Colour judgements from the black right

The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement - The End of Racism - Divided by Color - Beyond Black and White
October 4, 1996

One of the ironies of contemporary American society and culture is that although many commentators in the 1970s talked of the "declining significance of race", today there is perhaps no other issue that causes as much controversy and public debate. The growing evidence of a "crisis of race", and of racialised class inequalities is a poignant reminder that whatever the hopes and aspirations of civil rights activists the question of race remains as problematic as ever within American society, and one which leads to divergent analyses.

Dinesh D'Souza's The End of Racism bears all the hallmarks of these preoccupations and can best be read as a product of its time. D'Souza is on the right of political opinion in the United States, and was previously best known for his withering attack on political correctness, Illiberal Education, which established him as an ever-present figure on the lecture circuit. While he made some interventions in issues of race and multiculturalism in his earlier study, The End of Racism takes his critique of liberal and radical perspectives on American race relations a stage further. At over 700 pages this is clearly meant as a comprehensive and densely documented intervention against what D'Souza sees as established orthodoxies about race and racism. Ranging across time and space with the ease of somebody who has had the help of research assistants to gather together a wide range of sources, he seeks to cover such complex issues as the origins of racism, slavery, civil rights, the IQ debate, affirmative action and the role of black American culture. He has clearly read widely on each of these questions, and each chapter is buttressed by an impressive array of references. It must be said, however, that D'Souza shows a distinct lack of understanding of the nuances in the arguments of many of the authors that he is criticising. He is essentially a polemicist and his prime targets are liberal and radical black authors whom he sees as engaged in the construction of a myth, namely that the position of black Americans is the product of racism.

D'Souza not only questions the notion that America is a "racist society" but aims to show that "racism cannot explain most of the contemporary hardships faced by African Americans". He pursues both of these sets of arguments with some energy and along the way he engages in a constant polemic with both white liberals and black radicals, whom he sees as failing to explore the real reasons for the contemporary condition of black America, which he attributes to the pathologies of black culture and its lack of good leadership.

It is views such as these that have made D'Souza a controversial figure within America, particularly among black intellectuals and radical activists. And it is perhaps with a sense of irony that D'Souza seeks to legitimise some of his more contentious arguments by saying that as a "person of colour" he enjoys "an element of ethnic immunity that enables me to address topics with a frankness that would be virtually impossible on the part of a white male". Certainly it is this claim to ethnic insiderism that allows him to launch into such issues as slavery, IQ, and black cultural pathology and make arguments that go beyond even the wildest claims of other neoconservative commentators such as Charles Murray. Whatever his motivation for rhetorically adopting a stance of ethnic insiderism it plainly allows him to focus on what he sees as the real problems that face black Americans today, namely the inadequacies of black culture and the breakdown of "civilised" values among poor blacks. Ultimately, however, his own formula for what he calls a "multiracial society" comes down to arguments which have been articulated by other neoconservatives, such as Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury, for some time: that is, the need to abolish affirmative action and rely on the free market and self-help to deal with such issues as discrimination in employment, housing and other social arenas.

Manning Marable's collection of essays has a very different starting point, in the sense that he does see racism as the crucial process that continues to structure the position of black Americans. Marable has been among the most prolific and astute commentators on American race relations over the past decade, both as a popular essayist and as an academic researcher. In this collection of some of his key essays he focuses on issues such as the relationship of race to class, the crisis of African-American leadership and the changing political culture of race in contemporary America. Some of the pieces have the feel of being occasional "think pieces" on specific incidents, such as the Clarence Thomas affair and the Los Angeles riots, and add little to what Marable and others have already argued. Others, however, are more substantive attempts to grapple with the real dilemmas about such issues as multicultural democracy and the changing political ideologies evident within black American culture. Marable's attempt to articulate a vision of a multicultural democracy is essentially unfinished and reads in places like wishful thinking, but it is well worth reading.

Marable shares with D'Souza a deep scepticism about the role of both nationalist and integrationist politics within black communities, although he articulates a very different vision. Relying on the idea that there is a need to develop a new political agenda that is "left of centre" and "transformationist" he is in effect trying to go beyond the kinds of certainties favoured by black nationalists such as Louis Farrakhan and free-market neoconservatives such as D'Souza.

From their different starting points both D'Souza and Marable see the question of race in American society as intrinsically a politicised one. Yet, surprisingly, they have little to say about the everyday political processes that are at the core of how different sections of American society understand what race means to them. This is the arena that Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders seek to cover in their masterly account of racialised politics in contemporary America. Divided by Color is in many ways the most informative of the books under review, not least because it eschews the easy rhetoric which is ever present in this field.

Kinder and Sanders draw on a wide range of scholarship to explore the fears, resentments and stereotypes that have helped to shape both black and white attitudes towards education, welfare, affirmative action and the inner cities. They succeed above all in showing that the political process has played an important role in both framing and amplifying racial fears and uncertainties. In doing so they are able to shed light on key features of the intersection between race and the political process, and at the same time they explore attempts to develop new alliances to challenge racial division and exclusion.

Underlying some of the current preoccupations and fears in American society is a more critical assessment of the achievements and limitations of the civil rights movement. This is the main concern of the book on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr edited by Brian Ward and Tony Badger. It is somewhat more limited in scope than the other books reviewed but it has a number of contributions that are quite impressive attempts to reassess the achievements of King as a leader and of the civil rights movement. If nothing else, the papers in this volume help to highlight the importance of what was achieved in those tumultuous years, which is often forgotten amid the criticisms of hindsight.

In the final analysis, books such as these are as much a symptom of deep-seated fears and uncertainties about race in American society as they are a contribution to better understanding and the promotion of a more just society. There can be little doubt that, with an initial print-run of 100,000, D'Souza's book is the one destined to be widely discussed. Its message, however, being neoconservative, is not likely to influence longer-term thinking outside these circles. The need for critical analysis of what can be done to create the basis for overcoming the present racial crisis in American society remains all the greater.

John Solomos is professor of sociology and social policy, University of Southampton.

The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement

Editor - Brian Ward and Tony Badger
ISBN - 0 333 64024 1 and 65129 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 241

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