An earlier shift in the racial formation, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1959
Source: John Bledsoe, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
At last week’s Republican National Convention, a Texas delegate proclaimed, “We don’t want a race war in this country.” Many are understandably distressed about recent confrontations between police and activists and the escalating violence. Indeed, the Milwaukee County sheriff described Ferguson and Baton Rouge as, “a collapse of social order.” While many forces are producing tangible changes, the evolving nature of racial dynamics needs to be placed in a larger context.
The US is undergoing a shift in the racial formation. Within Ethnic Studies, the concept of racial formation refers to a particular constellation of racial dynamics and structures. This includes things like laws, everyday practices, demographics, beliefs and distributions of power. Racial formations change over time. Since the 1980s we have been living in a formation often called, “neoliberal multiculturalism.” This particular formation is dominated by things we are all intuitively familiar with, such as the idea of a colorblind society, “political correctness,” an emphasis on the individual, and belief in a meritocracy. The increased mobility of people of color, including a Black president, is a powerful symbol of neoliberal multiculturalism.
However, neoliberal multiculturalism is crumbling beneath our feet. Such shifts are always difficult, painful, and often violent. Racial formation change entails challenging one racial configuration and replacing it with new racial ideas and practices. What makes these shifts so volatile is that they involve redistributions of power. Examples of previous racial formation shifts include the creation and dismantling of race-based slavery; the conquest of Mexico; Reconstruction; the rise of Jim Crow; the Civil Rights movement; and California’s Proposition 187. While not solely about race, these events were saturated with racial meaning and triggered a racial realignment.
Neoliberal multiculturalism is collapsing for several reasons. First, the underlying contradictions of a colorblind ideology and the material reality of continued racism are simply unsustainable. Cell phone cameras have provided dramatic evidence of persistent racism that has been difficult to counter – despite the best efforts of some. Second, the full extent of many whites’ racial resentment and fear is increasingly clear thanks to the Trump campaign. Trump certainly did not create racial anxiety - he simply exploited it. As conservative strategist Avik Roy recently surmised, “the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.” While progressives and liberals have long known this, the fact that mainstream Republicans are acknowledging it is a racial tsunami. A third factor contributing to a changing racial formation is growing economic inequality, particularly among whites. As the white working class becomes more impoverished, Mexicans, African Americans, Asians, and immigrants become convenient targets of their anger. And finally, we cannot overlook the larger context of terrorism and never-ending war that has led to the racialization of Muslims and the growth of anti-Muslim attitudes.
The notion that we are headed towards a “race war,” or some form of racial regression is hard for Americans to accept because we are deeply invested in the ideal of racial progress. Achieving formal equality after the civil rights movement allowed many to believe that racial inequality was behind us and to adopt a colorblind ideology. Instead, we see once again, that racism continues to be a defining characteristic of our nation.
And so it will be - until the US is willing to grapple with the racial violence that accompanied the founding of this country and its development. There are reasons we resist acknowledging that the US was built on land stolen from Native peoples and that its early wealth was produced by Black slaves: It is painful. What does a country do with that kind of origin story? It requires an entirely new national narrative. So instead, we ignore it. We sterilize it. We say the past is not important. We seek refuge in American Exceptionalism. But just like individual trauma does not heal until is dealt with, the same is true for nations.
There will be no permanent peace until there is justice. And “justice” whatever that looks like, must begin with the truth.