and small towns--and even then there is considerable dispute about this figure--anyone living in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland, Washington or Atlanta--cities with large black, Latino and Asian populations--knows that this income is far below what people need to live on. The United Way's regional survey of living standards found that households of three in New York City require at least $44,208 to meet minimum decent standards. While the amounts are less for most other cities, they do not run below $25,000, and most of the time they are higher. In many of these cities two-bedroom apartments without utilities cannot be rented for less than $800 a month (plus at least $100 for telephone, gas and electricity)--more than half the take-home pay of a household earning $25,000. In New York City the rent is closer to $1,200, even in the far reaches of the Bronx and Brooklyn. But perhaps half of black households earn less than the rock-bottom comfort level in most areas today.
None of this bothers McWhorter and other black centrists and conservatives. They know that when measured by grades and standardized tests, educational attainment among children of poor black families may fall short because of poverty, insecurity or broken homes. Why, they ask, do black students in the middle class perform consistently worse by every measure than comparable white students, even when, owing mainly to affirmative action, they gain admission to elite colleges and universities? Relying heavily on anecdotes drawn from his own teaching experience at the University of California, Berkeley, McWhorter advances the thesis that, across the class system, blacks are afflicted by three cultural barriers to higher educational achievement that are of their own making: victimology, according to which all blacks suffer from racism that stands between them and success; separatism, a congenital suspicion of whites and of white norms, including high educational achievement; and, perhaps most salient, endemic anti-intellectualism among blacks, which regards those who study hard and care about learning as "nerds" who tend to be held in contempt. To be "cool" is to slide by rather than do well. The point of higher education is to obtain a credential that qualifies one for a good job, not to take academic learning seriously.
McWhorter is deeply embarrassed by the studied indifference of many of his black students (almost none of whom are economically disadvantaged) for intellectual pursuits and is equally disturbed by their low grades and inferior test scores. In the end, he attributes much of the problem to affirmative action--a "necessary step" but one that he believes ultimately degrades blacks in the eyes of white society. McWhorter admits that he is troubled that he got tenure in four and a half years instead of the usual seven, and that he was privileged in part because he is black. Like another "affirmative action baby," Stephen Carter, he is grateful for the boost but believes the door should be closed behind him because the policy has morally objectionable consequences, especially cynicism, examples of which litter the pages of his book. Affirmative action "inherently divests blacks and Latinos of the unalloyed sense of personal, individual responsibility for their accomplishments.... The fact that they tend not to be aware of this follows naturally from the fact that affirmative action bars it from their lives: You don't miss what you never had." Instead, he wants blacks "to spread their wings and compete" with others on an equal basis. Condemning the thesis of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (in The Bell Curve) that affirmative action should be eliminated because blacks "are too dumb," at the same time he urges his readers to "combat anti-intellectualism" and victimology as cultural norms.
Before discussing what I regard as the serious flaws in McWhorter's thesis, it is important to note that it is by no means unique; a growing number of black as well as white pro-civil rights intellectuals embrace it. Having asserted that the legislative and court victories effectively buried the "external" barriers to black advancement, these critics seek answers to the persistence of racial educational disparity within the black community itself--particularly the "culture" of victimization, a culture that, however anachronistic from an objective standpoint, remains a powerful force. Unlike many black conservatives, McWhorter professes admiration for the icons of the civil rights struggle, especially Martin Luther King Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. But he is not alone in his uncritical assessment of the past half-century as an era of black "progress." As a result, he discounts the claim that racism remains a structural barrier to blacks' further advances. Nor is there justification for the politics and culture of separatism; for McWhorter, blacks are shooting themselves in the foot because these values prevent them from overcoming the psychological and cultural legacy of slavery, the root cause of the anti-intellectualism that thwarts black students from performing well in an academic environment. This culture, he argues, is reproduced as well in the black family when parents refuse to take their children's low or failing grades as an occasion for scolding or punishment and, in the extreme, in peer pressure against the few kids who, as early as elementary school, are good scholars. Academically bright black kids are ridiculed and charged with not being loyal to "the race."
