Friday, March 27, 2009

Review: The Threat of Race

[David Theo Goldberg. The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.]

Much of the time, the ways that we talk about the world chop our experience and the social world into artificial bits. Which is not always bad -- our representations simply cannot include the full complexity of that which is being represented. But how we go about doing this chopping, and our failure to recognize that we are doing it, can still get us into trouble.

Take, for example, the notion of "neoliberalism." In most lefty talk where that's an important part of the language, it refers to various changes that have happened between the early 1970s and today. Usually the use of this vocabulary signals that the focus of attention is on trade liberalization, privatization, welfare state downsizing, a particular international trade and investment regimen, increasing capital mobility, and growing labour flexibility and precarity. It is about non-market ways of addressing human need being strangled, starved, and ended, and forced into subservience to the highly constrained and coercive set of relations that is the capitalist market. Usually, when you hear the word "neoliberalism," it is a sign that you are going to be hearing about the part of the social world that gets cut off from the rest and reified into "the economy" and the part of the social world that gets cut off from the rest and reified into "the state."

What is often missing in much left discourse on the topic is the idea that any change in social relations as pervasive as the neoliberal shift of the last few decades is not going to be isolated to just one or two realms of experience. Everything will be different. Relations of production and state relations are not somehow separate from relations of white supremacy, patriarchal relations, relations of heterosexism, and so on. In order to get beyond a partial and limited understanding of neoliberalism, you have to look beyond the narrow focus on more conventional and reified understandings of "the economy" and "the state."

That is where The Threat of Race comes in. It is a new work by a prominent critical race theorist that examines race and racism in the neoliberal era. How have relations of white supremacy (though it doesn't quite use that language) been transformed in the neoliberal shift, and how are they integral to it? It goes about examining this in a to-me novel way. It includes some introductory material on racial neoliberalism that is not particularly geographically focused, but the bulk of the book examines the topic through looking at local articulations of racism in five different regions of the world: the United States, Palestine, Latin America, Europe, and South Africa.

The general form of racial neoliberalism, to summarize Goldberg's analysis, involves privatizing the expression of racism. It involves creating situations that are no less organized in racialized ways, that are no less racist, that are no less about privileging white people and targeting non-white people, but that steal the language to name that it is happening. It creates not only racism in contexts where race is never named explicitly, racism which requires no explicit racists to function, but also, he argues, it involves "racism without racism":

This is not to say that what can be identified as traditional racisms have disappeared; quite the contrary. There is here the condition without the category and mode without the (same) meaning. The modes, forms, sociologics, even their rationales more often than not mimic classic racisms. But they lack the sharpness of their identifying account or defining contours, torn as they are from the classic conditions of their articulation. These anthraxic racisms without the ostensive reference of racism exacerbate humiliation and degradation, debilitation and desecration, desacralization and distortion. They underpin torture in denial ("We don't torture" even as "we" waterboard) and collateral damage under apology ("Sorry, we didn't mean it, they got caught in the firing zone"). So as racisms have become more difficult to track and trace, more blurred, new targets and their rationalization have appeared. [361]

In the United States, where racism was explicitly and openly organized by the state for so long, the civil rights movement partially turned the state to practices that were anti-racist in limited ways. The response to this under neoliberalism has been to privatize issues of racism, so that even if the state is no longer openly practicing slavery and segregation, neither can it be used to undo their legacies. In Palestine, the Israeli occupation is racial oppression through and through, in ways both everyday and spectacular, but one that exists in denial of its own racial basis. In Latin America, racial mixture is officially celebrated in many ways, but proclamations of no racial exclusion are used as a screen for a sort of inclusion-with-subordination to whiteness. In Europe, racism is equated almost exclusively with the Holocaust in ways that both erase Europe's history of global colonization and that make racism as a contemporary problem (such as that which targets people of colour who are migrants) almost unspeakable. In South Africa, race and racism have functioned historically almost in quasi-religious terms, and with the end of apartheid and the ANC-lead neoliberalization there is an equivalent to secularizaiton, in which the religious does not disappear as a deep organizing principle but is talked about and functions in new, less visible ways. Those poor and hasty summaries do not do his complex discussions of each region even the remotest bit of justice, though frankly his summary is kind of opaque too:

