Beyond Liberal Multiculturalism

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Tim Libretti

Racial Formations/Critical Transformations:
Articulations of Power in Ethnic and Racial Study in the United States
by E. San Juan, Jr.
New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1992, paperback, $15.

E. SAN JUAN’s compelling assessment of institutionalized Ethnic and Racial Studies in the United States constitutes a major contribution to the socialist project of theorizing a Marxism that articulates race with class and gender. Racial Formations/ Critical Transformations welds high theory and grassroots radical practice with a political deftness rarely encountered in academic scholarship.

As such, this important work makes at least three significant interventions that recommend it to socialist intellectuals and activists.

First, San Juan analyzes the dominant methodological practices in university ethnic studies programs. Through a wide-ranging survey of major theoretical texts representative of various schools of thought on race and ethnicity, San Juan challenges the critical paradigms dominant in cultural studies and the humanities. Most prominent is the “insidious error of the immigrant analogy.”

Documenting the ways in which such scholarship, consciously or not, underwrites and ratifies a power structure hierarchized according to racial categories, he demonstrates how the battles over models of critical practice in the academy bear complex relations to political struggles outside the university. In opposition to the immigrant analogy, San Juan proposes an alternative paradigm for studying race and ethnicity.

Second, San Juan proposes an agenda for class struggle prioritizing antiracism. Through a critique of past Marxist theory on race, San Juan argues the impossibility of class struggle leaping over the color line and attempts to develop a Marxism that theorizes race without subsuming racial conflict to the class problematic.

Third, San Juan rethinks resistance and the concept of historic agency, engaging issues of who will constitute the vanguard in movements for social change.

San Juan opens the introduction with a catalog of racially motivated hate crimes, murders, and instances of harassment against peoples of color in the United States over the past decade. The author does so in order to stress the urgency of working through the difficulties of the Marxist project of theorizing race.

He notes that even such establishment publications as Time and Newsweek have noted the resurgence of racism, and he raises the question of how and when the U.S. left will respond.

The Educators Must Be Educated

Writing from his own position as “an exiled intellectual from a Third World country” (the Philippines), San Juan calls for the development of a conceptual framework giving primacy to race in rethinking resistance to global capitalism.

Arguing that racial categorization “continues to inform and reinforce all other social antagonisms,” San Juan asserts “race” as the fundamental axis of social organization. While this statement would seem theoretically to defy the Marxist focus on class as the fundamental structuring principle of global capitalism, it is counterbalanced by the author’s agenda for praxis that makes antiracist struggle the task of the day in the broader context of class struggle.

San Juan is insistent on understanding racial oppression as class division “still primarily lived and experienced as racial oppression” for people of color. Nonetheless, this assertion is never adequately reconciled with, or explained in relation to, Marxist theory.

In the theoretical arena where intellectuals engage in a Gramscian war of position, the most urgent project facing left intellectuals is the formulation of a critical methodology capable of unmasking instances of what San Juan terms inferential racism. What he means is the events of our daily lives that are implicitly informed by racist premises and propositions.

Because these premises pass as unquestioned assumptions that constitute “common sense” or appear as naturalized givens, they are particularly dangerous. They enable the formulation of racist statements without bringing to consciousness their racist foundations. Thus, a method of cultural interpretation emphasizing ideological critique is crucial to antiracist and class struggle.

Racial Formations/Critical Transformations then targets the various forms of critical praxis predominant in the humanities and cultural studies: a liberal version of multiculturalism. This takes the form of a pluralism that refuses to understand culture as a set of practices and values that determine social relations of power and subordination.

Instead multiculturalism dilutes cultural differences by filtering them through the depoliticizing postmodernist lingo of “heterogeneity” and “diversity.” These terms take the place of “contradiction” and “exploitation,” thus disguising the political nature of cultural practices.

The Ethnicity Paradigm

Far from offering an adequate way of understanding the complex U.S. race and ethnic relations, such a multicultural model explains away racial inequality–even in the midst of its continuing violence to peoples of color. Thus by privileging the site of culture in the struggle for political power, San Juan challenges the putative and apolitical status of cultural theory, exposing the liberal ideology that informs it.