We have seen this pattern played out in a somewhat different mode among working-class white high school students. In his study of male working-class students in an English comprehensive high school--the term that corresponds to our public schools--Paul Willis describes in his study Learning to Labor how the "lads" rebel against the curriculum and other forms of school authority and thereby prepare themselves for "working-class jobs" in a nearby car factory. We can see in this and many other school experiences the same phenomena that McWhorter ascribes to racial culture. To study and achieve high enough grades to obtain a place in the university is to betray the class and its traditions. One risks isolation from his comrades for daring to be good. But it is not merely anti-intellectualism that produces such behavior; it is a specific form of solidarity that violates the prevailing norm that the key to economic success for the individual working-class kid is educational attainment.
But as a certified good student who, by his own account, suffered many of these indignities at the hands of classmates, this is beyond McWhorter's grasp. Since he sees no external barriers, anyone who refuses to succeed when he or she has been afforded the opportunity without really trying must be the prisoner of a retrograde culture. And since he defines anti-intellectualism in terms of comparative school performances in relation to whites--and there is no exploration of the concept of intellectual endeavor as such--he must avoid entering the territory of rampant American anti-intellectualism. It may come as a shock to some, but it can be plausibly claimed that we--whites, blacks and everyone else--live in an anti-intellectual culture. Those who entertain ideas that have no apparent practical utility, enjoy reading books without being required by course assignment and play or listen to classical music, attend art museums, etc., are sometimes labeled "Mr. or Miss deadbrains." Moreover, as many have observed, the public intellectual--a person of ideas whose task is to hold a mirror to society and criticize it--is an endangered species in this country.
McWhorter focuses absolutely no attention on the loss of intellectual life in this sense. His idea of intellectualism is entirely framed by conventional technical intelligence and by a sense of shame that blacks are coded as intellectually inferior. There is little justification of the life of the mind in Losing the Race except as a valuable career tool. So McWhorter cares about educational attainment as a matter of race pride and climbing the ladder. He cannot imagine that working-class and middle-class whites are routinely discouraged from spending their time in "useless" intellectual pursuits or that the disparity between black, Latino, Asian and white school performances can be attributed to anything other than internal cultural deficits.
Scott Malcomson and Thomas Holt have cast different lights on race disparity in the post-civil rights era. Departing, but only implicitly, from Tocqueville's delineation of the three races of American society--Indian, black and white--Malcomson, a freelance writer and journalist, offers a long, sometimes rambling history, fascinating autobiography and social analysis of the career of race in America. The main historical theme is that racial separatism is interwoven with virtually every aspect of American life, from the sixteenth-century European explorations and conquests that led to the brutal massacres of Native Americans, on through slavery and postemancipation race relations. Malcomson's story is nothing less than a chronicle of the defeat of the ideal of one race and one nation. Black, Native American and white remain, throughout the centuries, as races apart. Not civil war, social movements or legislative change have succeeded in overcoming the fundamental pattern of white domination and the racializing of others. Nor have territorial and economic expansion allayed separatism and differential, racially burdened access to economic and political power.
Malcomson, the son of a white Protestant minister and civil rights activist, caps One Drop of Blood with a hundred-page memoir of his childhood and youth in 1960s and '70s Oakland. In these pages, the most original part of the book, Malcomson offers an affecting account of his own experience with race but also renders the history of three major twentieth-century Oakland celebrities--Jack London, William Knowland and Bobby Seale. London was, of course, one of America's leading writers of the first two decades of the past century. He was famous not only for his adventure stories, which captured the imagination of millions of young adults and their parents as well, but also for his radical politics. He was a founder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, the student branch of a once-vibrant Socialist Party, which regularly won local offices in California until World War I and spawned the explosive political career of another writer, Upton Sinclair. (In 1934 Sinclair even became the Democratic candidate for governor.) Less well known was London's flaming racism, a sentiment shared by the archconservative Oakland Tribune publisher and US Senator William Knowland.
Deeply influenced by his parents' anti-racist politics, Malcomson was enthralled by the movement and especially by the Black Panthers, whose ubiquitous presence in Oakland as a political and social force was unusual--they lacked the same level of visibility elsewhere, even in their period of fame. But the pathos of his involvement is that his main reference group was neither black nor white: Their separation was simply too painful for a young idealist to bear. Instead, he hung out with a group of Asian students who nevertheless emulated black cultural mores. They did well in school but, by this account, nothing much except social life went on there. To satisfy his intellectual appetites, Malcomson sought refuge in extracurricular reading, an experience I shared in my own high school days in the largely Jewish and Italian East Bronx of the 1940s and 1950s.
