Saturday, June 26, 2010

Race and the Challenge of Community in America.

I wish to comment on Robert Bernasconi's essay entitled "The Invisibility of Racial Minorities in the Public Realm of Apperances," in Walter Brogan and James Risser, eds., American Continental Philosophy: A Reader (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 2000), p. 353.

It is difficult to know where to begin because there is so much that I admire in this essay, not least the willingness to tackle the subject of race and of America's painful history of slavery and racism by making use of the tools of philosophy -- specifically, phenomenology and hermeneutic method.

This is what philosophy is "for," to help us think about pressing and difficult public issues and not merely to allow some of us to display our cleverness in performing intellectual figure-eights before an appreciative audience of colleagues. I heard Robert Nozick -- a Republican and outstanding Harvard philosopher -- make this point to an interviewer shortly before his premature death from cancer. ("Is clarity enough?")

Professor Bernasconi is an expert on the ethical thinking of Emmanuel Levinas and is a subtle and original philosopher. His discussion is, thus, much richer and more profound than anything one is likely to encounter in the popular media. I begin with a summary and exposition of Professor Bernasconi's argument; I then offer some comments. Finally, I offer speculations concerning the possible direction of a continuing philosophical dialogue on race in America and the possibilities of community.


The United States is the classic example of a society born out of the Enlightenment conviction that fundamental human rights must be regarded as universal and also from the contradiction that the original understanding of a "universal human nature with its inalienable rights" excluded, for most political purposes, all women together with men and women of African ancestry trapped in the "peculiar institution" of slavery. This contradiction and its consequences is the "trauma," literally the "unhealed wound," in the national psyche. Professor Bernasconi states the issue:

"... the focus of this paper is not the history of the contradiction between the principle and the practice [of thinking in terms of a universal human nature,] but the underlying phenomenological truth that racial difference, as what is most visible, is within the public realm rendered invisible to the extent that the dominant group succeeds in overlooking a minority, denying its members their place in the sun." (p. 355.)

Is it possible for African-Americans to think of themselves primarily in terms of their American national identity, as members of a multiracial and multicultural but politically unified community? Or is the brutal and primary fact of race made inescapable, as a form of consciousness, in a society coping with the legacy of slavery and the effects of "separate but un-equal" institutions for most of its bloody history? Must the "African" come before the "American" in one's hyphenated sense of self to the extent that one wishes to remain both dark-skinned, physically and even more culturally, proudly African and American? Or can it be the other way around? ("America's Holocaust" and "Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

Hannah Arendt said that being hated as a Jew by the Nazis required her to respond as a Jew to that hatred. Must African-Americans similarly respond to the demonization of blackness by "being black," in confrontational ways, thereby seeking to challenge and undermine the belittling stereotypes that have aimed to hurt them and those they love?

This is an issue on which, even great leaders like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have disagreed. ("Is Western Philosophy Racist?" and "America's Holocaust.")

This is also an issue which neither Professor Bernasconi (nor I) can hope to answer with great confidence, much less to answer for others.

Each African-American person in the U.S. should wish to come to terms with this problem for him- or herself. Let us recognize that men and women of good faith, of any race, may have different opinions on this matter. No one has a monopoly on virtue. And the situation of other minority groups in American society is sufficiently analogous and comparable to the predicament of African-Americans, though never exactly like that unique (and uniquely tragic) situation, that the choice between community and separatism is inescapable for all of us.

A point to bear in mind -- especially if you are a separatist -- is that what hurts African-Americans and those they love also hurts those of us who love them, who love and are grateful for their great artistic or cultural gifts to us.

It is not so easy these days to separate the various components of American national identity, to think in terms of "us" and "them" -- because we have come to realize that, like it or not, it is all "us." (See the film "Crash" for a compelling dramatization of the effects of Balkanization and the fact of interdependence in contemporary America.)

