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African Culture Essay, Research Paper
When W.E.B. Du Bois announced in his marvelous work Souls of Black Folk, that the “problem of the 20th Century is the color line . . .” immediately he set out a social and analytical paradigm that instantly recognized that the major racial problem in America was that existing between Blacks and Whites. Nevertheless, we are still, at the end of the 20th Century, struggling with the question of what kind of democratic society we are, or whether we will be a democratic society at all, often oblivious to the fact that the satisfactory resolution of Du Bois’ paradigm is the most critical element in the question.
In this respect, what has not been fully grasped by the new radical conservatism is the notion that social justice and human rights never were disconnected communities of value within the framework of a larger political regime; that they, in fact, define the very nature of democracy itself. Democracy is not just the legal framework of the Constitution, but the real relations among people governed by it. So, the critical objective in the process of Blacks seeking social justice has been to move from an exclusive notion of democracy based upon White dominance to one more perfect even than that envisioned by the founders.
When America was first defined, the founders debated the issues involved in the character of democracy. However, the unchallenged and underlying reality was that the authoritative social structure and the effective citizenship of the nation would be White and male, women having been excluded by custom, most Blacks as slaves excluded by law, and even so-called “freed” Blacks not considered to be citizens. Native Americans, of course, not only were excluded, but were on the chopping block of extermination.
From their position as the authoritative citizens, Whites were able to erect institutions and to behave in ways that enforced their notions of social, political, and economic behavior. Certainly, groups such as the Irish or Jews were considered within the pecking order as socially less than the English, Germans, and French. And by the early 20th century, the Chinese, who had been brought to the country in the 19th century to work on the railroads, were legally excluded by the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that affected Japanese exclusion. Since then, race relations have been defined by the preoccupation with the real and symbolic conflict between “Black” and “White.”
Of course, we cannot consider race and color in America as absolutes, for within every group there is a natural variation of biology in people who have been exposed to the world. For instance, for the purposes of maintaining social power, “White” people were created in America. This grouping would have the cultural variation of many European ethnic groups-Irish, German, Slav, French, Spanish, Nordic, all subject to the dominating influences of the English culture, political structure, and economic power. But for the purpose of exercising that power, they merged into a defined “Whiteness” of status and behavior. Africans born in America were treated collectively as “Blacks,” colored, and Negroes. They not only were culturally African, they were Mandingo, Yoruba, Nuer, Ovinbundu, etc., who came to possess the flavoring of English, French, Dutch or other European cultures through their experience with colonialism. Thus, while cultural variations exist within the dominant grouping of “White” as well as “Black,” it is power that defines the racial stratification as occurring in near absolute terms. That is to say, any Black person, no matter how rich, is subject to acts of subordination based on race.
The Black/White paradigm is still a convenient way to dialogue about race, where Blacks represent the oppressed and Whites the dominant group. All non-White groups have been oppressed to one degree or another by the dominant culture, not in the sense that they were merely disliked by the White majority (exhibiting prejudice or racial discrimination), but that they were forced into certain roles by it. Where the principle (stated or unstated) of the use of power was based on race, it was racism. Feagin and Sikes define racism as follows: “Racism is racial discrimination backed by the power and resources to effect unequal outcomes based on race.” (Feagin and Sikes, Living with Racism, Beacon, 1994).
The use of the power of the White majority upon Blacks is a measure of the openness of society and a comment upon the nature of democracy. This power has been exercised in personal acts such as brutal forms of lynching in which Blacks were burned alive or hanged, and modern forms of lynching, such as when Blacks have been beaten to death while in jail. (Southern Poverty Law Center, 1994 Report) Also, institutions have used their power to deny Blacks access to capital, often through their own deposits in banks, for the purpose of buying houses, renting, or insuring their property. Other discriminatory incidents include Blacks being suspected of stealing merchandise and publicly humiliated by being forced to disrobe or perform other humiliating acts. Then, more sophisticated acts of intellectual racism have consistently questioned the mental abilities of Blacks and, in particular, their intelligence, in books such as The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard Herrenstein and Charles Murray. (New York: The Free Press/Macmillan, 1994).
