FrontPage’s David Horowitz joined a debate on "whiteness studies" in the American Studies discussion thread of National Endowment for the Humanities cyber-discussion group. The exchange follows below. To add your comments, click here.
Rebecca Hill, University of Minnesota, Part 1:
I've read the recent series of comments on "whiteness" with interest. It's good to hear what people are thinking of this "new" model of analysis. I think the people most credited with its "discovery" might be the first to reject this notion. You'll find that vision of the division of the working-class because of the privilege of whites in the writing of WEB DuBois and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in slightly different permutations and phrasings.
One of the best things about David Roediger's newest collection Blacks on White is that it shows that the critique of white supremacy is not a contemporary "fad" among academics, but an ongoing debate, dialogue, commentary, what have you, on the world that we live in, not simply in the United States.
I'm particularly disturbed at the comment that the study of whiteness or the study of race or ethnicity somehow "obscures" class. Is it possible that the division of race has effected the way we experience class? or that it has even created divisions within the working-class? This was Lenin's argument, and Dubois's. It's not a purely imaginary division, but one with real material effects that are caused by the materially real system people talked about once in the 1960s as "imperialism."
So it's also strange to hear that people find "whiteness" too focused on the experiences of "African-Americans" and "whites." It's a potentially global concept. Fanon argued years ago that European imperialism, colonialism, caste systems, all of these things, produced psychological effects on colonized people. Others (Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, etc) have shown how these also produced psychological effects for colonizers. Hundreds of years of imperialism produce "whiteness" inside the individuals who identify with it, a belief in one's own self as "superior" because of being white, a "psychological wage," a global version of narcissism.
This isn't about essentializing cultural categories or focusing exclusively on "African-American/White"; it's about the concepts of "white" and "non-white" in terms of their relationship to a social reality of racism. Some of the most earnest and earliest scholars of whiteness didn't focus on "African-American/European" experience, but compared the experiences of American Blacks to the Vietnamese in relationship to the U.S. If you are freaked out by David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev's analysis of the white working-class you should check out J. Sakai's Settlers: The Myth of the White Proletariat.
Furthermore, it strikes me as ahistorical and slightly essentialist to insist on the non-whiteness of American Jews, Irish, etc. because of their position in this country one hundred years ago, or because of their positions in other national caste systems. How many of us Jews, for instance, are going to check off "Black" on the box in the forms when applying for a line of credit at the bank? for an apartment rental? How many of us are "not really white" when we get pulled over for speeding tickets? There was a Jew in John Brown's band in Kansas, August Bondi. I hope that more of us can take this kind of position alongside the oppressed today, rather than claiming to be downtrodden while reaping the benefits of white privilege.
It's simply not true that "ethnic studies" was created to obscure "class," or that "ethnic studies" or "cultural studies" as entire fields do this. Certainly, some forms of nationalist scholarship (and this includes American studies, American literature, English literature) etc. do obscure class—just as many, many, many forms of knowledge do in capitalist institutions. It's not as if we had some great analysis of class going on in American universities that cultural studies came along and ruined one day. That's the assumption behind this argument that "ethnic studies" prevents the analysis of class.
Ethnic studies complicates the analysis of class by demonstrating the subtle racialization of the concept of the American working-class. Why do people use this term to mean (white)? Yeah, there's some bourgeois nationalism going on in some ethnic-studies departments; there's some other bourgeois white nationalism going on in more places—why can't white scholars who are against bourgeois nationalism attack the bourgeois nationalism in the English department and the history department? (Because these nationalisms are culturally sacrosanct?) How is it that these tiny, understaffed and underfunded and oversubscribed ethnic-studies departments and cultural-studies departments have had so much power to ruin so much great Marxist class-conscious scholarship?
This is not an academic point; it has impact in terms of practical political strategies. Michael Moore's rather notorious comments in The Nation a while back that the movement to free Mumia Abu Jamal has nothing to do with the working class suggests just what "working class" means to Moore. Perhaps everyone should go back and re-read their old copies of the Kerner commission report, flawed though it is; at least it lists police brutality and discrimination in the criminal-justice system as one of the most significant grievances among poor urban Black people.
In answer to the comment that the poor white in upstate New York is not privileged in comparison with poor Blacks (or poor non-Europeans around the world) that this is simply not true. The poor white in upstate New York is relatively privileged in comparison with Rodney King when driving down the highway, relatively privileged in comparison with any working-class Black man when standing before a judge or a jury, and relatively privileged when compared with any industrial worker in Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, or Mexico, or in prison, where private industry is increasingly using cheap (often Black, Mexican, and Puerto Rican) labor to avoid paying union scale wages.
These privileges are not small and not petty. They are what fuels the movements of the Buchanans and the Perots, the Randy Weavers, whose work unites the white working class against non-white labor in the same way that racist "labor leaders" have been doing since "whiteness" came into being way back in the days of slavery. Do we really need to try this kind of "working-class" politics again?
Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao all started as leaders of nationalist movements, and even that good ol' Marxist, Lenin, argued that imperialism creates a privileged layer of the working class. If the study of whiteness becomes some kind of self-congratulatory navel gazing—that's a bad thing, but as a tool to understand the nature of global capitalism's effect on individuals it's a pretty useful concept.
—Rebecca Hill, U. of Minnesota
David Horowitz, Part 1:
Rebecca Hill is to be commended for reminding us of the lineage of identity politics and race consciousness in the theoretical writings and politics of mass murderers like Lenin and Mao, and totalitarian dictators like Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. But in this catalogue she slights such an obvious progenitor as Josef Stalin, whose work on the "national question" was his claim to Marxist originality, as well as Mussolini and Hitler, whose contributions to socialist theory lay precisely in identifying ethnicity and race as categories prior to class. I would like to hear from others on this thread how they feel about the contribution of academic blackness studies to such stellar spokesmen of racial awareness as Leonard Jeffries, Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Muhammad, and to the sponsorship of the recent Million Youth Hate March in New York by Afro-centrists at San Francisco State University. What responsibility do proponents of academic race consciousness acknowledge for the spread of race hatred, particularly among African Americans in our culture?
—David Horowitz, President, Center for the Study of Popular Culture, Los Angeles, California
Rebecca Hill, Part 2:
Clearly, I mention a lot of thinkers who've done some not so perfect things as the heads of revolutionary governments and states, but their position on the question of nationalism was one that has been an inspiration to countless movements that have done good. I mentioned a host of Marxists precisely because the conversation had become one that pitted wicked anti-class discourse of race against the good Marxist discourse of class.
Certainly, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and other major world leaders (Richard Nixon) etc. have committed countless murders in the name of profit, human freedom, or peace on earth, but many of us still value their ideas on political organization. As for the cheap references to the Black bogeys (Farrakhan, Muhammed, etc.) these men have little to do with the argument about whiteness. In fact, it was a man who moved away from the biological racialism of the Nation of Islam who was one of the first to use the term "whiteness" to describe an attitude of racial superiority among whites, rather than as a physical condition. This was Elijah Muhammed's son and successor, Wallace Dean Muhammed.
Scholars who are interested in "whiteness" are not focused on the question of how Black people can fit into American society, and I don't think that many young African-Americans were reading David Roediger or Noel Ignatiev in order to find an answer to that question. If it is true, on the basis of American society that non-whites can't make it without assimilating, I see other options besides despair. Can't people work to change social conditions?
Those guys, along with Eric Lott and others, are trying to explain how "white" people came to be what they are and how "white" people can change who they are, and on a larger scale, what our society is, in the interests of the betterment of humanity. This is an idealistic, not a fatalistic project, that rather than abandoning people of European descent to a naturally inherited devilishness (as Farrakhan does), argues that there is in fact a way for "white" people to stop being "white." It's more likely that it's a futile dream than a dangerous plot to destroy race relations.
David Horowitz, Part 2:
Rebecca Hill writes that her warm endorsement of authorities like Lenin and Mao as intellectual avatars of identity politics and whiteness studies was not intended to overlook the fact that they have "done some not so perfect things as the heads of revolutionary governments and states," but that "their position on the question of nationalism was one that has been an inspiration to countless movements that have done good." Perhaps she would like to name one. Leninism was responsible for the removal of entire ethnic populations in the Soviet Union, Maoism for the cultural destruction of an entire nation, Tibet. Hill of course does not even attempt to deal with my suggestion that the real forerunners of identity politics and socialist nationalism were Hitler and Mussolini. Perhaps she is not familiar with the theoretical writings of European fascists on this subject.
Hill tries to retrieve her argument by explaining that she mentioned "a host of Marxists precisely because the conversation had become one that pitted wicked anti-class discourse of race against the good Marxist discourse of class." Good Marxist—as in the class theory that underlay the slaughter of 10 million kulaks because they were petit-bourgeois property owners, or that marked everyone who wore eyeglasses in Cambodia for death because, as presumed members of the intelligentsia, they were bearers of the evil traditions of the class society that was to be overthrown?
According to Hill, reference to what intellectuals like Lenin and Mao did in power is unfair because "Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and other major world leaders (Richard Nixon) etc. have committed countless murders in the name of profit, human freedom or peace on earth." Presumably Hill is referring to enemy casualties in wars between nations, choosing to label them "murders" so they will fit her rhetorical purposes. Actually, Lenin and Mao murdered hundreds of thousands and (in Mao’s case) millions not in a rhetorical sense, but in the literal sense of the execution of innocents, of their own citizens, in peacetime.
Hill naturally sidesteps the issue of black racism and the racism inherent in blackness studies like Afro-centrism. "Scholars who are interested in ‘whiteness’ are not focussed on the question of how Black people can fit into American society," she explains. But this is precisely my point. Not just "whiteness studies," but black studies and the multiculturalist concept itself in today’s academy are taught from an anti-American, anti-white perspective which is just as racist as the anti-black doctrines of white supremacists and the anti-Semitic doctrines of European fascists. And so, my question remains: what responsibility are academic racialists willing to except for the growth of racist attitudes among minority populations like American blacks?
