After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority.
Poor whiteness studies. No one loves it anymore. It had a brief moment in the suns of academia in the mid-1990s, producing a long shelf of books (including a pile of anthologies), a flurry of conferences and papers, and even media attention, with articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lingua Franca, the New York Times, and elsewhere. But now no one wants it. Conservatives such as David Horowitz, feminist scholars such as Robyn Wiegman, and labor historians like Eric Arnesen have attacked it. Even the very people who are credited with founding it have distanced themselves from it. David Roediger, author of perhaps the most influential book in the genre (The Wages of Whiteness ), for example, distinguishes what he calls "critical studies of whiteness" from whiteness studies.
And now comes Mike Hill. As editor of an early collection on whiteness in the minnesota review, as well as the anthology Whiteness: A Critical Reader, Hill was a founder of the genre, and an interesting one, too, because his work never quite fit in with the camps that quickly set up within it. Now in his latest book, After Whiteness, he has come not so much to bury whiteness studies as to go beyond it.
Only part of the book is about whiteness studies. Further, only part of the book is about theorizing life "after whiteness," which makes the title somewhat misleading (and ironic: Hill may want to go beyond whiteness, but the word apparently still sells books). The book's overarching theme is what Hill calls an "economy of absence." This concept is difficult to grasp because Hill does not explain it in detail, but I take him to mean that public life is increasingly concerned with what is not there or with what exists only as a trace of what it once was; nevertheless, the politics of these absences or traces remains significant.
For instance, in regards to whiteness, Hill argues that there both is and is not a "there" to whiteness today. As whites come to believe that they will become a minority in the twenty-first century and thus whiteness will become increasingly "absent," they become more consumed with it. On the left, whiteness studies advocates highlight whiteness as an obstacle to a progressive politics, while the right wants to melt whiteness into the ideology of colorblindness. Yet both remain unconscious of the tension between the simultaneous presence and absence of whiteness. This is what it means to be "after whiteness," a condition in which the privileged status of whites is both there and not there simultaneously. Hill, for his part, seeks to be conscious of the tensions wrought by this economy of absence and to keep "the temporal irony of [whiteness's] absent presence at the forefront and in play" (9).
The book is divided into three sections held together by the "economy of absence" theme. Part 1, "Incalculable Community," notes an irony of the colorblind era. W. E. B. Du Bois famously argued in Black Reconstruction in America (1935) that the "public and psychological wages" of whiteness have prevented whites from recognizing their class interests and organizing with nonwhite labor for socialism. Today, however, the "wages of whiteness" arguably pay less than ever, yet we seem no closer to cross-racial class unity than when Du Bois wrote during the heart of the Depression.
Hill argues that this absence of class solidarity can be explained by examining how the state has shifted its approach to racial identification. Racial categories have multiplied in the twenty-first century and the state has blessed this, as evident by the 2000 Census, which allowed respondents to check off more than one racial category. As Hill cleverly demonstrates, however, the multiplication of racial identities actually undermines efforts against racial discrimination. This curious turn of events was ironically initiated by civil rights legislation itself. Civil rights rests on the logic of individualism, which implies allowing the individual to define herself racially. Such self-definition inevitably leads to fluid notions of race. In response, the state switches from its Herrenvolk-era role of classifying people by race in order to maintain white domination to recognizing and protecting individualized racial identification. Ironically, by encouraging the proliferation of racial identities, the state sloughs off its responsibility to protect civil rights. When race is a melange of multiple identities rather than a structure of advantage and subordination, "Racial difference is developed to a point where racism no longer matters to the law" (47). The state no longer enforces (white) racial homogeneity, yet its promotion of racial heterogeneity emphasizes difference to the point where collective identities (which have always been crucial to fighting discrimination) are undermined. The result is that the struggle for racial justice recedes even as whites become a numerically smaller (and ostensibly less powerful) group. It is not that white privilege has disappeared but that its perpetuation is now fostered by the proliferation of racial identity rather than its containment. This is whiteness's economy of absence. Hill's argument regarding the absence-yet-presence of whiteness is persuasive and a real contribution to attempts to theorize race in the post-civil rights era.