I suggest that part of being an American in our time, regardless of one's ethnicity or race, involves devoting some time and serious thought to understanding the African-American experience and dilemma, to a study of the forms of resistance developed by an oppressed and tortured people, especially the important role of culture in that resistance -- which has served to strengthen a tormented people while enriching others, including their own oppressors, in an inspiring example of the human capacity to "transcend evil through love" and by means of the creation of beauty.

"If there were no racism," Cornel West asks, "then why were these people singing the blues?" ("Cornel West On Universality" and "Carlos Fuentes and Multiculturalism.")

For myself, the answer to this question of separatism versus community has been slow to arrive, but it is one to which I am firmly committed and with which I am satisfied.

I believe that community may be founded upon the notion of a shared fundamental humanity expressed in national identity and in other ways -- a national identity which is primary over all other forms and categories of selfhood/community. ("Manifesto For the Unfinished American Revolution.")

I am an American first, and only then do I see myself as a Latino, or in terms of my cultural particularity. I am also, even more fundamentally, a human being. I see the free choice of being an American as the acceptance of pluralism and not its denial, since I believe that the United States is not only the essential Enlightenment society, but also, paradoxically, what today might be described as the postmodern society.

Besides this unapologetic and clear-eyed Americanism, I think of myself as a humanist. ("Is Humanism Still Possible.")

In its best self-understanding the United States is committed, from its origins, to the acceptance of diversity, to the free self-creation of the individual, and to the forging of a unique national identity -- at the level of moral principle -- which celebrates our different origins. Self-invention is what the frontier was all about.

An American is a person engaged in a life-long task of self-creation (Kantian freedom) that becomes a shared project of "community-creation" (Hegelian Stillichkeit) under the vision of the Constitution. Think of the trajectory from Jefferson to Lincoln, Holmes to Warren, JFK to Obama.

This is also relevant to the expansive understanding of what we mean by an "individual." In other words, I accept the possibility of the American "miracle," which I have seen and experienced at first hand, by which out of the many sources of ourselves one people is created. E pluribus unum.

This is not to minimize the difficulties in this task. I say this while recognizing that for African-Americans, the challenge of coming to terms with themselves "as a problem" (to use W.E.B. Du Bois's ironic term), complicates the issue greatly.

The attempt by white America to make Africanism "invisible," to deny the reality of the crushing burden of race for most of the nation's history, for millions of people, could only make the affirmation of race a necessity:

"One does not in the standard case see another human being as simply that, another human being. If one did, it would not have been necessary for the Memphis sanitation workers to line the streets with the signs that read: 'I AM A MAN.' " (p. 358.)

It is also significant, I think, that Memphis workers did not carry signs that said: "I AM A BLACK MAN."

Toni Morrison explores the related phenomenon of the denial of the presence of Africans as the defining "others" in American literary self-understandings. The presence of persons of African ancestry, Professor Morrison writes, "... was, I have come to believe, one of the most furtively radical impinging forces on the country's literature. The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature" -- and of ourselves as Americans -- "and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination."

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 5.

In a revealing passage, Professor Morrison places herself within this problematic history:

"I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from -- and in what disables the foray, for purposes of fiction, into the corners of the consciousness held off and away from the reach of the writer's imagination. My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world."

Playing in the Dark, p. 4.

This is the challenge for every great artist: to address the universal concerns of human beings, while retaining the idiom of the particular struggles and inheritance of a single artist as creator, to become F.H. Bradley's "concrete universal." It is a challenge that Professor Morrison has faced with great success, revealing in this passage and others in her essay, I think, a form of humanism that I accept.

It is fitting that this great essay by Ms. Morrison (like my essay) has been attacked, defaced, "whipped," maybe "lynched." I am struggling against persons who seek to enslave those with whom they disagree. For such persons to speak of "ethics" is absurd. ("For America to Lead Again: A Speech for U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama.")

