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Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil.

By Anthony W. Marx Cambridge University Press, $29.95

In recent years, California's system of voter initiatives -- originally designed by progressive reformers as a way to circumvent lobby-dominated legislatures -- has unexpectedly become a surrogate for national debates about taxes, immigration, and race. In The Color Bind, Lydia Chavez, a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, has provided a fascinating and objective account of Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative. Passed in 1996, Prop 209 echoes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in attempting to outlaw discrimination or the granting of preferences by the State of California on the basis of "race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin."

Chavez treats all sides in the controversy with detachment and fairness. The initiative originated with two white academics, Glynn Custred and Thomas E. Wood, who had grown frustrated with an academic world dominated by those who wanted to promote diversity in hiring, by discriminating against whites if necessary. The extremes to which the logic of racial preferences was being taken became apparent when Assembly Speaker Willie Brown introduced a measure (vetoed by Governor Wilson) which called for "enhanced success at all educational levels so that there are similar achievement patterns among all groups regardless of ethnic origin, race, gender, age, disability, or economic circumstance." If taken seriously, this would appear to require that physics degrees be awarded to Scots-Irish in proportion to their percentage of the population.

It was easy to make a case that this kind of measure violated the basic ideals of American liberalism. Unfortunately, by the early 1990s liberalism had become entirely identified with support for affirmative action, defined not as outreach but as the promotion of less-qualified members of favored groups over more qualified white men. No bipartisan coalition of race-neutral liberals and conservatives materialized. Instead, the initiative drafted by Custred and Wood was promoted by conservative Republicans seeking to capitalize on resentment of affirmative action by white men (in California at the time of the vote, whites were only 52.8 percent of the population but accounted for 88 percent of registered voters). While presidential candidates Clinton and Dole skirted the issue for fear of offending one group or another, the debate quickly polarized, with the most ardent supporters of Prop 209 found among conservatives like William Rusher, the former publisher of National Review, and its most determined opponents among veteran left-wing activists, many of them from the San Francisco Bay Area. Ads in favor of Prop 209 featured horror stories about reverse discrimination. The worst demagogues, however, were the leftist opponents of the measure, who ran an ad linking Prop 209 to David Duke. According to Chavez, "It began and ended with burning crosses and Klan regalia." The attempt to vilify supporters of Prop 209 as racists was rendered absurd by the fact that Ward Connerly, a prominent black ally of Gov. Pete Wilson who as a regent supported the abolition of racial preferences in the University of California System, strongly, supported the measure. The passage of Prop 209 with white votes alone showed that its proponents had failed to persuade nonwhite citizens that racial preferences were unjust. On the other hand, the racially polarized vote lent credibility to those who claim that affirmative action is merely a corrupt spoils system. The only groups that voted against Prop 209 were those whose members sought to gain special treatment because of their race.

The case for racial preferences of the kind targeted by Prop 209 rests on two assumptions, neither of which are convincing. The first is that race is an objective biological category, rather than an arbitrary social convention. The second assumption is that public policy should be based on the assumption that inequities between white and nonwhite groups are chiefly caused by contemporary white racism (rather than, say, by the class differences resulting from segregation, or the linguistic and cultural disadvantages of unassimilated immigrant groups).

The premise that race is a fact of nature rather than a fluid social category collapses once the racial policies of the U.S. and other countries with multiracial populations are compared and contrasted. In Making Race and Nation, Anthony W. Marx, a political scientist at Columbia University, compares the different ways that political elites have manipulated conceptions of race in the United States, South Africa, and Brazil in pursuing alternate paths to nation-building. In all three countries, post-colonial political elites were faced with the problem of creating some kind of coherent national community from a diverse population that included Europeans, Africans, and a substantial number of people of mixed descent. The United States and South Africa chose versions of white nationalism, limiting participation in the "nation" to people of exclusively European descent. The dividing line was sharpest in the United States, where the "one-drop" rule, defining as black anyone with even "one drop" of African "blood," effectively eliminated the mixed-race mulatto category. In South Africa, by contrast, "Coloureds" and "Africans" were distinguished, although both were victims of discrimination by the white-supremacist regime.

The Brazilian elite chose a radically different strategy, defining Brazil as a "racial democracy" in which race did not matter. Marx argues that the myth of racial democracy did not alter the fact that Afro-Brazilians remained at the bottom of a class system in which the upper levels were monopolized by white Brazilians. What is more, by denying Afro-Brazilians a separate identity, the idea of racial democracy made it less likely that black Brazilians would mobilize as a distinct political group, as black Americans have done.

Indeed, Marx suggests that strict and somewhat arbitrary definitions of race may be favored for strategic reasons by nonwhites as well as whites. "The recent rise of separatist black identity reflects not only black disillusionment with white America, but also a collective black interest in defining and asserting a category no longer imposed by the state," Marx writes. During the recent debate over the addition of a multiracial category to the U.S. Census form, the chief opposition came from the traditional black civil rights establishment, which fears losing constituents if Americans with only limited African ancestry cease to be identified as black. Ironically, the "one-drop" rule devised by American white supremacists is now employed to promote a strategy of black solidarity. This strategy arguably serves middle-class blacks, who are the chief beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action in education and contracting, more than it helps poor and working-class blacks, whose interests might best be served by need-based social programs benefiting low-income whites as well. In order to preserve affirmative action for blacks, the black civil rights community has had to support affirmative action for Hispanic and Asian immigrants without regard for income and -- even less justifiably -- has supported gender-based preferences for affluent white women.

In light of these considerations, a growing number of progressives are coming to the conclusion that the whole arbitrary system of racial labels as well as racial preferences ought to be scrapped in favor of a genuinely liberal approach that combines race-neutral policy with affirmative government on behalf of the disadvantaged of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, the controversy over Prop 209 shows that the sensible middle way is likely to turn into a deserted, cratered no-man's-land in the political trench war between the demagogues of the right and the demagogues of the left.

MICHAEL LIND is the editor of Hamilton's Republic: Readings in the American Democratic Nationalist Tradition.
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Author:Lind, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1998
Words:1230
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