Ethnic mixing and fixing

Making Race and a Nation - The Color Bind
June 5, 1998

In November 1996, Californian voters endorsed Proposition 209 ending the use of racial quotas in admission decisions by the University of California. The decision has proved a trend-setter: bills to end affirmative action have been introduced into many state legislatures, and in November voters in Washington state will decide on Initiative 200 which, if passed, would ban "preferences" based on race or sex in state contracting, hiring and admissions to universities. The United States's legacy of racial discrimination and inequality remains a potent and picayune force in US politics. These two valuable books each help explain this enduring dynamic.

In The Color Bind, Lydia Ch vez offers a well-paced and readable account of the passage of Proposition 209. Deploying material from interviews with the proponents and opponents of the initiative, Ch vez conveys the strength of feelings evoked by affirmative action, especially among its critics.

The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) was founded by Thomas Wood, a philosopher unable to find an academic job, and Glynn Custred, an anthropologist battling multiculturalism at California State University. After overcoming formidable obstacles, the movement enlisted the help of Ward Connerly, an African-American. His observation of admissions policies at the University of California, of whose board state governor Pete Wilson had made him a regent, convinced him that race-based preference quotas should be ended. Ch vez documents how Wilson, a Republican, came to see support for the anti-preference lobby as politically astute, largely because of race: "Wilson defined the debate in racial terms - the programs that helped blacks and Hispanics were unfair to whites and Asians." Democratic activists told Ch vez that "like it or not affirmative action was perceived as a black issue, and it was not popular".

In his ambitious study of the role of state policy in structuring race relations in the US, South Africa and Brazil, Anthony Marx advances two levels of argument. First, wishing to preclude the essentialisation of race, he holds race to be a social construction. Differences are epiphenomenal upon political and social conflicts and interests: "Physical differences in themselves do not explain social outcomes. Instead, socially constructed discrimination itself creates racial categories."

Second, the key force in such social construction is, Marx argues, the state. He writes: "States made race: amid pervasive discrimination, official actions enforced racial distinctions or did not, with profound consequences." To ensure stability and national unity, political elites employ state authority "to unify a core constituency of whites within the nation-state by excluding blacks".

Marx wants to explain why some divisions and group identities become objects of political calculation. States, or the political elites controlling them, decided to establish (or not to establish) legal racial orders as it suited their interests. State institutions and policies were designed to "ensure stability and development", and political elites used "race selectively as a means to that end". As interests changed, confronted by mass mobilisation and civil-rights movements for example, so political elites were compelled to rescind or dilute the racial order to facilitate nation-building: "Elites saw the most pressing challenge to stability shift from intrawhite conflict to black protest against racial domination." Marx concludes that the result of these processes has been "a new synthesis of legal racial inclusion".

Applying this twofold argument, Marx considers how racial categories were politically constructed in each country, and how these constructions served the political interests of those elites controlling the national state. Marx provides also a persuasive discussion of the (formal) dismantling of this racial order, a process indelibly structured by the state's racial policies and manipulation of group differences. The (potentially functionalist) logic of Marx's analysis places primary emphasis upon the state in both the formation and dissolution of racial policy: "Official policies of exclusion according to race have drawn boundaries solidifying subordinated racial identity, which then forms a basis for collective action in response to shifting state policies."

In both the US and South Africa these dynamics were significantly affected by the state's need to retain authority over disparate and conflicting regions. State acceptance of racial divisions and discrimination was the price, Marx argues, of a unified polity. The danger of implosion in both societies was real.

Marx employs a highly nuanced understanding of race policies in the US, South Africa and Brazil, deftly combining country-specific detail with an eye on his general thesis. He demonstrates a mastery of the secondary literature and presents original analyses, which are strengthened by the judicious use of quotes from interviews with leading activists, particularly for South Africa. His book is sophisticated and important.

But the book has some weaknesses. Marx's account of the US state's role in segregated race relations seriously underestimates the federal government's contribution to the fostering of segregation in the northern states. Neglecting recent research on how the federal government's policies fanned segregation in federal housing, prisons, the employment service, the military and education, Marx writes that the "federal government turned a blind eye" to discrimination and segregated arrangements. In fact, the federal government was an active agent in the creation and maintenance of these institutions. Thus, Marx seems surprised to report that "even black federal civil servants were subjected to discrimination". This pernicious practice, coincident with, but outlasting, Woodrow Wilson's presidency, became a fundamental expression of the federal government's partiality toward African-American citizens, and ensured that segregated race relations were a national and not exclusively regional arrangement.

A further weakness of Marx's analysis arises from his emphasis upon the state. By stressing the role of state policies in shaping race relations and racial categories, Marx's framework leaves relatively little room for any agency by the suppressed groups. This is a study of how political elites in these countries manipulated ideology and political claims about race to serve their interests. Thus members of designated racial groups are persons to whom policies are applied, and not actors articulating their own world autonomously. Although Marx attributes the dissipation of racial institutions and segregation to the pressure of civil rights movements and activists, these protests are conceived of within a framework determined by the elite-constructed political order. Even where African-Americans in the northern states flirted with separatism, Marx attributes this to the absence of Jim Crow segregation, rather than to autonomous choices.

Affirmative action programmes originate directly from the US's history of slavery, segregated race relations and discrimination practiced or tolerated by the federal government until as recently as the 1960s. This historical dimension rarely surfaces in debates about preference-based programmes but it is elemental to any complete understanding of them. These two books will assist historians and political scientists in this latter task.

Desmond King is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

Making Race and a Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa and Brazil

Author - Anthony Marx
ISBN - 0 521 58455 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 390

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