The point of the memoir is to provide a contemporary illustration of the red thread that runs through his book: The promise of a century and a half of struggle for black freedom, and especially of the end of racial separation and of racism, remains unfulfilled. Malcomson takes Oakland as a paradigmatic instance of a majority black population gaining political office but little power because the city's white economic elites simply refused to play, until civic disruption forced them (especially Knowland) to acknowledge that their power was threatened by the militancy of new political forces within the black community. With the waning of black power, Oakland, like many other cities, reverted to its ghettos, punctuated in the 1980s and 1990s by a wave of gentrification that threatened the fragile black neighborhoods and, in the wake of high rents, forced many to leave for cheaper quarters. When Malcomson returns home in the late 1990s after a few decades in New York he finds that the experiment of his father and a local black preacher in interracial unity in behalf of community renewal has collapsed, leaving the clergyman with little hope but a firm conviction that since whites were unreliable allies, blacks had no alternative but to address the devastation of black neighborhoods on their own.
Thomas Holt is a black University of Chicago social and cultural historian whose major work, The Problem of Freedom, is a brilliant, multifaceted account of Jamaican race, labor and politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The question Holt asks in his latest book-length essay, The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century, is whether W.E.B. Du Bois's comment that the color line is the problem of the twentieth century remains the main question for our century. Holt addresses the issue from a global perspective on two axes: to place race in the context of both the national and global economies, and to adopt a "global" theoretical framework of analysis that situates race historically in terms of the transformation of production regimes from early to late capitalism. In bold but sharp strokes the book outlines three stages: pre-Fordist, Fordist and post-Fordist.
Fordism was more than a production system based on a continuously moving assembly line where workers performed repetitive tasks. The "ism" in the term signifies that mass production and mass consumption are locked in an ineluctable embrace: If the line makes possible mass production, ways must be found to provide for mass consumption. Fordism therefore entails the formation of a new consumer by means of raising wages, mainly by the vast expansion of the credit system. Now workers could buy cars, houses and appliances, even send their kids to college on the principle of "buy now, pay later." This practical consideration led to a new conception of modernity.
The advent of consumer society has changed the face of America and the rest of the capitalist world. Before Fordism, which Holt terms pre-Fordism, the US economy was crucially dependent on slavery. Whatever their egregious moral and ethical features, blacks were at the core of both the pre-Fordist and Fordist production regimes. In the slave and post-Reconstruction eras they planted and picked cotton and tobacco; during and after World War II they were recruited into the vast network of industrial plants as unskilled and semiskilled labor. Indeed, they shared in the cornucopia of consumer society, owning late-model cars and single-family homes; in some instances, they were able to send their kids to college. As Holt points out, exploitative as these relationships were, blacks occupied central places in American economic life.
The 1970s witnessed the restructuring of world capitalism: The victories of the labor movement prompted capital to seek cheaper labor abroad; cities like Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Oakland and Chicago, where black workers constituted a significant proportion of the manufacturing labor force, were rapidly deindustrialized. In their place arose not only retail establishments but "new economy" computer-mediated industries like hardware and software production, dot-coms and financial services.
But the reindustrialization of the 1980s and 1990s occurred without the participation of blacks. In industries marked by the old technologies, hundreds of thousands of immigrants made garments, toys and other consumer goods. Lacking capital, African-Americans could not own the retail businesses in their own communities; these are largely owned by immigrants--Koreans, Indians, Caribbean and African merchants. Holt argues that American blacks are now largely excluded from the global economy; they occupy economic niches that are no longer at the center of production, positions that augur badly for the future of race in America. Even the growing black middle class is located in the public sector, which has been under severe attack since the 1980s. Moreover, Holt plainly rejects the judgment of "black progress" that leads to culturalist explanations for the growing economic and social disparity between blacks and whites. He finds:
overwhelming contemporary evidence that racism permeates every institution, every pore of everyday life. Justice in our courts, earnings on our jobs, whether we have a job at all, the quality of our life, the means and timing of our death--all form the stacked deck every child born black must take up to play the game of life.
