SN and the African Renaissance
Ravi Dev Column
Kaieteur News
January 7, 2007

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When ROAR articulated the position that ethnic groups in Guyana may have particular interests and concerns that justified ethnic organisations to deal with such interests, the Stabroek News took a position that such organisations and their agendas posed a threat to the creation and smooth functioning of our "nation state".

The agendas of the ethnic groups were deemed automatically antithetical to the putative need for united "national" actions. We were waiting, therefore, for the SN to react to the recent proposals that called for an "Renaissance" in the African Guyanese community. On December 23, in its editorial captioned, "Identity Crisis" the retort came.

Interestingly, it took a different tack from its earlier critiques of ROAR's positions. SN offered the argument of the maverick Jewish American literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, who has been a long time, an obdurate opponent of affirmative action in the US.

In his recent book, " The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality", Michaels took aim once again at his favoured target.

According to the SN, he "argued that that our racial and cultural identity 'is the least important thing about us' because it obscures the much greater problem of economic inequality that we have come to accept as normal." In SN's view, "It is hard not to think about how much political energy is wasted, in almost every country, chasing mirages which benefit very few…" Ethnic identity and consciousness are, "mirages".

SN, in conclusion, bemoans the dearth of leadership, presumably also in Guyana, "with the courage" to test Michaels thesis. Obviously, the leaders of the African Renaissance do not have that "courage".

But what is Michaels' thesis really? After all, in the modern era, after Karl Marx, hasn't economic equality been the left's holy grail.

No one would deny that the pursuit of greater economic equality would be a good thing but has the pursuit of racial/ethnic equality single-handedly derailed the former from becoming a reality. Michaels declares, ``The commitment to understanding American society as fundamentally made up of races or cultures, and the vision of social justice that follows from that - the elimination of discrimination against race - has been at best a massive distraction from the project of bringing about greater economic equality in society." Implying that at worse, the former "distraction" causes the latter condition.

Taking a deliberately simplistic position on "race" and "culture", which he considers as the former's stalking horse, he claims: "Either race is a physical fact, dividing human beings into biologically significant differences, or there is no such thing as race, whatever it's called."

For a man who earns his living as a literary critic and who wrote, "The Shape of the Signifier" to pretend that a social fact arising from a centuries old discourse may not have the same effect as a physical fact strains my credulity. How can anyone living in the US ignore what one writer has called, "the fact of blackness"?

Quoting Hemingway's riposte to F. Scott Fitzgerald's claim that "The rich are different from you and me" - "Yes, they have more money", Michaels claims that since "race" is not "real" the only difference between a rich black and a poor white is that the former simply has more money.

It is therefore absurd to focus so much on affirmative action because "there are no people of different races". But the anecdote merely illustrates that Michaels misses the problem of "race" in the US.

The Black comedian Chris Rock once exposed the hollowness of this position by once challenging an audience: "I am a millionaire, and yet, I know not one of you in this audience who is white would trade places with me."

Michaels' real agenda is against a concrete decision that was taken to fight racism in the US – affirmative action under the rationale of increasing "diversity" in the schools. In 1978 when the Supreme Court ruled in Bakke v. Board of Regents that the University of California could, as part of its legitimate interest in maintaining a diverse student body, take race into account when admitting students.

The notion of having "diverse" bodies has spread into other institutions, including the workplace. Since then, right-wing critics have built careers taking potshots at affirmative action, multiculturalism and identity politics. Michaels criticizes diversity politics from the left and so we have a confluence of right and left.

What Michaels and the SN ignore is that while race/ethnicity and class are distinct analytical categories in the US they are inextricably linked and one has to confront that reality. One suspects that when Michaels, like most Americans talk about class, it's usually as an attempt to avoid talking about race.

When Michaels argues that the central problem in the US is the exploitation of workers, not discrimination against blacks he chooses to ignore the fact that blacks are doubly oppressed – once as workers and twice as blacks. And it's for blacks to decide which condition takes priority in their struggles.

The African American scholar, Dawson, as far back as 1994 in his book, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics, offered an explanation why it was rational for African Americans to keep thinking "race". African Americans, he argues, had strong notions of "linked fate" – based on their experience - between themselves and the members of their racial group, and utilized what he calls the "black utility heuristic" to pursue their own goals by pursuing the common goals of the group.

Referring to empirical data, he showed that even though since the sixties there had developed a large African middle class they continue to use the same heuristic. As long as African Americans' life chances are shaped by race, African Americans (who, like all actors, are rational choice actors) should link their individual fates with that of the African American community. And analogously, for groups in Guyana.

One could also criticise Michaels for focusing exclusively on economic inequality while ignoring the inequality of political power. Then again, by rejecting the whole move to acknowledge diversity through various programs such as affirmative action and multiculturalism, he denies the greater social justice that has been achieved, notwithstanding the inevitable weaknesses in any social program.

Why should discussions of and actions against racial injustice preclude taking on issues of class injustice? Why should they be zero-sum activities?

Michaels makes the very bad, but very familiar, argument that because one issue is more important than another, it's wrong to focus on the less important issue at all.

Michaels may be right that economic inequality is a fundamentally more important issue than respect for diversity and for differing identities, but can we really fix inequality without attention to the issues of identity he wants to ignore?

The sad truth is that racism is part and parcel of our social reality. And racism is not just about economics: there is, according to Dr. Cornel West (of "Race Matters" fame) " the lingering effects of slavery and past discrimination in the continued attack on black humanity and racist stereotypes which are designed to destroy black self-image" and which, in his estimation, is perhaps the most destructive element of racism.

We have long spoken of the centrality of anti-African racism at the heart of the westernisation project. Why should Africans (and other groups) here or anywhere ignore such psychological damage?

Finally, Michaels is vague about what his alternative to the present order would look like, aside from some platitudinous details — universal child care, eliminating funding imbalances in public schools and abolishing private ones altogether. How do these address structural inequalities?

Not surprisingly, plaudits for Michaels has come from right wingers who have long rejected affirmative action. Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative pundit and author of ``The End of Racism", which argues it doesn't exist anymore in America, says of Michaels: ``He's on the right track." But not the right track for any of the several groups in Guyana.