Unwhitening America

Against the Current, No. 114, January/February 2005

Bill V. Mullen

After Whiteness:
Unmaking an American Majority
by Mike Hill
New York University Press, 2004. 268 pp., $21.00 paperback.

MIKE HILL’S AFTER Whiteness is an important, provocative and timely book, one that Marxists and other Left academics will especially enjoy: a rigorous, materialist and politically progressive account of how white racial identity has become an index to the conditions of both U.S. capitalism and the American university.

Hill offers a systematic and at times radical argument about how the movement towards a multiracial non-white U.S. state presents opportunities and obstacles for achieving social transformation. It also makes exciting, original arguments about the relationships among race, masculinity, sexuality, academic labor and the state of the humanities.

Hill’s previous books, both edited, are Whiteness: A Critical Reader (NYU 1999) and (with Warren Montag) Masses, Classes, and the Public Sphere (Verso 2001). The first book helped to establish what has been called “Whiteness Studies” in the American university, a branch of ethnic studies dedicated to understanding what it means to be white.

The opening chapter of Hill’s new book traces the history of Whiteness Studies to several key writers, most notably historian Alexander Saxton, author of The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (1990), and David Roediger, author of the influential labor history The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1991).

Hill shares the presumption of both writers that, in the words of Saxton, “white racism is essentially a theory of history.” Whiteness Studies at its inception argued that labor competition, immigration, property law, slavery and the rise of the industrial U.S. helped form the legal, cultural and ideological underpinnings and advantages of “whiteness” in America.

Roediger borrowed from W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1935 book Black Reconstruction the phrase “wages of whiteness” to describe the material and psychological benefits U.S. workers garnered by identifying their interests with the white U.S. majority particularly against African Americans.

A Post-White Future

Hill argues, however, that since the inception of Whiteness Studies a growing multiracial, mixed race population in the U.S. coupled with the increasing instability of racial categories has moved the country in the direction of a “post-white” future whose outlines are unknowable.

The title of Hill’s book refers to the broad implications of this change. He contends that every facet of American life, from labor to sexuality to popular culture to religion to civil rights, will be permanently altered by the ever-decreasing purchase of whiteness on U.S. society.

Yet at the same time, paradoxically, After Whiteness contends that both public obsession with racial “identity” and the institutionalization of “whiteness studies” in the University are symptomatic of a current and ongoing racial and capitalist crisis in America: namely, the displacement and masquerading of massively unequal distribution of wealth as well as subtle varieties of racism, sexism and homophobia.

Public and academic obsession with racial whiteness and its disappearance, Hill argues, can also serve to bolster patriarchy, comfort liberalism, appease racists, and disguise labor exploitation and surplus value produced inside and outside of the University.
Hill situates this set of contradictions in good Marxist fashion. He does this by exploring the relationship between configuration of individual “racial” identity and the potential for a “mass” critical consciousness about the material conditions that often produce those configurations.

His chapter “America, Not Counting Class,” for example, follows from a lengthy opening analysis of the 2000 census form. Hill points out that conflicting categories of self-identification on the census — why are black and white “racial” categories and Hispanic, for example, an ethnicity? — reflect a desire by both the conservative right (and the State) and the liberal Left to preserve and monitor a politics of identification, at the same moment that race is becoming ontologically ungrounded.

Left “unchecked” on the census and in public discourse, Hill argues, is something like class consciousness. Yet Hill is not arguing that “racial consciousness” is a form of false consciousness, or that white workers are being duped, or that racism doesn’t matter. Rather, he is specifically interested in demonstrating how anxiety over the state of race reflects what he calls “dissensus.”

By this term he means that is the winnowing and fragmentation of a public sphere which can adjudicate, debate, legislate and, if necessary, overthrow systemic racism and exploitation.

Economy of Absence

Hill attributes dissensus in the main to what he calls an “economy of absence.” The phrase refers to the numerous ways in which racial “interests,” particularly interests in whiteness, displace or are displaced onto other forms of political and cultural activity which often have a decidedly regressive or reactionary cast, or which literally diminish the material circumstances of most people’s lives.

In the case of the Census, for example, the continual refining and revising of racial and ethnic categories is accompanied by conservative attacks on “race-based” affirmative action programs rooted in Civil Rights era struggles. This is what Hill calls, after Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, the politics of “recognition” coming home to roost in bitterly ironic fashion.

In the realm of the University, this scenario plays out in more nuanced ways. Hill argues for example that the emergence of Whiteness Studies in the University coincided with a general crisis in the Humanities in the 1980s symbolized by attacks on multicultural education, defunding of higher education, the diminution of job opportunities for Humanities Ph.D.s and the increasing proletarianization of part-time academic labor.

Hill endorses Bill Readings’ influential argument that these events reflect a pursuit of “identity politics” that according to Hill is “on the whole tragically misdirected. Diversity too often signals a form of academic managerial order that operates in a way appropriate to the cash nexus and that carefully channels the act of racial self-recognition.” (164)

For higher education, Hill argues, this means “that the university’s economic ruin sees the demise of its referential capacity and consensual function even as that ruin is articulated by academics lamenting the loss.” (165) Hill reads academic interest in whiteness as one symptom of that loss.