Holt's essay ends with the faint hope that racial stigma and segregation will one day be overcome. For now, he insists, race remains, for all African-Americans--not only those suffering the deprivations of ghetto life--the problem of the twenty-first century. But neither Malcomson nor Holt can find sources of resistance. In fact, Holt explicitly gives up on the labor movement--a prime mover within the Fordist regime. It has been severely weakened by post-Fordist globalization. Nor does he identify forces within the African-American movements capable of leading a fight. As other sharp critics of racism such as Paul Gilroy point out, despair overwhelms hope.
The concept that judicial and legislative prohibitions against discrimination are sufficient to erase the legacy of four centuries of social and economic oppression is deeply embedded in the American imagination, always alert to the quick fix. From this view follows the inevitable conclusion that if income and social disparities stubbornly refuse to go away, something must be wrong with the victim. Thus the tricky and misleading term "culture" as explanation, which segues into proposals that blacks "pull up their socks" and reach for the main chance. But those who are passionate in their insistence that the elimination of the structurally induced racial divide will require a monumental struggle have hesitated before the gateway of class politics.
For those like Holt and Malcomson, who are less concerned with whether blacks enter corporate boardrooms than with raising the bottom, there is little alternative to calling on the power of the labor movement to join the fray. It might be argued that organized labor, still dominated by a relatively conservative white leadership, has shown little inclination to mount a fierce defense of black interests. But as unions lose their traditional white, blue-collar base, the labor movement is becoming more black and Latino, and certainly more female. And as its constituency is transformed, there are signs that the top leadership is learning a few lessons. The AFL-CIO's 2000 call for amnesty for undocumented immigrants was a move of historic precedent. And its attempt to organize low-wage workers is a reversal of past practice. If race remains a central problem of the new century, the way forward is probably to re-establish the race/class alliance that fell on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. Without it, black freedom is confined to a cry in the darkness.
The high point of liberal faith that the color line might be permanently breached may have been the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From a participant's perspective it is difficult to forget the sea of 200,000 black and white demonstrators behind the figures of Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph and other prominent civil rights leaders, arms confidently linked, marching toward an egalitarian future. In the wake of Southern freedom rides and lunch-counter sit-ins to break the racial barriers to public accommodations (while early Northern urban insurgencies began protesting economic oppression), in quick succession Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. By 1965 many were convinced that the long-deferred dream of equality and justice was at hand. But as it turned out, the movement was not equal to its dream. The decade that began with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision against school segregation, and ended with Congressional enactment of legislation that seemed to fulfill the betrayed promise of the Civil War and Reconstruction turned out to be the last great outpouring of racial unity in the twentieth century. The reassertion of the racial divide became the story of the next thirty-five years. Even as antipoverty programs, affirmative action and war-fueled prosperity helped expand the black middle class, housing and school segregation worsened, and, because of the deindustrialization of most major cities, black and Latino unemployment became intractable. In the wake of the misery of many black ghettos we have seen the return of racial thinking, especially eugenics, that hated doctrine developed at the apex of the British Empire by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, among others. Far from earlier belief--shared by scientists, human rights advocates and many political leaders--that there is only one human species, race has made a roaring comeback on the left as much as the right. Moreover, on both sides of the ideological divide science has been mobilized to reassert the legitimacy of race as a "natural" division within the species, not only in the United States but also in other advanced industrial societies.
Paul Gilroy, whose Black Atlantic broke through the nation-specific context of race politics, has written a powerful, albeit minoritarian defense of the position that racial thinking--not just racism--is a key obstacle to human freedom (an aspiration, he sadly notes, that has virtually disappeared from political discourse). In his analysis of the origins and uses of racial thinking Gilroy spares from his critique neither black pride nor black separatism, let alone racism's most virulent forms, fascism and colonialism. He argues, provocatively, for an alternative to antihumanist identity politics that would veer toward defining community as a geographical as much as a racial concept, what he calls "planetary humanism." He also propounds an unabashed cosmopolitanism to replace nationalism as a solution to racial oppression. The result is that he has offered one of the most impressive refutations of race as an anthropological concept since the publication of Ashley Montagu's Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race more than fifty years ago. But where the older work rode the crest of a wave of early postwar antiracial thinking propelled by the general recognition that the crimes of Hitlerism were a consequence of racial populism, Gilroy's attempted revival comes at a time when identity politics, with its ideology of separatism, seems to have displaced forms of universal humanism. Communitarianism, which holds that people have the right to circle the wagons around their territory and impose their group's values on strangers, has reached all corners of political discourse, including the White House. In these times the frequently invoked slogans of human rights enjoy only strategic currency.
