by W.J.T. Mitchell
Harvard University Press, 2012, 228 pp., $24.95
Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities
by Carl H. Nightingale
University of Chicago Press, 2012, 528 pp., $35
If the cliché rings true that a week is a long time in politics, then 15 days can seem like an eternity. That was how long it took Barack Obama to comment on the murder of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American boy who was shot dead in Florida last February. Although new evidence suggests the killing may have arisen out of a complex interaction, it was initially thought almost universally to be a racially motivated murder. After a prolonged silence, Obama eventually proclaimed, “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
What took the President so long to vocalize his thoughts on this tragedy? Politics may have had something to do with Obama’s hesitation. Most likely, he was sampling what was in the wind before deciding how to add his breath to it. Since his days on the campaign trail, when his famous Philadelphia “race speech” saved his campaign from collapsing under the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama has systematically avoided speaking about race. He has acted as though his victory in November 2008 had finally moved America into a post-racial era, though it is hard to believe that Obama himself has ever really believed this. He certainly knows that race still matters politically, and that a direct approach would be counterproductive in both policy and personal political terms. One can also argue that Obama has tried to take on public policy issues that most vividly reflect racial divides by using color-blind tactics—hence the way the stimulus was apportioned, and hence his healthcare initiative. Three events in the summer of 2009 proved the President’s intuition to be well advised, and he responded to each with characteristic care.
The first episode was the birther movement: the claim by a group of conservative politicians and pundits that Obama was not a natural-born citizen. The fictitious claim that he was born in Kenya generated “birther bills” in more than a dozen state legislatures that would force future presidential candidates to prove their citizenship. Obama handled this taunt by wisely ignoring it for the most part.
The second episode had to do with Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court—the first Hispanic woman ever to hold such a position. Republicans recalled a 2001 lecture Sotomayor gave at the University of California, where she remarked that “a Latino woman with the richness of her experiences would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Sotomayor was immediately accused of “new racism” by conservative critics, such as former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. As before, Obama ignored the matter, and it passed without doing damage.
Just as the embers of the Sotomayor flare up were cooling off, another blaze erupted. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of African-American studies at Harvard, was arrested after being mistaken for a burglar in front of his own home. The story received considerable attention when Obama suggested that, by arresting a black intellectual, white police officers had “acted stupidly.” The President was criticized for playing the race card, something he had assiduously avoided before the Gates incident. Obama then invited the professor and one of the policeman involved (the white one) to the White House for a public display of truce that became known as “the beer summit.” At a press conference afterward, Obama said that he hoped the incident could become a “teachable moment.” It was, in a sense, the perfect public relations exercise: With Obama as mediator, these two men could shoot the breeze in the backyard of the White House to sort out what had begun as a simple misunderstanding.
The beer summit was meant to convince observers that, despite appearances to the contrary, race had indeed become a non-issue. However, a more nuanced reading suggested instead that 150 years after the Civil War, and 48 years on from Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, Americans still remain deeply divided by the color of their skin. Still, to put the best face on Obama’s approach to race, it’s worth recalling Robert Tucker’s remark that “hypocrisy is often the advanced wave of a new truth.” Pretending that race has become a non-issue, aside from being a politically useful tack for this President to take, perhaps has at least some potential to make it so.
That’s not how W.J.T. Mitchell would interpret the issue. In Seeing Through Race Mitchell argues that by pretending racial differences no longer exist, we deepen the furrows of discrimination. Mitchell’s aim is simple: to refute the belief that race is unimportant. In other words, to fight racism we must fully accept the reality of racial differences. That in turn is our clue for interpreting what seems to be the double entendre of Mitchell’s title: We must see through race as a prism if we are ever to “see it through” in the conventional sense, meaning to get ourselves past it.
Mitchell is a useful contrarian if not always a persuasive one. After all, left-liberal intellectuals in the past two decades have strongly contended that race is illusory. For example, in their award-winning book Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race (1997), Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann insisted: “There is no such thing as race.” They see little correlation between heritable differences in pigmentation and other characteristics of race that might be thought important for social purposes. They also reject the idea that human beings can be divided into small groups in which members share a set of heritable, moral and intellectual characteristics with one another that they do not share with members of any other race.
In contrast, Mitchell maintains that this argument simply cannot explain in a supposedly post-racial era “the persistence of race as a political and economic issue, as well as a term linked to the all-too-durable phenomenon of racism.” Mitchell spends considerable ink in semantic gymnastics. Race and racism, he writes, are often paired as if they have the same relationship as other similar word pairings, for example, ideas and idealism. We tend to think of the root term as primary and the “ism” as the derivative phenomenon. Not so with the words race and racism, Mitchell contends: Racism is the brute fact, and race the derivative term. Here Mitchell cites Sartre, who postulated that the concept of race must be understood as a product rather than a cause of racism.