God, Family and Whiteness

Hill also draws on recent feminist and gender theory to both critique and enrich earlier, largely male-dominated and androcentric studies of whiteness. Part II of the book is titled, entertainingly, “A Fascism of Benevolence: God and Family in the Father-Shaped Void.”

The chapter examines the rise of the Promise Keepers organization, an evangelical Christian men’s group founded in 1990 by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney. By 1997 the group had grown from 70 to close to one million, built an annual budget of $117 million, and had a paid staff of 500 in 136 offices nationwide, both numbers larger than the NAACP.

Promise Keepers offers a public campaign of racial tolerance, nuclear fatherhood, masculine heterosexuality and missionary moralizing. Hill reads in these proclamations and attestations a fascism of benevolence centered around race: “both the love and hate of color are attendant to a perceived material crisis in the fading privileges of whiteness for a good many American men.” (79)

Provocatively, Hill links the Promise Keepers platform to the overtly racist and neofascist ideology of the National Alliance novel The Turner Diaries, the book that helped inspire Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. “Both groups,” writes Hill, “seek to preserve masculinity by targeting race. The more curious point is that they do so by mobilizing precisely the opposite psychological extremes. They do by claiming to love color, and by hating it, so as to placate the same class-conflicted, hetero-masculine ends.”

“Whiteness” is thus in Hill’s analysis a form of false consciousness — but his analysis goes beyond a traditional Marxist notion of that term by incorporating the insights of feminist critics, queer and critical race theorists and so-called post-Marxian thinkers.

One of the interesting aspects of Hill’s method is the way it coincides with public discourse across the political spectrum around the recent Bush election. What really was the connection between downsized working-class votes for an oil aristocrat, state-sponsored amendments against gay marriage, the organized religious right and a President who refused to address the NAACP during his Presidential campaign, but whose secretary of state and national security advisor were African American?

Hill’s book would suggest, I think, that the 2004 election was a distinctly “after whiteness” event: that Bush’s supercharged white heterosexist masculinity was for many Americans a compensatory form of race insurance in a moment of national political and economic liability.

In fact, W. makes a brief appearance: Hill reminds us that in his first term Bush created the Office of Faith-Based Programs which promised federal dollars to religious charities, and that Republicans first introduced the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 in reply to groups like Colorado for Family Values, which invoked Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney in its own public campaign against efforts to “force homosexuality on our cities, states and nation” (86). Here the book seems scarily prescient.

Into the Public Sphere

Yet this presciences also point to what are minor frustrations that, to me anyway, accrue as I read Hill’s book.

First, the strength of the book, its erudite grasp on a broad range of critical theory from Adorno to Judith Butler and first-rate close readings of key texts from the field of Whiteness Studies, foreshortens Hill’s engagement with a broad array of public events that beg for analysis alongside casebook lunacies like Promise Keepers. To take a short list of examples from the past ten years: ACT UP, grassroots anti-racist organizing, 9/11, anti-Islamic hysteria and the academic labor movement.

To his credit, Hill’s earlier work and even his generous footnotes to After Whiteness show how much he knows and has thought about these areas. Yet because After Whiteness is such an impressive academic manifesto — possibly the best synthesis of the political and economic gravitas of whiteness and Whiteness Studies yet published — one finishes the book craving more imaginative means of reading it into the public sphere: more practice, less theory.

Likewise, more engagement with what might be called before (and to some extent against) whiteness Marxism would have deepened the historical resonance of Hill’s book. As they so often do, W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon stand in for the long tradition of Black political radicalism and its own attendant theoretical breakthroughs on the problem of “whiteness,” class struggle and social transformation.

Hill makes excellent and original use of their work, particularly in relationship to the unexplicated category of “mass” action in Du Bois, and the “whiteness” of the western patriarchal family in Fanon. But the tradition of Marxist and postcolonial critique of whiteness also includes Aime Cesaire, the Negritude Movement, Ward Churchill, Maoism, the Center for Third World Organizing, Grace Boggs, Cedric Robinson and others.

One can’t do everything in a book, but there is a fascinating dialectical relationship on “whiteness” between the work of writers like these and the writers on whiteness cited in Hill’s book. Hill’s book, in turn, provides a provocative argument for applying his “economy of absence” analytic to these other writers.

Finally, Hill’s book does offer real strategies for applying “after whiteness” to literary and cultural studies. In his last chapter, he aggressively defends anti-racist teaching and curricular reform as a stay against “whiteness” fetishization or attacks on multiculturalism.

He also offers a keen closing reading of the anti-capitalism of Toni Morrison’s important book Playing in the Dark. Morrison’s book is a good place to end for academics who seek critical tools for introducing their students (or colleagues) to the truly damaging effects of “whiteness” on the page.

In the world, Hill makes us understand the unbearable whiteness of the current regime of what some have called military multiculturalism, W. style, as a fascism of benevolence. As for reconceiving multiracial class unity, fighting U.S. imperialism, defending gender rebels, standing with gays and lesbians against repression, there is still much work to be done. Mike Hill’s After Whiteness should be required for those so committed.

ATC 114, January-February 2005