Ms. Morrison's lack of freedom resulting from gender or race must be seen as every other American's lack of freedom by those other Americans. This is because such a deprivation of freedom undermines the Constitutional scheme which gives meaning to the idea of any of us being an American.


I now turn to the specifics of Professor Bernasconi's argument which consists, on the one hand, of denying or challenging the idea of a universal human nature, then of suggesting, on the other hand, that even if we accept the reality and validity of the universal -- that is, of a fundamental aspect of persons in the American context that transcends specifics of gender, ethnicity, race, religion and so on -- that this ideal of universality is unavailable to those who are systematically denied meaningful participation (or made "invisible") through racism.

"The double bind that racism imposes on its targets lies in demanding assimilation while at the same time denying its possibility. Racism says, 'Become like us,' while always asserting under its breath, 'You can never become like us, because you are not one of us and we will not mistake you for one of us.' " (p. 360.)

I can certainly understand this predicament. It is the dilemma of every immigrant. To become American, is to give up some of one's identity, knowing that many of one's fellow citizens will never accept one as fully equal. Conversely, many members of the immigrant's ethnic group will reject that individual's successful assimilation as a form of betrayal, or a display of excessive "whiteness."

For me, and others like me, being "white" in skin color, if not necessarily in all or even most aspects of culture or sensitivity, complicates the issue -- since we fit the somatic norm of the society and yet have the consciousness of the outsider and minority group member. Culturally and politically, we can never be "white," whatever we may look like on the outside. This means that we are outsiders everywhere.

Come to think of it, this is ideal for writers and artists of all sorts -- to be the observer, the one who is different in every group. Ironically, many of those who reject new immigrants as "not American enough" forget that their own grandparents were similarly rejected by earlier arrivals.

African-Americans face the additional difficulty that race is not a hidden characteristic, but something immediately visible and at the center of the most painful issues in the nation's history, thus making persons instantly hateful (and in a way, very much invisible) to some others, usually powerful others, exclusively on the basis of this immutable characteristic.

In the words of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Carolene Products case, race is a visible identification of persons as members of one of the "discrete and insular minorities" that are worthy of additional judicial protection from public discrimination. Actually, "discrete and insular" sounds like something I would wish to be.

Setting Sartrean pessimism aside, I still think that it is possible to regard my neighbor as, first of all, an American -- regardless of race or other characteristics. I worry that those who wish to discard that which unites us, national identity or universals, fail to appreciate the danger of violent division in our complex society and world in which all of us have become targets for America's enemies. On 9/11 African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, Christians, Muslims, men and women, rich and poor died together. We must not lose sight of that fact. (Think of the final image in the film "Glory.")

I am reminded of Michel Foucault's writings and warnings concerning the techniques by which power seeks to constitute ALL of us as subjects, including methods of social division and fragmentation that are internalized by selves:

"The first mode of objectification of the subject is somewhat cryptically called [by Foucault] 'dividing practices.' The most famous examples from Foucault's work are the isolation of lepers during the Middle Ages; the confinement of the poor; the insane, and vagabonds ..."

Paul Rabinow, "Introduction," in The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), p. 8. (See the essay "Judith Butler and Gender Theory.")

In Foucault's words: "The subject is objectified by a process of division either within himself [or herself,] or from others."

Michel Foucault, "The Subject and Power," in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, eds., Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 208. ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz" and "Michel Foucault and The Authorship Question.")

Even the "antihumanist" Foucault might suggest that the ultimate victory of the racist is to prevent African-Americans from seeing themselves as not racially defined so as to unite with others in the recognition of a common humanity that transcends race and achieving a true community. In Peter Gabel's terms, the goal is that "unalienated relatedness." I prefer, like Dr. King, to call it "love."

Among those wounded or killed while serving with America's military in Iraq and Afghanistan are hundreds of Muslims. Many Muslims died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 -- many more Muslims were victims of the strikes against the buildings in Manhattan than committed those great crimes.