The Black/White Paradigm Becomes Multicultural
The paradigm of Black and White changed with modern events that altered its use and meaning. For example, Asian immigration to the United States came quickly in the 1970s and 1980s with refugees from the Korean War, and especially after the Vietnam War. Even the continued reign of the Communists in China stimulated the flow of immigrants to these shores. For example, in 1970 the U.S. Census counted 1,438,544 Asians, but by 1990, they had grown to five times as many, 7,273,662. Likewise, Hispanics, lured by the economic attraction of the United States, war in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the proximity of Mexico, came with equal abandon, such that since 1970, Hispanics increased from 9,072,602 to 22,354,059! The result is that in states like California 45 percent of the residents are already Black, Asian or Hispanic, and non-White children are already a majority in the school system.
The rapid pace of cultural diversity is reflected in Census data for non- White population growth, which show that between 1980-1990, Blacks grew by .2 percent and Native Americans by .09 percent, but Asians grew by 1.1 percent and Hispanics by the highest rate of 1.6 percent.
Many incoming groups such as Hispanics and Asians have benefitted from the existence of a legal regime of rights contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against diverse cultural groups, as one protected class, in employment, education, and other areas of society. However, with the expansion of groups and the rights they enjoy, a conflict has developed as some interpret this expansion of democracy as a threat to the interests of the dominant White majority, especially as economic competition increases.
Liberal sociologists such as Gunnar Myrdal, who wrote what is considered a classic on race relations, An American Dilemma, in the 1940s, proposed that pluralism could defeat racial discrimination and subordination. In effect, pluralism assumed that a theoretical equality between Blacks and Whites could be achieved without serious alteration in the status of Whites, by the elimination of racial discrimination and the practice of pluralistic equality. Not only was this a false vision of racial dynamics, but also it protected Americans from the fact that they practiced a virulent kind of Apartheid, and from the implications if the practice stopped.
The fact that each group has a cultural history that shapes its place in the social order, often marked by inequalities of power, negates the doctrine of pluralism.
Historian Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, in The Disuniting of America, writes of Hector St. John de Crevecour, an 18th Century Frenchman who had settled in the American colonies in 1759 in Orange County, New York, who asked the question, “What then, is this American?” He answered his own question by saying: “He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles….Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” E pluribus Unum!! This was the original theory of the “melting pot.”
Schlesinger, a critic of multiculturalism, admitted that the United States has never fulfilled Crevecour’s original ideal of the “melting pot,” but he did not admit the fact that the framework of unity provided by the English and their European cousins was maintained by force and brutality and was imposed on an unwilling people, not only African slaves, but others as well. Thus, he refused to admit that America has never been united into one ideal by freely consenting groups. It was united by the use of power to enforce the ideals of the dominant racial class upon Blacks and other subordinate groups in a situation of brutal internal colonialism. That is to say, E Pluribus Unum meant “from many, one nation, but not one people”!!
Today, there are many intellectuals-Charles Taylor (Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition), Amy Gutman, Steven C. Rockefeller, Michael Walzer, and Susan Wolf – who oppose multiculturalism, suggesting that one should look at culture from an individualized point of view rather than from a group perspective. (Taylor, 28)
Nevertheless, the identities we have discussed were manufactured both individually and collectively. So Whites and Blacks are not only individuals, but are linked to basic and extended group social relationships that contain the matrix of the social behavior of individuals. Whites are, for example, individuals whose individualism is enhanced in relationship to non-Whites because it is linked to the matrix that includes wealth, access to resources, and control over the dominant institutions of society. Whether or not they can successfully use these resources depends upon their individual skills and other factors, but the fact that they exist for Whites to a degree much greater than for Blacks and other non-Whites is unassailable.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to examine the concept of “Whiteness” or for Whites to understand the way in which they are connected to systems that result in the racial subordination of non-Whites. Understanding “Whiteness,” suggests such scholars as Ruth Frankenberg, will also illuminate many of the same systems that are the route to the subordination of women. (Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters, 93)
It is just as important for subordinated individuals and groups to understand the many ways in which racial power is exercised upon them. Otherwise, their ignorance becomes a major resource for racists. In fact, subordinated individuals often employ individualism as a buttress to racial stigma. An example is Whoopi Goldberg, who denies her connection to Africa by saying, “Don’t call me an African American, I am an American.” Another example is Morgan Freeman, who returned from Africa to declare: “I ain’t lost nothing in Africa. I’m an American.” But then, the irony is that they are not regarded by the movie industry or its patrons as merely “American” actors; they are ultimately Black actors who are given – and who accept – racial roles such as those the movies “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Color Purple.” And one of the often heard criticisms of O. J. Simpson is that the nature of his individualism is manifested in his selection of White associates rather than Black, which has cost him personal support within the Black community. In any case, individualism is a myth of American culture in a society dominated by the richest group culture in the world. In fact, the proliferation of groups for every conceivable purpose and their control of social resources and direction are the dominant reality of American culture and democracy.