Racial americanization revealed the historical play between segregation and its privatizing born again expression at home and in its neo-imperializing reach. Racial palestinianization has concerned the forcing of occupational partition and the dialectics of terror and targeted assassinations, of suicide bombing and collateral killing in the name of securing cycles of partial population safety and frustrated revenge. Racial europeanization revealed the shift to categorical erasure and coded reference in the wake of unspeakable destructiveness, attended by the elevation of fixing boundaries cultural as much as territorial as immigration was made the dominant expression of racial threat. And racial latinamericanization has conjured the social rules for promoting and containing racial mixture. Finally, where racial southafricanization historically revealed the repressive debilitations and restrictions implicated in the convictions of a political theology of race, it has now come to exemplify the post-racial ambivalence between a commitment to nonracialism and a more robust racial irrelevance. [370-371, emphasis in original]

I learned a lot from this book. I appreciated Goldberg's critical position on the Isreali occupation of Palestine -- for an article by him written during the assault on Gaza earlier this year, click here -- though there were a handful of moments in that chapter that seemed a little peculiar compared to the rest of the book, I think because of greater attention to preempting attacks on his position. As well, I learned an immense amount from the chapter on South Africa, about whose pre-1948 history I knew little.

I'm not sure I have the knowledge to offer a constructive criticism of the argument as a whole, or of the regional pieces as whole entities either. All I can do is note a few narrower concerns.

The first is not necessarily a flaw, because it is simply pointing out one thing that this book is deliberately not: It does not talk about Canada. This is hardly remarkable for a book with global scope. While racial formation in Canada has its own specificities in comparison with the United States and elsewhere, it is not surprising that Goldberg chose the regions he did rather than this country. However, attention to the specificities of the Canadian situation might have drawn attention to areas of analysis that I think really are a bit weak in the book as a whole, or at least incomplete.

One of these was Goldberg's outline of the three global waves of anti-racist struggle that have occurred so far. In his understanding, the first wave was abolitionist struggle, including slave uprisings and anti-slavery organizing by allies in the metropoles. The second was the era of anti-colonial and civil rights struggle. And the third was global struggle focused on ending apartheid and, a bit later, achieving multiculturalism. I think this scheme is interesting and useful, but I think multiculturalism as a focus of struggle in the anti-apartheid wave deserves a more nuanced and critical evaluation than it gets. I say that because of Canada's unusual history of early adoption of official state multiculturalism, and the ways in which it has functioned not just as a terrain of struggle for racialized people in Canada but also as an important way in which white supremacy in Canada is propagated and organized, as writers like Himani Bannerji and Sunera Thobani have discussed. I don't think Goldberg's analysis precludes this sort of critical lens on multiculturalism, but it doesn't foreground it either.

The other has to do with the relationship between indigenous struggle and anti-racist struggle, and it is a more serious problem with the book, I think. Three of the regions it discusses -- the United States, Latin America, and South Africa -- have histories of settler colonialism. In the little I've managed to learn about indigenous struggle in the context of the Canadian state, it is thoroughly anti-racist in nature but has specificities connected to the indigenous relationship to and struggle for the land, and connected to (at least for some peoples, some nations) a desire to maintain (or recreate) autonomous collectives that are capable of refusing to be pushed from tradition-inspired ways of being and doing by state violence and the exigencies of the capitalist market. If these goals are seen as central to anti-racist struggle, and the refusal of them central to the social organization of racism in settler colonial societies, then you end up with a quite different picture of things than if you ignore them or put them in the background. In line with much anti-racist thought originating in the U.S., settler colonialism is not ignored but is placed in the distant past and not understood as central to current social relations when he discusses that country. I know less about Latin America and South Africa, so perhaps my understanding of the specificities of indigenous struggle is less relevant to how indigenous peoples in those regions understand their political projects. However, it seemed to me that the books discussion of these two regions was also lacking in the ways it incorporated indigeneity and indigenous struggle into anti-racism.

I have other fragmentary comments as well.

For instance, I had mixed feelings about Goldberg's writing. He is a talented writer and I appreciate it when academics make the effort to push beyond disciplined language in ways that reflect the passion warranted by the issues they discuss. Goldberg certainly does that. I also understand that a certain kind of playfulness and deliberate nonlinearity with language can be pedagogically useful and can in some situations convey meaning beyond what is possible with more plodding, linear writing. But there were places in this book where that approach to writing felt more like gratuitous smartypantsing than anything that was necessary for conveying meaning.