The most stringent critique sustained throughout the book is of the “ethnicity school,” represented by Werner Sollor’s Beyond Ethnicity, the prominent journal MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States), and Nathan Glazer’s and Daniel Moynihan’s Ethnicity: Theory and Experience, to name only a few of the major representative works San Juan discusses.

What characterizes these studies is the underlying critical paradigm of the white immigrant success story. This standard is then applied uniformly to all racial and ethnic groups to explaining their experiences. This homogenization obscures the histories of exploitation and inequality experienced by colonized minorities, which differentiate them from white European immigrants or provide a context from which they can enunciate their specific interests and demands.

The white immigrant paradigm spotlights a liberal ideology of equal opportunity, upward mobility, self-reliance and possessive individualism. It ignores the ongoing construction of racial categories and targeting of racialized groups for economic exploitation under capitalism.

Thus, this paradigm ratifies the political expediency of blaming the victims rather than interrogating and transforming the structural conditions and ideological constraints–such as racism–of capitalism that systematically reproduce inequality and exploitive social relations.

The ethnicity school theorizes ethnicity as an aspect of identity that individuals voluntarily adopt as a strategy of gaining power and privilege, overlooking the fact that colonized minorities were racialized by the dominant culture for purposes of labor exploitation.

Building on Robert Blauner’s distinction between immigrant and colonized minorities formulated in his classic Racial Oppression in America (1972), San Juan points out that the immigrant model disregards the different modes of entry into the U.S. economy experienced by white ethnics and people of color: The white European immigrant came voluntarily, even if pressured by economic or political conditions, while peoples of color were dominated through force and violence (Native Americans and Mexicans had their lands invaded; Africans were enslaved; Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos suffered under exclusion laws, etc.).

The effective erasure of this difference by the ethnicity ideologues, San Juan asserts, has “provided the chief theoretical weapon for the neoconservative policy of the Reagan administration.” He points specifically to the ethnicity paradigm’s denial of the historical logic underwriting affirmative action policies.

Recognizing the genocidal foundation of the U.S. nation and arguing that “American” national identity has historically been mediated through the language of race, San Juan privileges race against ethnicity as the analytical category most comprehensive of U.S. power relations.

The ethnicity model cannot explain inequalities across ethnic boundaries without introducing the category of race, nor can it elucidate class inequality or provide a conceptual apparatus for theorizing the race-class nexus. By negating historically generated inequalities and cultural constraints, the ethnicity model curtails investigation
of racial and class difference. Through exclusion and silencing, this model presents a monolithic version of “American” nationhood.

Interrogating this “racializing national telos and its institutional relay in the disciplinary regime of the humanities,” San Juan establishes the political nature of and necessity for intervention in humanistic studies. In this regard chapter 4, titled “Hegemony and Resistance: A Critique of Modern and Postmodern Cultural Theory in Ethnic Studies,” offers a series of stunning critiques and textual readings in rethinking modernist and postmodernist theory toward the development of a Marxist strategy of “realizable social emancipation.”

The university is a foremost site of ideological production and struggle, as San Juan demonstrates by tracing the theoretical paradigms informing academic scholarship through to the formulation of public policy.

Class Struggle and the Color Line

San Juan’s critiques of modernist and postmodernist approaches to race and ethnicity have consequences that reverberate beyond the limits of the humanities. In the antiracist struggle, San Juan sees the ethnicity paradigm as the weak link in the chain of racial capitalist domination but stresses that a “semiotic debunking” is not enough.

We must also destroy the material foundations that give rise to and perpetuate “the ideology, discourse, and cultural practices of racism.” San Juan’s approach, emphasizing the investigation of concrete and historically specific conjunctural relations, not only provides a critical paradigm for theorizing race but also brings to bear the category of race on literary texts. Additionally it charts the immediate trajectory of class struggle, proposing an agenda of the urgent tasks facing the left today.