Do we really wish to burn the Koran? Whose Scriptures will be next to be thrown into the fire? Is it likely that Jews will be discriminated against if we indulge in religious bigotry? I believe that Jews are always endangered in all Western societies.

Women assigned to the ostracized categories of "witches" or "prostitutes" -- these were often the same women and the identical category -- were excluded from humanity less for qualities they displayed (usually impermissible independence or originality) than because they called into question the shibboleths of their societies.

This is always the role of the other: to insist that we think about our concepts of normality and identity anew. Those who are "different" make the defenders of normality and sameness nervous and uncomfortable.

This self-questioning is a good thing in a free society. The "other" in Western modernity has been the dark Romantic mirror of reason which is a burden imposed on African-Americans in U.S. society.

There is a lesson in this insight for the Palestinian people in their struggle: It may be that their most important potential allies are Israeli Jews sympathetic to their plight. A commitment to non-violence and peaceful negotiation would go a long way towards winning that alliance as well as a just and lasting solution to their struggle.

Is Hamas the greatest obstacle to peace in Israel for Palestinians?

If I am correct in seeing the essence of humanity as a kind of freedom which is universal then the attempt to limit that freedom by confinement to a category, whether racial, ethnic, or gender-based, is merely a more subtle and recent form of slavery -- call it intellectual, or conceptual, or philosophical slavery.

It is time to break those chains too, recognizing that it is for African-Americans and for each of us, individually, to decide who we are, as an exercise of a hard-won freedom. In making that choice, no matter what it might be, each individual demonstrates what I mean concerning what we are: FREE human beings. (See "Hilary Putnam is Keeping it Real.")

The racist wins only by instilling a "divisive" separatism that relies on a consciousness of "race as difference," which is precisely the racist credo.

Not surprisingly, James Baldwin -- possibly the finest African-American essayist of the twentieth century and one of the greatest American writers of any ethnicity or race of his generation -- anticipated Foucault on this point and he would have agreed with me in calling simply for "love":

"I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them. ..."

Recognizing that leaving the country only made it clear to what extent, even as an African-American, Mr. Baldwin was (and could only be) an American to the rest of the world, he says:

"Europe has what we do not have yet, a sense of the mysterious and inexorable limits of life, a sense, in a word, of tragedy. And we have what they sorely need: a new sense of life's possibilities."

So that:

"[We are led] to wed the visions of the Old World with that of the New, [that of the blacks to that of whites, and in doing so] it is the writer, not the statesman who is our strongest arm. Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world."

"The Discovery of What it Means to be an American," in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction of James Baldwin 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin's, 1985), p. 171.

To insist on one's "visibility" is just one more way of being American, of making one's dreams for the nation into a reality. There's nothing more American than insisting on your rights. Relying in good faith on one's ability to make one's case or one's demand for visibility in the public square, may lead to the surprising discovery that others -- including very different others -- will be persuaded to accept the moral validity of one's request for recognition.

If we complain that we are being treated unfairly there is a chance that other Americans may agree with us and join in our call for equal rights. This certainly happened during the civil rights era. All sorts of Americans joined in that struggle, freely, sometimes paying the ultimate price for it. And this sharing in struggle also speaks to the fundamental decency and integrity of most Americans, especially those who are not particularly powerful or influential. ("Is there a gay marriage right?")

I am certain that the humanism underlying the U.S. Constitution directs us to respect the equality and freedom of others as rights-bearing persons, whose welfare we should identify with our own. This means that among racists, we should all see ourselves as members of the racial group that they despise; among anti-semites, we should all see ourselves as Jews; among misogynists, we should all see ourselves as feminine; among homophobes, we should all identify with gays.

The ideal of "visibility" as opposed to "invisibility" amounts to a request for recognition in the "gaze of the other" (Emmanuel Levinas), while community means the equal willingness to confer that recognition on all others. If we want to call this a new "politics of meaning," with Lerner and Gabel, that is fine by me.