Gilroy traces racial thinking to three major sources: First, "raciology," discredited in its blatant, authoritarian manifestation, lives on in the guise of pseudoscientific claims that the black body has biologically rooted attributes of superior strength, beauty and endurance; second, the various movements to counter oppression by affirming racial solidarity on the basis of a separate black identity; and third, colonialism and slavery's systematic deracination of the black self and its consequent denial that blacks should be considered part of universal humanity, which has occasionally but spectacularly given rise to genocidal activities in the name of racial purity.
According to Gilroy, the persistence of raciology is partly attributable to the growing cultural importance of visual thinking, which increasingly influences our conceptions of truth. The dominance of image over writing has had a profound influence over what we take as reliable knowledge. Photography, film and television have altered how we understand the world. Despite overwhelming scientific theory and practice maintaining that there are no fundamental biological differences, physically or intellectually, within the human species, Gilroy contends, the manipulated images of advertising and other artifacts of consumer society apparently belie these judgments. Citing Spike Lee's alliance with a leading advertising agency, DDB Needham, to promote a bland version of multicultural blackness as an example of how raciology has walked through the back door of commercialized black identity, Gilroy accuses some leading black cultural figures of complicity with a crass version of market capitalism to advance their own interests.
Gilroy begins by marshaling evidence, culled from the scientific and technological revolutions of molecular biology and computer science, to support his contention that the concept of essential racial difference has lost its scientific basis even as attempts are made, by means of pseudobiological arguments, to support the view that humanity is divided by inherent, natural differences. "There is no raw, untrained perception dwelling in the body," nor, he believes, is there an inherent black physical superiority. Citing advances in medical imaging that reveal the body on a "nanoscale," he argues that the human body is increasingly understood by science as code and information and, echoing Frantz Fanon, one of his major interlocutors, should not be "epidermalized." In other words, we are not defined by skin color or intrinsic biological traits but by the "patterned interaction" between human organisms and the ecosystem within which we live and develop.
Against Race reserves some of its harshest gibes for identity politics and its companion, "multicultural blackness." Gilroy's criticism ranges from the fairly well-traveled issue of how consumerism shapes identity to how identity may lead to genocide. One of his milder illustrations is that in a society in which the marketplace assumes pride of place, the "car you drive, the clothes you wear" and other items of consumption define who we are. We are identical with our visible signs. But this is only a preliminary consideration to the far more frightening geopolitical tendency to link identity to warring constituencies who sometimes try to exterminate one another, such as Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. To underline the horror of the conflation of physical appearance and national identity, Gilroy gives an example of the large-scale killing of Tutsis because their identity card marked them, "or they did not have their card with them...and were therefore unable to prove they were not a Tutsi." Some were killed because soldiers believed "they were too tall" to be Hutu. In calling this an example of the history of "unspeakable barbarity," Gilroy remarks on "how the notion of fixed identity operates easily on both sides of the chasm that usually divides scholarly writing from the disorderly world of political conflicts." He notes that scholarship is often unable to go beyond what it perceives as primal difference, just as political actors seem incapable of seeing the Other as anything but evil.
Contrasting the music of Bob Marley, whom he takes, virtually without reservation, as an authentic black voice for universal human freedom, with hip-hop, especially in its recent incarnations, as a misogynous, cynical and exploitative product of Tin Pan Alley, Gilroy enters the vociferous debate about black popular culture. He chides critics who perpetuate the myth derived from hip-hop's earlier character as a local and rebellious musical expression and who insist that, in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, hip-hop is "marginal" and oppositional to mainstream culture. For Gilroy the leading figures of the genre, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and others, rode to their popularity on some of the more regressive masculinist sentiments even as they retain rebellious images in the guise of glorifying the figure of the gangsta. These views are not likely to endear Gilroy to those who find hope in the fragments of social critique that remain in the music. I believe he overstates the case. For all of its commercial uses, "avant-garde" hip-hop remains quite subversive to the dominant theme of the American Celebration.