As Mitchell sees it, race is a concept that extends across four different conceptual social domains: species, culture, class and sex. Race is never one fixed thing, but rather a complex of these forces. Racism, on the other hand, is located at the vortex. Mitchell labels this center “a compass of race whose magnetic poles are the unsurpassable difference between nature and culture.” The most radical racist he calls “the cold north-pole of species difference.” This is where the racial other is reduced to a sub-human and subjected to extermination and genocide. These ideas are often thought to be associated with the long-discredited “racial sciences” of the 19th century, or the ideologies that pervaded Nazism. But they are also at home, according to Mitchell, in ideas put forward by well-respected American intellectuals. One example he cites is The Bell Curve, a book published in 1994 by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argued that African Americans are less intelligent on average than whites.
Mitchell’s chosen method of guiding us through this intellectual terrain is to ask basic questions: Is racial identity grounded in what people are or in what they do? Is blackness in the skin or in the eye of the beholder? His hope is for the reader to ponder these questions rather than come up with a definitive set of answers. When Mitchell refines his argument—something he doesn’t do often enough—he raises his game. He notes that, for example, refusing to see the color of someone’s skin is not the same as working toward a day when it will be truly unimportant. However much we may wish skin color not to matter, real differences do exist, and that’s why, he writes,
Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous declaration that he had a dream of a time when people ‘will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’ slightly missed the mark. Racists do not have to rely solely on the color of someone’s skin to arrive at a judgment. The problem is located not in the perception of color but in the structure of judgment—or rather, pre-judgment.
King was therefore not really advocating a color-blind approach to race, and yet the civil rights movement’s message continues to be misinterpreted as doing so. It is behind the mask of color-blind neutrality where most racism hides, argues Mitchell, who is intent on giving us a framework to overcome this subtle but insidious problem. He doesn’t quite deliver.
Seeing Through Race lacks cohesion, perhaps, because it is divided between essays and lectures (three that Mitchell gave at Harvard in April 2010 under the title “Teachable Moments in Race, Media and Visual Culture”). While the lectures are engaging, the five essays that follow are vague. Furthermore, much of Mitchell’s thesis is bathed in the obfuscating language of post-structuralism, which holds that we find ourselves in a universe of radical uncertainty that has no standard by which to measure anything. This leaves Mitchell to digress into arguments that lack minimal credibility. Here is one brief example: “In treating race as a medium, then, I do not pretend to resolve the questions of its reality as a natural or cultural thing, a real object in the world or a collective fantasy.”
Many readers may find this theory-heavy style of writing frustrating. I did. Moreover, Mitchell’s qualifications to write a book on race theory are questionable. Although he is a distinguished professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, his credentials as a scholar of African-American culture amount to a few critical essays on the films of Spike Lee. Nevertheless, Seeing Through Race stresses the importance of an issue that most everyone else, including President Obama, insists on either ignoring or twisting to parochial advantage. Even a somewhat muddled collision with the reality of American racism these days is probably better than none at all.
Racial Real Estate
If racism presupposes that different ethnic groups cannot live together, then segregation puts that theory into practice. In Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities, Carl H. Nightingale, a professor of urban and world history at the University at Buffalo, revisits the intrinsically paradoxical nature of segregationist politics. Cities, Nightingale observes, are places where people of several races almost invariably come together. By definition they live in places where geographical distances between people are diminished. But shrinking geographical distance has not diminished social distance. Instead, residential segregation and city-splitting politics, not just in America but across the globe, have preserved white power through the combined efforts of three institutions: governments, networks of intellectual exchange and the real estate industry.
City-splitting politics, Nightingale documents, dates back to when cities first came into being more than 7,000 years ago. In early urban times, the division of cities was based on the idea that gods should live in more splendid dwellings than mere mortals. It was only in the late 18th century that Europeans injected race into segregationist politics. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they tried to divide cities, but abandoned the idea once they decided to import large numbers of African slaves. It was in the new Western colonial cities in the East (most notably in India), beginning in 1482, that Europeans developed a lasting tradition of foreign-ruled divided cities, and these provided the model for the hundreds of segregated colonial cities that Western imperialists later built across the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nightingale notes that the word “race” did not appear in any official documents relating to early modern colonial cities before this period.
Inspired by the writings of Francois Bernier, who equated skin color with cultural characteristics, philosophers like David Hume and Voltaire began to project the idea of a hierarchy of races, placing whites at the top and the darkest races at the bottom. Thomas Jefferson believed that skin color was most noticeable between different racial groups in the expression of emotion. In Notes on the State of Virginia he wrote, “Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the one [whites], preferable to the eternal monotony which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers up all the emotions of the other race?”1
After the concept of race acquired a new, nearly universal meaning in the late 1700s, leading intellectuals at the time believed cities had to be split along urban color lines in order for “civilization” to progress. This shift into white and black town systems first began in Calcutta, when the parliament in Westminster passed the Regulating Act of 1772—a law that aimed to overhaul the management of the East India Company’s rule in the vast subcontinent. As Nightingale puts it, “If modern empire was the first of these institutions, race—which also came to Calcutta via London—was the driving ideology.”