I am interested to know more about Goldberg's opposition to the language of "racialization." He only mentions it briefly in this book, and points towards previous work that talks about it in more detail. As far as I understand it, he has two main objections to it. One is that there is this pretense with "racialization" that the person using it is foregrounding a process of social construction of categories and of oppressions, but, as useful as that might be, most of the time the actual use of "racialization" and "racialized" is just a formulaic gesture in that direction without any deeper effort to unearth or articulate the processes involved. Which is a reasonable criticism, I think. His other point is that he sees analytic value in keeping the notions of "race" and "racism" distinct. He argues that they are deeply intertwined in essential ways, but that there is political value keeping them separate and keeping the focus on racism. In particular, he says that in all three of the global waves of anti-racist struggle, a sign that a given wave was receding was a shift in attention from racism (or racial oppression) being the basic element of the problem to "race" or racial categorization or racial language as being the bad thing to avoid, which then made it harder to name and oppose racism. I'm not sure I buy this and would like to see the longer version of the argument.

One of the chapters that was not specific to a particular region talked a lot about "civility" and its mobilization in defense of oppression. That wasn't particularly new to me, but it was a more extensive discussion of it than I've seen before. But what really interested me was that he wove that together with discussion of "civility" as understood under liberal democracy as coming about historically in a way tightly tied to the notion of "civil society." He argues that civil society, in line with a few other things I've read, is not a space that opposes the state and keeps it in check, as liberal-democratic theory would have it, but rather state relations and civil society are mutual constitutive and interdependent, and the civility that is a prerequisite of a functional civil society is an essential element in preserving the dominance of the state form. I have no writing planned at the moment that would draw on these ideas, but I'm sure I'll come back to them at some point.

I quite liked the way he talked about racism regionally. I liked the fact that the regions discussed were different kinds of entities. It lead to discussions that did not ignore the importance of the state relations within the broader context of global social relations, but neither did it necessarily restrict its analysis to the unit defined by state boundaries. The geographic scope of the regions was chosen more for reasons of what cohered naturally in terms of the history and present expression of racism. I also thought this approach was effective in conveying the idea that social relations in general can have a global character in various ways, but only take on meaning -- and in fact only come into existence -- through specific, local expressions.

And, at the risk of making the lead to my review less successful, I was actually not as impressed with this book's attention to intersection as I thought I would be -- not so much intersection with relations of production, which it talked about although perhaps not in as pointed a way as it could have, but intersection with relations of privilege and oppression beyond that. These interconnections were acknowledged in places, but rarely explored very far. For instance, I think there could have been a lot more said about gender in almost every chapter. It does raise an interesting practical question though: given what I said in the lead about the impossibility of rendering the full complexity of our social world in any representation of it, how do you write about interconnection, intersection, interlockingness that approaches the infinite, or at least feels like it does? I'm not sure any writing that I've ever done answers that question in a convincing way. Certainly there is nothing wrong with having a focus or a centre for your analysis -- with, for example, this being a book that puts racism at its centre. But I have a sense from other reading -- mainly work by radical women of colour, but others too -- that it involves not shifting the focus of a particular piece to something else, but changing how you talk about that focus and, ideally, leaving what might be called "hooks" in the writing that allow the reader to connect the ideas in one piece of writing with other ideas from other writing, other writers, or from the reader herself. Not that I'm claiming I could do better, but I'm not sure that The Threat of Race does as much of this as it could.

Anyway. This is kind of a disconnected review, but hopefully it gives a sense of the book. My choice to read it was kind of random. Most of the books I review on this site are in the service, directly or indirectly, of my current book project. I picked this one up, though, when I was down in Toronto in early December doing my usual pre-Xmas book buying trip. I like to get at least one book of political nonfiction for myself that is not about work while I'm buying stuff for other people, and this was my selection this time around. But I'm wondering, in retrospect, whether it was a good choice. I picked it because a handful of other authors that I have read in the past couple of years have referenced some of Goldberg's earlier work, so I understood him as someone worth listening to, and I was intrigued by the focus on racism under neoliberalism. And certainly I learned lots. But in retrospect, is my own personal political education really best advanced by reading a book about racism that is high theory written by a white guy? Asking that is not at all meant to disrespect the book or the author, but rather as a challenge to be critical about the ways in which the social relations of academic knowledge production shape how radicals learn about the world and who they learn about the world from. A bit of skeptical reflection on the patterns in one's reactions of "Oh! That looks interesting!" is perhaps warranted.

(For the website associated with the book, which includes supplementary materials and occasional new articles by the author, go here. To hear an interesting interview with the author, go here.)

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


ansel said...

Thanks for this review. I heard this interview with him on KPFA and I can't say I learned all that much - sounds like in his book his arguments are fleshed out at least a little more.

Scott said...

Thanks ansel!