Conservatives may prefer the language of community in our founding or foundational principles. Philosopher Hadley Arkes, a more rigorous and powerful thinker than any other I have read among Republicans or Conservatives, suggests much the same in his discussion of foundational principles emerging from the Lincoln and Douglas debate. See First Principles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 30-85.

This is to read into the U.S. Constitution an ethics of love, which need not be identified with Christianity or any other religion, but which can be seen as part of the humanism which is essential to modernity in the West that is certainly part of the philosophical background to the writing of the Constitution. This humanism is found in the correspondence of men like Thomas Jefferson -- despite his own historical blindness and moral flaws -- and the authors of the Federalist Papers, whether "deists" or not.

There are important Constitutional theorists, such as Michael Perry (who speaks of an American Israel and of "prophecy" in terms similar to those of Cornel West), while R.M. Dworkin's work may be read, creatively and selectively, to lend support to these ideas. ("Civilization and Terrorism.")

When I mention these beliefs, people on city streets tell me that the American Constitution is "bullshit" and that the courts and government in this country are corrupt. Yes, there is corruption in the U.S., as there is everywhere else in the world. No doubt much of what happens in any courtroom, anywhere in the world has to do with power and politics, but -- perhaps in a naive manner given some of my own experiences and my personal failures in life -- I continue to believe in law as an aspiration and a possibility, if nothing else. It is my secular prayer. More importantly, I continue to believe in the principles contained in the founding documents of the U.S., also in the good faith and general competence of most courts.

Keep your fingers crossed and stay away from New Jersey.

By "failure," I mean a past reluctance to confront New Jersey with the racism and evil that, I am sure, too often characterizes the state's failed legal system in betrayal of the U.S. Constitution. ("America's Holocaust" and "New Jersey's 'Ethical' Legal System" then "Driving While Black [DWB] in New Jersey.")

I continue to regard the U.S. Constitution as one of the greatest liberating achievements of humanity. American hopes for law as an institution are both necessary and real, no matter how excessive they may seem to others. I continue to believe in the basic integrity of the American judicial process, despite its many human flaws -- and I very much cherish the universality of the principles at the heart of the American experiment.

I like to quote the comment of a debator defending American idealism: "If America is a disappointment this is only because America is a hope."

Can each of us not say exactly this about him- or herself?

This American religion of hope is more necessary now than ever before. It sure is necessary for me to hang on to some hope in my moments of despair. If America remains a secular prayer for me, then the U.S. and its Constitution must be more than hopes for many others, but also aspirations for all of humanity. For millions of people -- many of them African-Americans, like Dr. King and Justice Thurgood Marshall in their day -- America was and must now continue to be a secular faith.

Events such as the recent tortures at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo undermine public and international appreciation and understanding of these core American values. Apart from the intrinsic evil of those events, they have and will hurt U.S. interests for decades to come because they diminish U.S. credibility on human rights issues.

Much depends on how the U.S. deals with the reality of torture. Whether by punishing those responsible, wherever it occurs, so as to enforce Constitutional guarantees and make it clear what are the true values of this society or by allowing culprits to escape the consequences of crimes against humanity. Defacements of this text only indicate how unreal these hopes for America have become. ("Law and Ethics in the Soprano State" and "Is America's Legal Ethics a Lie? then "America's Unethical Medical Torturers.")


African-Americans and all of us should see the celebration of race and its affirmation -- the right to be "visible" in terms of race -- as consistent with what is fundamental to national identity for all Americans, but also, I believe, with what is most universally human.

Nothing is more human than the insistence on dignity and freedom, especially the freedom to define oneself.

The possible extensions in the application of this principle are obvious enough, especially when considering the plight of all who are defined as "marginal" to what is "central" in our culture, whether with regard to sexual preference or gender-identity, or in terms of the distribution of power for women as compared with men. Freedom must be compatible with equality, but both values must be compatible with the ultimate quest for community or social justice in the United States and throughout the world.


Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home