Books

How Colorblind Rhetoric and Multicultural Ideology Made America More Racist

Racists in the United States only embrace diversity and multiculturalism in name. In practice, they enforce cultural standards.

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The following is adapted from the new book Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books, 2016): 

Bill Clinton was sadly mistaken about the root of the “problem of race” when he made a stunning announcement on the subject on June 14, 1997. In his commencement address at Angela Davis’s alma mater, UC San Diego, Clinton pledged to lead “the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation on race.” Racial reformers applauded Clinton for his willingness to condemn prejudice and discrimination and for his antiracist ambitions of building “the world’s first truly multiracial democracy.”

Upward of 1 million Black women made sure to inject their ideas into the conversation, gathering in Philadelphia on October 25, 1997. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sister Souljah, Winnie Mandela, Attallah and Ilyasah Shabazz (daughters of Malcolm X), and Dorothy Height spoke to the Million Woman March. At one point, a helicopter flew down low to drown out their words. Thousands shot up their arms, trying to almost shoo the helicopter away like a fly. It worked. “See what we can do when we work together,” intoned the passionate director of ceremonies, Brenda Burgess of Michigan.

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The calls for Black unity resounded in Philadelphia as they had two years earlier among those million men in Washington, DC—as if Black people had a unity problem, as if this disunity was contributing to the plight of the race, and as if other races did not have sellouts and backstabbers. The nation’s most unified race behind a single political party was never the most politically divided race. But, as always, racist ideas never needed to account for reality.

“Racism will not disappear by focusing on race,” House speaker Newt Gingrich argued in the wake of Clinton’s national race conversation. This reaction to Clinton’s conversation synthesized into a newly popular term: color-blind. “Color-blindness” rhetoric—the idea of solving the race problem by ignoring it—started to catch on as logical in illogical minds. “Color-blind” segregationists condemned public discussions of racism, following in the footsteps of Jim Crow and slaveholders. But these supposedly color-blind segregationists were much more advanced than their racist predecessors, announcing that anyone who engaged Clinton’s national discussion in any antiracist way was in fact racist. In his 1997 book Liberal Racism, journalist Jim Sleeper argued that anyone who was not color blind—or “transracial”—was racist. In their runaway success of the same year, America in Black & White, Manhattan Institute Fellow Abigail Thernstrom and Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom said that “race-consciousness policies make for more race-consciousness; they carry American society backward.” “Few whites are now racists,” and what dominates race relations now is “black anger” and “white surrender,” the Thernstroms wrote, echoing the essays in The Race Card, an influential 1997 anthology edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. Criers of racial discrimination were playing the fake “race card,” and it was winning because of liberal “white guilt.”

All this color-blind rhetoric seemed to have its intended effect. The court of public opinion seemed to start favoring the color-blind product nearly a century after the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the product “separate but equal.” The millennium was coming, and people were still being blinded to human equality by colors.

The color-blind ideal was reinforced by the propaganda of the arrival of American multiculturalism. “More than ever, we understand the benefits of our racial, linguistic, and cultural diversity,” Clinton said in his speech at UC San Diego. The old assimilationist ideal of all Americans, no matter their cultural heritage, adopting Euro-American culture, had indeed suffered a devastating assault in schools, and especially colleges, from the new Ethnic Studies departments, the profusion of non-White immigrants, and Americans learning their native and foreign ancestral roots. Nathan Glazer, the coauthor of a book detailing the assimilationist standard of the 1960s, Beyond the Melting Pot, despondently confessed that things had changed. The title of his 1997 book was We Are All Multiculturalists Now. The book became a punching bag for assimilationists, who had spent the decade swinging at those increasingly popular Black Studies programs and departments.

But Glazer again got it wrong on culture. A truly multicultural nation ruled by multiculturalists would not have Christianity as its unofficial standard religion. It would not have suits as its standard professional attire. English would not be its standard language or be assessed by standardized tests. Ethnic Studies would not be looked upon as superfluous to educational curricula. Afrocentric scholars and other multicultural theorists, lecturing on multiple cultural perspectives, would not be looked upon as controversial. No cultural group would be directly and indirectly asked to learn and conform to any other group’s cultural norms in public in order to get ahead. A nation of different-looking people is not automatically multicultural or diverse if most of them practice or are learning to practice the same culture. The United States was maybe a multicultural nation in homes, behind closed doors, but certainly not in public in 1997. Racists in the United States were only embracing diversity and multiculturalism in name. In practice, they were enforcing cultural standards.

And this maintenance of the status quo became apparent in the critical reviews of Angela Davis’s game-changing new book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, published in 1998. It had taken years for her to transcribe the entire body of Ma Rainey’s and Bessie Smith’s available blues recordings, the material basis of her analysis. Known for her integrative analysis of gender, race, and class, Davis quietly extended the analytical factors to include sexuality and culture. She looked at lyrics in light of lesbianism and bisexuality, and she examined African cultural retentions in the blues genre. Not many Americans had expressed antiracist ideas in the five major analytic categories: gender, race, class, sexuality, and culture. So the critiques came from all five sides, especially the side of culture. The New York Times reviewer rebuked Davis’s cultural antiracism as “ingrained cultural nationalism,” while the Washington Post ridiculed her “turgid academic jargon and rigid ideology.” Apparently, scholars like Angela Davis who uncovered, studied, and articulated cultural differences in more than just name were ideologues and cultural nationalists.

Davis continued her innovative integrative scholarship on Black women and remained focused on reviving the abolitionist movement as the new millennium arrived. “The two millionth prisoner entered the system in America on February 15, 2000 and half of those prisoners are Black,” she said in early 2000 at the University of Colorado. Davis knew that most of these prisoners had been convicted of drug crimes. She also knew that Whites were found to be more likely to sell drugs than Blacks, as Human Rights Watch was reporting. Therefore, Davis was crossing the country and directing the attention of Americans to the unjust criminal justice system, which she viewed as the new slavery. Davis offered the natural abolitionist solution a few years later, asking the antiracist question of the age in 2003 in her new book title: Are Prisons Obsolete?  She imagined “a world without prisons” in the 115-page manifesto for prison abolition. “Because of the persistent power of racism, ‘criminals’ and ‘evildoers’ are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color,” Davis wrote. And “the prison” relieved America “of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.”

Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.

Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida and the author of the award-winning book "The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965–1972." His new book, "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America," will be published in April 2016. A frequent public speaker and writer of commentaries, Kendi lives in Gainesville, Florida.