Following Blauner’s internal colonialism model, San Juan emphasizes resistance to assimilationist models that posit the goal of ethnic literary expression as “cultural amalgamation” and “the gradual process of Americanization.” He sees the maintenance and practice of a colonized group’s culture as crucial in resisting U.S. racial capitalism, pointing up the linkage of academic theory and grassroots radical practice.

For instance, the literary critic must challenge those schools of thought that promote reading texts “transethnically” with the assimilationist agenda of comprehending the transhistorical “American” characteristics of a work and the “Americanizing” potential of U.S. literature. This method effectively silences the “historically substantive discoures of popular resistance” as represented by the works of Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, or Arturo Isla’s The Rain God.

Instead of reading literature through the assimilationist models of the ethnicity school, San Juan argues for applying the internal colonialism model to literary works in order to foreground the truth of oppression dominant cultural models obscure.

This model will highlight minority literary works’ recuperation of their own histories against the dominant culture’s distortions as cultural performances of class conscious resistance to internal colonialism, providing for contemporary and future struggles a collective memory (or “archaeology of popular resistance”) to draw on.

Developing such models that spotlight the different historical experiences of people of color and their material consequences is what San Juan means by letting the subaltern speak: creating the conditions for minority voices to be clearly articulated. Using the category of race as a textual mediation enables us to traverse “the sphere
of aesthetics” and reach “the threshold of substantive political engagement.”

Writing against Oliver Cromwell Cox, San Juan argues for a theory of race that does not collapse race into class but understands race and class as “dialectically intertwined.” Here racial groups are both exploited as workers and oppressed as colonized peoples. This theory, therefore, locates culture as a privileged site of contestation.

Culture is also an instrument of domination, thus distinguishing the colonial situation from the class situation of capitalism. Colonialism strips colonized peoples of their culture to assimilate them into ways of thoughts inscribed with racist ideology, marking the colonized as inferior and divesting them of their humanity.

This, then, legitimatized the conquest. Consequently the restoration of their indigenous culture is necessary for the colonized peoples’ development. Its strength comes from reclaiming a national identity that challenges the ideology of a homogenous “America” and a set of values to counter capitalism.

San Juan’s theorizing of the race-class nexus underscores that in the historical process of class formation struggles within classes are as important as struggles between classes. This recognition informs San Juan’s vision of class struggle as an uninterrupted revolution beginning on the racial or national level, a vision akin to Frantz Fanon’s model of national liberation, which posits national consciousness as the precondition for international class consciousness.

The road to socialist liberation must “go through the catharsis of destroying racism in all its protean forms. There is no shortcut or detour.” San Juan sees the confrontation of racism as “the undiscovered Archimedean point of class struggle against the domination of capital, against imperialism.”

This trajectory of an uninterrupted revolution crucially informs San Juan’s conception of a collective subject of historical agency. One important intervention San Juan makes into the domain of high theory is his stringent requirement that theory take “a dialectical approach to suture history and consciousness together in order to highlight the possibilities of active resistance.”

Racial Formation

One of the book’s strongest moments is San Juan’s incisive yet sympathetic critique of Michael Omi’s and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States From the 1960s to the 1980s (1986), a major theoretical and praxis-oriented work in its own right. San Juan endorses their rejection of the ethnicity and class-based paradigms but takes exception to their dismissal of the nation-based paradigm premised on Blauner’s internal colonialism model.

Omi and Winant see cultural nationalism as limited in explaining racial dynamics in the United States. They virtually ignore the U.S. Black nationalist movement and omit altogether reference to the manifold instances of Third World resistance in the sixties and seventies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia nor note their coincidence
with U.S. civil rights movements.

Without understanding racial formation in the context of U.S. imperialism, San Juan contends, Omi and Winant cannot identify “the conditions of possibility for reaction,” which the U.S. defeat in Indochina, the Sandinista Revolution, and the U.S. retreat from Iran created.

Lacking a totalizing perspective and ignoring efforts of the racially oppressed themselves to define their racial identity through resistance to U.S. domination, Omi and Winant elide the question of historical agency, focussing solely on the mechanisms of domination, and forgoing “a dialectical exploration of possibilities.” San Juan feels their limited perspective cannot explain the function of the articulation of race within global capitalism.