Kyle Julien, UC Irvine, Part I
Mr. Horowitz's ugly post reminds us exactly why academics concerned with issues of racial justice should engage in the critical study of whiteness. The gist of his message is that those who see race as a valid category of analysis, whether in the academy or in other arenas, are responsible for a resurgence of race-hatred in this country, a problem that Horowitz ultimately lays at the feet of black people whose racial politics are objectionable to many, or academics following in the footsteps of dead and discredited extremist writers (Mao, Stalin, Hitler, etc.), or the Afro-centrist academics at SF State, which are apparently a combination of both. Horowitz attempts to allow this very carefully selected group to stand in for the wide range of people—from a broad spectrum of ideological positions, within and outside of the academy, of all races—who attempt to understand the way race and racial discourses and practices have structured our society, and continue to do so. He implies that most whites—since they aren't the ones obviously consumed with race, like Jeffries and the academic Maoists—are off the hook for any problems of race in this country. We therefore, according to Horowitz, need to shift our focus from whites and the function of whiteness in a racialized society, and towards those who are the source of today's race problems (blacks). This is a hateful attempt to place white people outside of any discussion of the problems of race.
What responsibility do proponents of academic race consciousness acknowledge for the spread of race hatred, particularly among African Americans in our culture?
When neo-conservatives like Horowitz talk about responsibility, I nearly always grimace (because I know that 'responsibility' means poor people and especially poor people of color must create their own opportunities and poverty and slums are created solely by poor lifestyle choices, and that corporate decisions to relocate jobs and the creation of ghettos through bank loan policies and other disinvestments in inner cities are not talked about in terms of 'responsibility'). Then I wonder why the disingenuously academic-sounding Center for the Study of Popular Culture doesn't examine its own responsibility for the perpetuation of racism in society, through logic-twisting disavowals of the continued importance of race such as this one.
Anyway, I have enjoyed this discussion (apparently more than Mr. Horowitz has) and hope that his attempt to distract us from an important set of issues doesn't work.
—Kyle Julien, UC Irvine
David Horowitz, Part 3:
Kyle Julien has no problem making ad hominem assaults on people with whom he disagrees. He does have some problem reading plain English and making logical connections, however. I did not attack "academics concerned with issues of racial justice" as he charges. Nor would I, since I consider myself to be someone concerned with racial justice, and not just as an academic interest but as a lifelong vocation beginning in 1948, when I marched in support of President Truman’s new Fair Employment Practices Commission. Nor did I claim that everyone who regards race as a valid category of analysis is "responsible for a resurgence of race-hatred in this country," which would be as absurd as Mr. Julien’s claim that I did. I was very specific in putting responsibility on the plates of advocates of "identity politics" and proponents of "Afro-centrism" and other leftwing ideologies that have substituted race for class in their ongoing war against bourgeois democratic societies like the United States.
Contrary to Mr. Julien, I never claimed, nor is their any implication in what I wrote, that "most whites . . . are off the hook for any problems of race in this country." This would be another absurd claim. Perhaps Mr. Julien’s problem is that he believes that only whites are responsible for racial problems in America, which he then inverts and projects on to me. Perhaps his problem is that the tenured left has so excluded other points of view from the academy and so intimidated dissenters with the kind of epithets ("ugly," "hateful,") that he points in my direction, that he has forgotten how to make an argument that addresses the points actually being made.
He does manage to quote, at one point, the actual question I put to this thread: "What responsibility do proponents of academic race consciousness acknowledge for the spread of race hatred, particularly among African Americans in our culture?" He does not answer the question but veers off into a serpentine of strained associations about economic poverty and the causes thereof. If we are talking about race, and about racial attitudes among blacks, surely we must include the millions of African Americans who are snugly in the middle-class. And indeed, anybody familiar with the popular-opinion surveys of this issue are also familiar with the paradox that racial intolerance among African Americans increases with education and class status, in contrast to that of other groups. And this of course raises the question of the responsibility of academic educators like Mr. Julien who seem to have a chip on their shoulder against white America. Otherwise, why would academic "whiteness studies" dwell only on the negative aspects of whiteness (making even the positive attributes into negatives as "oppressive"), while blackness studies and Afro-centric studies in particular so emphasize the positive that they wind up inventing fraudulent claims and spurious histories of black achievement?
Finally, Mr. Julien asks why the "Center for the Study of Popular Culture doesn’t examine its own responsibility for the perpetuation of racism in society, through logic-twisting disavowals of the continued importance of race." Perhaps he should put that question to William Julius Wilson, one of the most distinguished African American sociologists in the country, now at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard, who is the author of a famous study of blacks in America titled The Declining Significance of Race.