When British merchants began buying and selling land in Asian colonial cities like Calcutta and reinvesting some of their real estate profits back into the more salubrious neighborhoods in London’s West End, the idea of exclusive suburban dwellings spread. Thus, having poor neighbors brought down the property values of the rich. In the 19th century, as Europeans and Americans became increasingly obsessed with owning large holdings of urban land, segregationist ideas were translated into the language of race. As the 20th century unfolded, and nations grappled with extremist ideologies such as ethnic nationalism and fascism, segregationist movements now had the law on their side. This began in the 1920s in what Nightingale labels “archsegregationism.” Two cities that took this extreme approach were Johannesburg, with its state-sponsored separation, and Chicago, where the method of segregation was advanced by the subtle methods of real estate markets and housing policies.
South Africa turned to racial legislation to prevent a “black invasion.” In 1923, a new national government succeeded in passing the Natives (Urban Areas) Act. No society in the world had ever produced such a government-legislated system of race-based residential zoning. The nearest the United States ever came to passing a law on racial discrimination concerning property was the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1921, which, surprisingly enough by 21st-century lights, provided the basic legislation for planning and zoning in the United States.
Both laws, in South Africa and the United States, enabled local authorities to zone their cities. The laws also provided a framework for expanding national government-led urban segregation. The key difference between the two, as Nightingale emphasizes, was the place of race in the law. South Africa’s Urban Areas Act celebrated racial discrimination by explicitly authorizing separate racial zones, degrading black people’s title to land and discouraging black migration to cities. In the United States, previous Supreme Court rulings, like Buchannan v. Warley in 1917, made it impossible to attack black people’s property rights or their freedom of movement. However, as the black population continued to grow and move, so too did inner-city ghettos. As racial theory came to determine property values, whites who lived near the ghetto were most likely to pack up and leave. As a result, cities became increasingly divided along racial lines in the United States not by law but by a combination of social and market forces pivoting on real estate.
Nightingale’s analysis of racism at work in different political systems is particularly fascinating. Apartheid in South Africa depended on the iron fist. In the United States, other factors contributed, including mob violence, draconian criminal justice systems and police discrimination. Segregationists survived in the United States through their ability to hide through layers of racial camouflage. Which method was more effective in maintaining the politics of urban segregation? The apartheid state has collapsed, but more informal color lines continue to play an integral role in the American housing market. Urban segregation can also be found, Nightingale notes, across the postcolonial political spectrum. For example, in Calcutta self-styled Marxists continued the colonial-era method of expelling city slum-dwellers to the periphery. And in Brazil, the right-wing military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s repeatedly waged bulldozer assaults on Rio’s hillside favelas.
Whatever country or era he scrupulously examines, Nightingale’s narrative consistently makes the same point: Segregation is a form of class war, and all racial theory—“whether social-Darwinist, eugenic, sanitary, moralistic, quotidian, or downright idiosyncratic—led directly to one subject: property values.” He illustrates the point by noting that it was in the period after World War II that some of America’s most iconic ghettos came into being. This was also the period where new roads ostensibly divided color lines even further. In New York’s South Bronx, North Philadelphia, South Central Los Angeles and Miami’s Liberty City, giant postwar interstate expressways cut right through the heart of the ghettos, giving whites better routes to their downtown jobs while dealing a blow to black businesses there.
In 2012, is this class war still being fought, largely along racial lines? Nightingale believes that African Americans still have considerable ground to cover in catching up with their white neighbors. The statistics speak for themselves. In 2008, a bipartisan national commission on fair housing estimated that, in any given year, only about 20,000 out of four million acts of racial discrimination receive official attention. The rest are left to suffer in silence.
Reading Seeing Through Race and Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities together makes one acutely aware of how silence drives the meta-narrative of the supposedly post-racial era. As Mitchell demonstrates through theory, and Nightingale teaches us with comparative history, denial is the driving force of de facto racism.
That denial is firmly embedded in school history lessons, television programs and popular culture, which make the civil rights movement into a triumph of American egalitarianism. The story celebrates the victorious landmark Supreme Court 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools were constitutionally not permitted. It declares that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent struggle for racial equality brought about the civil rights legislation of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965. And now, as of 2008, the mythology reached its triumphant epoch, when an African American entered the White House. The end.
What’s rarely mentioned in this grand narrative, however, is that color lines continue to divide the American nation. Obama has largely avoided the subject, telling voters that he doesn’t take sides because there are no more sides to take. It will be interesting to see if he changes his approach upon winning a second term in office.
If he does, it will not be particularly surprising, for this is a man who believes in shaping one’s own choices. More than any major American political figure to date, Barack Obama invented his own personality out of a rich mix of possibilities. He decided to become as black as he wanted to be, suggesting that plenty has indeed changed since the 1950s. He has been able to deploy a dehistoricized blackness to advantage, again something that would have been impossible fifty or sixty years ago. And it seems that Obama believes that if he can invent himself through the power of his own will and discipline, so can America as a whole. In contrast to Mitchell and Nightingale’s persuasive arguments, Obama insists that reality is, or can become, what you choose to call it. For some, at least, that is cause for hope.
1See Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist”, The Atlantic (October 1996).