Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Race and the importance of political symbolism

RM writes:

I have no real problem with the lynching bill, but you have to admit it's pure symbolism. In fact, this kind of thing is, in some ways, unhelpful, because it allows America in general and Republicans in particular to pretend that racism means mobs stringing black people up in trees and that, because we don't have much of that anymore, we've defeated that old thing called racism....

I think the Democrats have essentially lost the race issue and need to either come up with better ways to articulate their positions or abandon affirmative action and other such explicitly race-based policy prescriptions in favor of broader attempts to foster opportunity and equality more generally defined. In other words, who gives a shit about what the Senate did in the 1930s, how about getting more underprivileged kids to go to college.

I must say that I disagree sharply with this. One thing that both conservatives and revolutionaries tend to understand far better than liberals -- and this is true across many countries and historical periods -- is the importance of political symbolism, and above all the importance of political symbolism with regard to historical questions. Political symbols and battles over historical meaning are a crucial part of the effort to create a metanarrative about the "meaning" of the country. "Merely" symbolic issues are important because they serve to legitimate and naturalize certain contemporary groups, perspectives, and inequalities, while excoriating others. Political symbols also provide crucial rallying points for mass political movements by offering simple, resonant issues and stories that instantiate how a group regards its fundamental identity.

Rightwingers understand this point intuitively. Part of the reason for this is that they are much more focused on ideology, whereas progressives tend to be much more focused on policy outcomes (e.g. "getting more underprivileged kids to go to college"). Rightwingers, by contrast, are engaged in a constant, low-level, multifrontal guerilla war over political issues from the past that as dead as, if not more dead than, the lynching issue. Take, for example, the current rightwing effort to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy. That's because the Republicans understand an intuitive, gut level that controlling the meaning of the past is crucial to controlling the present political agenda. In sum, the importance of political symbolism and historical meaning is something that progressives need to learn -- and right quick.

As RM's comment that the Democrats have "lost" the race issue, I guess you can take in two ways. On the one hand, maybe this means that, from the point of view of political effectiveness, race no longer works well for the Democrats to rally and distinguish themselves from the Republicans. On other hand, maybe he means that on the merits of the race issue, the Democrats have lost. I think the first is true, but can be corrected, whereas the second interpretation is straightforwardly false.

Let me explain. Progressives have clearly won the substantive issue of the race debate. "Being" a racist -- meaning the drawing of invidious distinctions between individuals and groups primarily based on race -- is no longer an acceptable political stance; it is outside the bounds of acceptable political or even personal discourse. No one with national credibility today argues that some races are fundamentally inferior or superior, or that the old caste system was in any way legitimate. All debate about race policy takes place within this horizon. Progressives argue that racism, despite being officially unacceptable, still exists sub rosa and sotto voce (e.g. hiring discrimination, racial profiling by policemen, etc.) and still needs to be redressed. Rightwingers argues that no judgments whatsoever should be made on the basis of race, including even judgments meant to correct for historical and/or lingering racial opinions.

Though many rightwingers don't particularly like the fact that they lost this debate, if pushed explicitly, even rightwingers agree that anyone who explicitly prefers one person over another because of the color of their skin is committing a political and moral sin. Given the history of this country, this is a victory of immense proportions. In my view, overcoming officially accepted racism will likely be judged the single greatest accomplishments of the twentieth century. (Indeed, the idea of race is probably the single worst idea the West has produced, edging out the concept of the "philosopher-king" by a nose.)

As a political matter, however, it is true that progressives have generally lost much of the political advantage that they used to get from the race issue, and it's probably true that "the race card" gets played more subtly and effectively by the Republicans than the Democrats. And this brings us back to the point about political symbolism: the Republicans understand much better how to use the political symbolism of race effectively -- Willie Horton springs to mind. But the Democrats have got their licks in over the last few years, too, particularly with videotaped incidents of police brutality against blacks. (Bill Clinton's "Sister Souljah" moment was a politically brilliant instance of race-related "triangulation.")

Americans are of course very uncomfortable talking about "using the race issue" for political purposes, and rightly so, since the line between reasonable raising of questions of racism and racial injustice can very easily slip into race-baiting, racial provocation, and competitive cults of victimhood. Anyone with any sense of the racial history of this country must be sensitive to and leery of such risks.

But the Democrats can't allow this leeriness and need for careful articulation of racial issues to intimidate them into buying the rightwing line that as long as race is not explicitly mentioned, then racism is not an issue. Racism is an intellectual and social condition that needs to be corrected and fought. Just because it's been turned into a taboo and banished from the public drawing rooms of polite society, doesn't mean it's not happening. Like sex, just because you don't see it happening right in front of you doesn't mean it's not happening at all.

As for the merits of affirmative action, that's a subject for another post....

1 comment:

rmockler said...

I do not doubt the importance of political symbolism and it is, of course, appropriate for the Senate to apologize in light of its dreadful failure on lynching. And I wholeheartedly agree that the left needs to learn to use political symbolism as adeptly as the right. But I see this as the right, once again, winning the battle of symbolism. Not only do a bunch of Republicans get to take credit for signing onto the apology for lynching, the GOP has now associated the filibuster with lynching. That should come in pretty handy when the Republicans try to push through the next Chief Justice. Also, I do think that this is another example of the right using the tactic of talking about opposition to historical racism to deflect criticism of current racism.

As for the meaning of the Democrat's losing the race issue, I meant your first suggested interpretation (and agree that the elimination of the more overt forms of racism is a huge accomplishment, especially if one looks aroung the world). As you suggest, Americans do not like to talk about race at all (see, e.g., the response to Howard Dean's comment about the Republicans). I tend to agree with the school of thought that says you have to talk about these things to confront the taboo. But from a political perspective, the Democrats have been destroyed; your mention of the Sister Souljah moment is but one good example.