In order to bolster their power in the midst of racial subordination, Blacks have strengthened their position by political movements that enhanced the sense of group solidarity and rehabilitated their identity. But there is the irony that while this form of naming spells out the ambiguity of the Black existence far more explicitly than other terms, it also normalizes Black identity by equating it to Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and other groups.
It is the same with the adoption of the concept of Afrocentrism, a modernized form of Pan Africanism. Afrocentrism in some quarters is a threatening philosophy, primarily because it is the newest concept that emphasizes the social cohesion of African-origin people rather than the American individualism of the older Anglo-Conformity doctrine. To this extent, it is a corrective project which seeks to:
A. Reconstruct the past: African civilization
B. Rehabilitate Black identity
C. Redefine the Black perspective by becoming subjects of history rather than objects.
However, the issue of achieving “centering” has drawn the most fire, perhaps because implicit in achieving it is the political project of the struggle of a people to control their own destiny, their own definition of themselves, their own cultural way of being, and their own agenda.
This is true not only in America but everywhere that people of African origin have tried to “center” themselves in the face of European imperialism and colonialism, the racism in the countries to which they immigrated, and their treatment as a global underclass. I have attempted to address this struggle in my most recent book, Pan Africanism In The African Diaspora, to suggest that there is both a real and theoretical unity to the existence of African-origin peoples as they struggle for reinterpreting community and destiny in places outside of Africa through politics. (Irele, 98)
The potential of Afrocentrism is that it enhances the possibilities of African Americans by their becoming actors in the positive uses of power. In this regard, an historic example is the Million Man March, which took place in October of 1995. While the meaning of the March was analyzed by the press from the perspective of its relationship to the dominant society, far more important was the political project of centering actions that it initiated within the African-American community, using unity to approach an intractable set of problems.
The Problematic of Race and Democracy
So let us take Dr. Schlesinger’s problematic seriously in the following question he poses: “What happens when people of different ethnic origins, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographical locality and live under the same sovereignty? Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal hostilities will drive them apart. Ethnic and racial conflict, it seems evident, will now replace the conflict of ideologies as the explosive issue of our times.” (Schlesinger, 10)
Implicit in this question is an answer that we must preserve the old Anglo-conformity doctrine and its notion of racial hierarchy as the definition of an American, and of what constitutes the basis of unity, since there was no serious ideological conflict to either Capitalism or the European cultural origins of the nation. But there is another vision: a Rainbow Coalition of people from different ethnic and racial groups, including Whites, striving together to create a truly democratic nation without racial subordination.
Therefore, I believe that we should adopt a 21st century frame of reference that includes factors that will enhance diversity. In fact, the most powerful idea of the new cultural framework is that a decent respect for the principle of diversity, the integrity of the diverse groups, and the equality among them will provide the basis of a truly democratic society. To the extent that this notion is reflected in law and in social practice among groups and individuals, the basis of a new democracy will be laid.
In order to achieve this new democracy, it will be necessary to remove the impediments that stand in the way, such as racism, sexism, group imperialism, and materialism. This task will require the persistent involvement of those who want true democracy in projects of social change. As former Black Panther Chair Bobby Seale has said, you don’t fight racism with racism, you fight racism with solidarity, the solidarity of diversity, solidarity about the things that will make America a progressive and humane society. And if we take the famous African-American writer Jimmy Baldwin seriously when he said that the White man cannot free himself from racism by himself, then the very salvation of this idea of democracy lies in the hands of those who are the most dispossessed.
