Obama, Harris And The Ruse Of Racial Representation

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Racial liberalism attempts to shape the perspectives of communities of color through narrow ideas of national belonging, Manifest Destiny, and the American Dream.

“Every second that liberals wait in finding ways to support community oriented antiracist measures and actions is additional space and time that they give to the perpetual threat of fascism and neofascism.”

The nomination of Senator Kamala Harris to the position of Vice President of the United States has been widely recognized as a triumph for Black and Asian women in the country. Something similar happened twelve years ago when then-Senator Barack Obama accepted the nomination for President.

There is no doubt that representation in the media, politics, education, corporate leadership, sports, among so many other areas, matters. However, the more crucial questions are how does representation matter as well as for whom and for what does it matter. Without addressing these questions, representation can easily succumb to a mechanism that contributes to the disempowerment of the very sectors that presumably benefit from it.

Two hundred forty-four years after the declaration of the US independence, and only twenty-two years away from 2042, when non-Hispanic whites are projected to lose the status of demographic majorities in the country, it is clear that liberal institutions in the country cannot perpetually be managed by white people only. Racial representation in the politics of the major political parties, particularly the liberal one, become a desideratum in this context, indicating a new phase in the mutations of racial liberalism. I can hear the echoes of voices uttering: “make racial liberalism great again!”

“A new phase in the mutations of racial liberalism.”

With racial liberalism, I refer to the ways in which liberal ideology and liberal institutions have served to support racist structures and to delay, contain, and reject antiracist measures. Today, we are seeing a new phase in the unfolding of racial liberalism. In this new phase, success is marked both, by the participation of a few selected people—but gradually more—with different racial classifications in the leadership of the liberal project, and by their commitment with core elements of racial liberalism, including resisting and delaying substantial anti-racist and decolonial structural transformations.

Liberalism, like other political ideologies but maybe more so, aims to control the rhythm of time so as to produce different kinds of subjects who advance its goals. Racial liberalism, with contributions from conservatism, has had enough time to shape the perspectives of subjects and communities of color according to narrow ideas of national belonging, Manifest Destiny, and the American Dream, as well as limit, sideline, minoritize and juniorize the forms of analysis and communal practices that challenge these master discourses of the nation.

“Racial liberalism is marked by selected people with different racial classifications resisting and delaying substantial anti-racist and decolonial structural transformations.”

The project of keeping control in a nation where non-Hispanic whites are losing majority demographic status is twofold. There is, on the one hand, the continued production of early death and the attack on communities of color through deportations, residential and school segregation, lack of access to health and the deterioration of American Indian reservations, defunding of public higher education, debt peonage, and the infringement of voting rights, among other tactics.

On the other hand, there is the reproduction of conservative and liberal attitudes, values, and practices that seek to preserve white innocence and white arrogance through benevolent forms of inclusion into the American Dream, liberal education, the middle class, and into high degrees of consumerism. These attitudes, values, and practices also provide an anchor to the resistance against anything like structural changes that seriously consider various forms of reparations, restoration of stolen lands and artifacts, and the proper decolonization of knowledge, culture, and institutions.

The conservative/liberal dynamic in the US is largely an intra-racist dynamic that finds itself in a moment of transition as it experiences the impact of neoliberalism in the “First World”—including the outsourcing of jobs to other countries and increases in migration—as well as demographic changes that make some whites feel vulnerable while other whites remain or become more arrogant, developing increasingly condescending attitudes and sometimes overly violent actions.

“Conservative and liberal values seek to preserve white innocence and white arrogance.”

Deeply rooted racist dynamics are bound to increase or become more visible in this context: from the denigration and annihilation of Black people to the racist xenophobia that drives much of the immigration debate and the murderous hate and intolerance towards trans Black and people of color, and much more.

In this context, every inch that liberals concede to those who oppose substantial critical analyses of racism and the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and every second that they wait in finding ways to support community-oriented antiracist measures and actions is additional space and time that they give to Trumpism and to the perpetual threat of fascism and neofascism. We cannot afford that liberals continue to play the ruse of racial representation or its companions: color-blindness, liberal multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion, or even purely rhetorical support for Black Lives Matter. Liberals need to denounce racial liberalism, undermine white arrogance, and support anti-racist projects that exceed the scope of their vision and analyses. Until this happens, liberalism will continue to undermine racial representation and remain an avatar of white supremacy, coloniality, and antiblackness.

Nelson Maldonado-Torres is director of the  Rutgers Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University and Co-chair, Frantz Fanon Foundation.