Part 2, "A Fascism of Benevolence," examines the race-class-gender-sexuality matrix through an analysis of the male Christian revivalist organization Promise Keepers. Contrary to those scholars who belittle Promise Keepers' emphasis on racial healing, Hill argues that racial harmony is central to the organization's attempt to build a new patriarchal heterosexual masculinity to replace the one lost to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and the subsequent deindustrialization of the economy. Creating this new masculinity, as Hill persuasively shows, requires that white Promise Keepers come to terms with their racism so that they may forge a bond with their brothers of color. Unlike the Jim Crow era, in which white men's superior racial position depended on containing Black men's perceived sexual threat (as the ritual castration of lynch victims demonstrates), Promise Keepers insist that only the dissolution of whiteness into a broader multiracialism can sustain the bonds of true manhood. Thus, rather than white supremacy it is "racial difference [that] functions ... as a form of heterosexual masculine repair" (96). Hill suggests that the multiracial, postwhite nation to come may not bring socialism, as Du Bois hoped, but could simply reproduce heterosexual masculinity in new ways.
Part 3, "Race Among Ruins," is the most difficult section of the book and the least convincing. Its focus is on how knowledge is produced in the public research university and how its production is related to the postwhite era. The ideal of the university is to emphasize Enlightenment rather than corporate values, but in today's "ruined university" the imperatives of profit and utility have replaced the noble quest for truth. Ignorance of such market pressures compromises scholarship.
This ignorance is particularly noticeable in the area of whiteness studies, Hill argues, and he offers a biting critique of the field, aimed in particular at Roediger and the renegade antiwhite journal Race Traitor. Hill contends that whiteness studies is ignorant of the materialist context from which it emerged. Whiteness studies appears as an area of study, he argues, just as the "ruined university" enforces multiculturalism and chops back affirmative action at the same time. It is no coincidence, he argues, that a genre of scholarship that places the white male worker at the center of history develops at the very moment when the white male's privileged place in academia is under threat yet preserved, that is, absent yet present. Roediger and Race Traitor fail to subject themselves to materialist and feminist critique, and thereby fail to recognize how their work fits with the interests of the corporatized university.
This critique is central to Hill's argument in part 3, but it is undermined by interpretive and genealogical errors. His claim that Roediger and Race Traitor place the white male worker at the center of antiracist struggles cannot be sustained by a serious reading of these texts. Hill's argument borrows heavily from Wiegman's 1999 critique of whiteness studies ("Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity," Boundary 2 26.3 :115-50). Following Wiegman, Hill maintains that by focusing on whites' specific privileges and on their obligation to resist them, Race Traitor and Roediger ironically end up putting whites right back at the center of antiracist discourse--and themselves at the center of scholarship on race and history. In this way, "the status of the white worker studied by labor historians is moved into an unsettling closeness with the intellectual labor historian himself' (177). Yet a careful reading easily refutes this. Race Traitor and Roediger encourage whites to join the rest of the (not-white) working class in struggle, not lead them, and there is no inherent masculinist bias to such participation. The purpose of committing treason against whiteness, Race Traitor explains in its very first editorial, is to encourage whites "to take part, together with others, in the process of defining a new human community" ("Abolish the White Race By Any Means Necessary," in Race Traitor, ed. Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey [New York: Routledge, 1996], 14). Such modesty jars Hill's confident critique, yet nowhere does he take it into consideration. That this sort of misinterpretation of the "new abolitionist" school of whiteness studies has been repeated so often as to make it lore does not make it true.
Hill also mistakes Race Traitor and Roediger's political ambitions for scholarly ones, and in so doing evacuates the politico-strategic nature of their arguments. Rather than jumping on a 1990s academic fad, Roediger and the editors of Race Traitor (Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, and Beth Henson) are all longtime radicals in the independent Marxist tradition. Their argument that socialism in the United States is blocked by the racial chauvinism of the white working class traces back to several radical organizations that they belonged to in the 1960s and 1970s, then to C. L. R. James, and then to Du Bois. To criticize them for not being aware of how their research relates to the material conditions of the public research university (that is, for desiring "an economic outside to which [they] may refer without [their] own conditions of production being part of the expanded economic equation" ) incorrectly presumes that their work emerged in an academic context and that a place in the "ruined university" is their objective. Yet of the persons mentioned above, only Roediger teaches at a public research university. In fact, it is hard to imagine an area of scholarship more influenced by independent or marginal scholars. Tracing the genealogy of their work to Du Bois, James, and radical organizations of the 1960s and 1970s rather than the "ruined university" empties out a large part of Hill's critique. Hill wants to save literary studies and the public research university. Fair enough. But these scholars want a new society, and their work seeks to suggest strategies to build it. To not critique them on these terms is to make their political presence absent.
After Whiteness provides an important but flawed contribution to the study of race and whiteness in the twenty-first century. I appreciate Hill's contribution toward understanding the power of whiteness, in its presence and its absence. Yet before we can analyze what is no longer there, we have to understand what the "there" is. I am much more hesitant than Hill to jettison the input of "new abolitionists" in such work.
Northern Arizona University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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