Race matters: whether we in the United States — and in many other countries as well — wish this to be the case or not. The US: what is it? A nation built on the soil of conquest, battened on the theft of human beings. Yet it is not only this. The US was also created out of the doctrine of natural rights, whose restrictive application was continually eroded by the struggles of the excluded: first the European “others,” and then the other “others” down to our own day. Throughout US history, racial conflicts continually shaped and reshaped the categories into which identities — all identities — were classified. The racial struggles at the heart of US society, the racial projects whose clash and clangor leaps off the pages of today’s headlines as it has for centuries, have created the politics and culture of today.
Race matters: yet race today is as problematic a concept as ever.
Over the last few decades the way we in the United States think of race has changed once again, as so often in the past. I shall argue in this essay that we are now in a period of universal racial dualism.
Once, US society was a nearly monolithic racial hierarchy, in which everyone knew “his” place; under racial dualism, however, everyone’s racial identity is problematized. “How does it feel to be a problem?” Du Bois reported being asked (Du Bois 1989 ). The racial dualism he discerned was, of course, that of black people, who (he argued) were forced to live simultaneously in two worlds. His insight, which at the beginning of the 20th century addressed black experience in a society of all-encompassing white supremacy, continues to apply, but the situation he analyzed has now become considerably more complicated. Today the racial anxiety, uncertainty, conflict, and tension expressed by the term “racial dualism,” affect everyone in the US, albeit in different ways.
Monolithic white supremacy is over, yet in a more concealed way, white power and privilege live on. The overt politics of racial subordination has been destroyed, yet it is still very possible to “play the racial card” in the political arena. Blacks and other racially-defined minorities are no longer subject to legal segregation, but they have not been relieved of the burdens of discrimination, even by laws supposedly intended to do so. Whites are no longer the official “ruling race,” yet they still enjoy many of the privileges descended from the time when they were.
The old recipes for racial equality, which involved creation of a “color-blind” society, have been transformed into formulas for the maintenance of racial inequality. The old programs for eliminating white racial privilege are now accused of creating nonwhite racial privilege. The welfare state, once seen as the instrument for overcoming poverty and social injustice, is now accused of fomenting these very ills.
What racial dualism means today is that there are now, so to speak, two ways of looking at race, where previously there was only one. In the past, let’s say the pre-WWII era, everyone agreed that racial subordination existed; the debate was about whether it was justified. Lester Bilbo and Thurgood Marshall — to pick two emblematic figures — shared the same paradigm, perhaps disagreeing politically and morally, perhaps even representing the forces of evil and good respectively, but nevertheless looking at the same social world.
But today agreement about the continuing existence of racial subordination has vanished. The meaning of race has been deeply problematized. Indeed, the very idea that “race matters” is something which today must be argued, something which is not self-evident. This in itself attests to the transformation which racial dualism has undergone from the time of Souls to our own time.
On the one hand, the world Du Bois analyzed is still very much with us. We live in a racialized society, a society in which racial meaning is engraved upon all our experiences. Racial identity shapes not only “life-chances,” but social life, taste, place of residence. Indeed, the meaning of race, the racial interpretation of everyday life and of the larger culture, polity, and economy, has been so finely tuned for so long, and has become so ingrained, that it is now “second nature,” a “common sense” that rarely requires acknowledgement.
As our racial antennae are tuned and retuned, race becomes “naturalized.” As an element of “human nature,” race partakes of the same degree of reality today — so it seems — as it did at the end of the 19th century when biologistic theories of race held sway and eugenics was advocated by supposedly enlightened and progressive thinkers. Indeed, if race is so much a part of “common sense”; if it is so involved in the production of person, culture, state, and nation; if racial identity is so recognizable, so palpable, so immediately obvious, then in practical terms at least, it becomes “real.” The sociological dictum that if people “…define situations as real, they are real in their consequences,” has its truth (Thomas and Thomas 1928, 572).
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