San Juan, though, preserves the concept of racial formation to explain, in Omi’s and Winant’s words, “the process by which social, economic, and political forces determine the context and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings.” But he modifies the concept to theorize an historical agent resisting from below rather than the state manipulating racist ideology from above. His focus is most concentrated on forces of resistance engendered by capitalist domination.

“Racial formation” plays a central role in San Juan’s theory of resistance in which he conceives, less concretely than one would like, of “not so much an empirical subject in the making as a whole racial formation, a constellation of forces and processes, which is properly the `bearer’ of radical change.” This resistance formation is construed in national terms in opposition to the “American” nation-state, again underscoring San Juan’s view of “nation as the crucial link between literary production and racial politics.”

One criticism I have is that while, in developing these ideas, San Juan reviews the work of some prominent theorists, most notably Cox–generally to distinguish his work from theirs, with the exception of Blauner–noticeably absent in his survey are considerations of the work of C.L.R. James from the 1930s and `40s.

I refer particularly to James’ essay “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Question in the USA.” Also important in this discussion would be the Communist Party’s theory of the Black Belt developed in the 1920s. Each of these contributions engaged the national question with political acuity.

Totality, Identity, Experience

The assumption of a totalizing perspective and the focus on resistance and historic agency are two aspects that distinguish this work among contemporary Marxist theory. The simultaneous privileging of both a totalizing perspective and subaltern voices, however, creates tensions in attempting to unify theory and practice.

For example, the totality perspective privileges systematic knowledge over experience in theorizing a socialist project of emancipation, whereas politics organized around subaltern identities typically grow out of the experience of oppression. One wonders to what extent these positions are consistent.

Adopting a totalizing perspective implies assuming the right to speak for others. Traditionally, it has been intellectuals who have had the time and economic support to theorize a totality beyond their own material experience. The question arises as to whether one presuming to speak from a totalizing perspective can let the subaltern speak? If the subaltern speaks from experience and the intellectual from systematic knowledge, which do we privilege?

The question need not be posed as such a rigid either/or proposition, but I raise it to point up an abiding tension in Racial Formations/Critical Transformations which surfaces most fully in chapter 5 titled “Beyond Identity Politics.”

San Juan dismisses identity politics on the basis of an experience he had attending a conference on “Issues of Identity” which featured writers and critics. Writers “found themselves privileged somehow as the fountainhead of answers to questions of Asian-America personal/collective identity” while critics, commenting in theoretical vocabulary, found themselves admonished “for not conforming to the unwittingly self-serving identity politics.”

San Juan’s attempts to introduce distinctions between knowledge and experience failed, knowledge being taken as a code word for theory. This experience, in San Juan’s view, measures the movement away from engagement with structures of power and toward a psychotherapeutic introspection which internalizes and depoliticizes real issues of political struggle characteristic of some tendencies in identity politics.

Nonetheless San Juan, I think, too quickly scraps a viable political strategy, the idea of organizing around shared identity, which was crucial to the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and classic nationalist movements and also informs Fanon’s and Cabral’s writings. Indeed, San Juan’s own emphasis on nationalist struggles and their use of race “as a principle of difference in constructing their collective identity through symbolic (cultural) modes” underwrites a politics of identity.

This tension between totality and identity, knowledge and experience, might be inherent in any attempt to develop a totalizing vision necessary to any socialist project. In maintaining a commitment to the self-determination of oppressed peoples, we must negotiate this tension carefully and not look for easy resolutions.

We must look to synthesize knowledge and experience in ways that allow the subaltern to speak, without granting automatic authority to that voice and silencing those whose perspective derives not from experience but from research and critical practice.

On the whole, I sympathize with San Juan’s defense of theory. His work should give all scholars a sense of the political centrality of their theoretical work while also agitating them to activist work. On the flip side, this work should give activists skeptical of theory, who might view university reform movements as divorced from the real battle, a sense of the importance of critically transforming our world through a dialectic of theory and practice.

ATC 60, January-February 1996