This leads to perhaps the most controversial sections of the book: Gilroy's attempt to demonstrate the link between the fascist politics of racial identity and black nationalism, especially the views of Marcus Garvey, who in the 1920s and early 1930s organized and led a mass Back to Africa movement that attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.
Reflecting recent scholarship, Gilroy denies that fascism was a singular, exceptional event limited to the time of Hitler and Mussolini. Instead, he connects its appearance in the interwar period--and persistence after the defeats of the German and Italian armies and the collapse of their governments--to the history of colonialism and to the contradictions between the universalistic, humanistic claims of Enlightenment culture and the militarism that marked its sordid record of conquest.
Invoking the bloody history of Western imperialism's subordination of colonial peoples in the name of civilizing the "barbarians," Gilroy makes the explicit connection to Hitler, whose rise to power was not merely a reflection of German resentment at its humiliation by the Allies and the legacy of colonialism. Germany's drive for European and African conquest was based on Hitler's doctrine of racial purity and superiority. More than a dictator, he was an impressive ideologue whose ideas attracted substantial support among Germans and have had enduring influence in the emergence of contemporary ultrarightist movements, some of which, like those in France and Italy, have won considerable popular following. The core of fascism is biological essentialism manifested in the marriage of racial identity with nationalism, ideas that won the admiration of Garvey and some other black nationalists. Moreover, like many nationalisms, Garvey's was anti-Semitic, and Gilroy shows that he admired Hitler.
Not that Gilroy equates black separatism with fascism. But he places considerable weight on the deracination of the Jews by fascism as the major modern form of racism and as a precursor to the calumnies that followed their extermination. His point is that the Holocaust and the Rwanda tragedy--indeed, all genocidal acts grounded in racial purity and racial separatism--contain the potential for unspeakable barbarity because they entail the denial of the Other's claim to humanity. Once the Other has been endowed with essential qualities that may be coded as subhuman--or evil--there may be no question of observing its fundamental rights. Thus, for Gilroy, black anti-Semitism is not only wrong, it is self-defeating.
In promulgating his viewpoint Gilroy relies on the authority of three thinkers who, as it turned out, vainly fought for the notion of human liberation: Frantz Fanon, the West Indian psychoanalyst who decried all attempts to link humans to their skin color and never tired of reminding the metropolis of its obligation to live up to the promise of the Enlightenment; Martin Luther King Jr., who, despite the violence and humiliation suffered by American blacks, insisted that the task of the civil rights movement was to secure entrance into American society but who also recognized toward the end of his life that rights are not enough and integration into an unjust society is not desirable. King became the principal tribune of the indivisibility of freedom and, in its pursuit, lost his life while participating in one of the monumental struggles of the Southern labor movement. The last thinker, Richard Wright, is Gilroy's model of a cosmopolitan intellectual who removed himself to France rather than bear witness to the disintegration of the promise of freedom in his own country. Wright is the exemplar of the intellectual exile, yet he remained rooted to the problems and pain of blacks in his native land. Disdaining what he called "tribalism," Wright used his celebrity to make a spirited case that the newly independent African states should embark, despite all, on the road to modernity.
Gilroy's reach is dazzling, his analysis acute and insightful, but in the end he recognizes that, lacking a political constituency for his planetary humanism, his ideas remain not a program but a utopian hope. Significantly, in the last chapter he invokes Theodor Adorno, who, in his years in California, made shrewd but ungenerous commentary on various aspects of US popular culture. Gilroy's sharp criticisms of black elites--especially the middle class, who, even as they distance themselves from the black working class have embraced a mixture of black separatism and assimilation into the dominant market culture--do not lead him to consider global class politics as a practical way to achieve the cosmopolitan movement he would create, any more than Adorno could see beyond the "the totally administered society" he abhorred. At the end of the day, Against Race remains the brilliant jeremiad of an out-of-step intellectual whose main weapon is criticism. There are few who do it better.
The United States never held a large number of direct colonies, a fact that has prompted many political leaders to declare it the great exception to colonialism.