The Threat of Race

"Wonderfully readable and thoroughly radical"– Achille Mbembe

The Threat of Race by David Theo Goldberg Now available from Blackwell Publishing and

Wednesday April 7, 2010

Call and response

Posted by David Theo Goldberg 2 comment(s)

In responding to these insightful and suggestive readings of The Threat of Race, I take up the most pressing themes common to the various interventions rather than discussing each reading discretely.


Racism’s sadism, sadism’s racism

Susan Giroux reveals with characteristic incisiveness that, especially in the US context, racial neoliberalism has operated on sadistic impulse and with sadistic effect. This impulse is largely submerged, even repressed, though it materializes cruelly at key moments to reimpose order and control considered to be slipping out of hand. Giroux links this impulse to a longer historical trajectory of sovereign authority, critically evidenced by the Marquis de Sade with regard to the revolutionary Enlightenment. She suggests that this reach for unbridled and brutal sovereignty represents a little stressed strand in critical theories of modern governmentality. It is a strand returning with disturbing if variable repetition and force throughout modernity’s history, though always potentially available. Racial neoliberalism, she argues, drawing compellingly on Sadean analysis, has sewn together in the name of civilization a ‘modern state machinery . . . predicated on punishment and war’, a divinely ordained if secularized technology of violence, and an erotics of expressed responsibility for and moral superiority over all others by imposing upon them a homogeneously defined conception of right that is at once a will to power.

Giroux here draws implicitly on recent work around sovereignty, most notably concerning the corpus of Carl Schmitt. But she is extending the recent critical interest in Schmitt’s account of sovereignty in two little noticed novel and crucial directions. First, Giroux ties the modern order of sovereignty to its explicitly sadistic potentiality, always capable of being invoked, of the sort Sade had so trenchantly recognized in his prison manuscript. This is a welcome extension of the line of argument in The Threat of Race. It makes clear that neoliberalism emphasizes the vicious strands of modernity’s fabric of governmentality. While repeatedly rationalized away as anomaly, Abu Ghraib nevertheless manifests one significant thread in modernity’s constitutive logic of rule.

Second, Giroux draws out explicitly Threat’s point that this strand of sadistic viciousness embedded in modernity’s ruling logic is made possible only on the basis of modernity’s racial architecture. That racial constitution has ordered modernity’s self-making in various if denied ways has made it repeatedly possible—both in the sense of producing subjects and rationalizing their ill treatment—to subject some to viciousness at the hands of and for the sake of elevating others. But the Sadean point is that viciousness is not just materially instrumental; it is fuelled also by the pure pleasure, the erotics, inherent in expressing—in being able to express—subordinating power. The two modes of repression—that erotically sourced within and that instrumental to the self, the Other of others—turn out to be constitutively connected.

Along these lines, then, I argue in The Threat of Race that racial terror and death have been aided under neoliberalizing conditions by the quieting, even the evaporation, of an explicit racial register in state-making. Peter Wade takes up exactly this point.


The ‘silencing’ of race

For Wade, the basic thesis of my book is that ‘neoliberalism silences race, while invigorating racist oppressions’. While partly getting at the argument advanced, this formulation actually misses something central to the line of analysis. It is not that race is simply silenced, if silenced at all. It is shifted to less formal domains for the most part, embedded in structures, without being explicitly named, where it is more difficult to identify, more ambivalently related to, more ambiguous. Or to insist, as Wade does, that this silencing erases race is to miss a different sense of ‘silencing’ than the one Wade emphasizes. For Wade silencing seems clearly and explicitly to mean absence. But ‘silencing’ also suggests quieting even as the condition persists. Indeed, the ‘silencing’ can proliferate the condition, pervading undetected by a broader public.

So Wade’s reading mischaracterizes, if not more deeply misconceives (somewhat), what I have in mind. In the book, I rarely speak of absence or presence of race or indeed of racism. And when I do it is always carefully contextualized. There may be half a dozen explicit invocations of the notion of ‘absence’ regarding race throughout the book. Hardly the stuff on which a thesis would be built. Rather, and consistent with a longstanding trajectory in my corpus of work,1 my point is about invisibility. That’s a very different register than absence or indeed presence.

Invisibility suggests a hidden dimension, sometimes unknowing or inadvertent but more than likely planned, or at least ordered, structurally arranged, deeply embedded. So, institutionally, it is not that race has been made ‘absent’ but that its presence has been rendered invisible and silenced (save to the sensitive eye and ear), purged of explicit terms of reference. The condition remains even where the terms of characterization and analysis, of condemnation (or for that matter of praise), of address and redress, have been removed. That there are no terms by which to mark it suggests that there is no condition to mark; but it doesn’t rid the social of the condition even where the terms of target have been dimmed or quieted. One is simply reduced to casting about in the silent dark.

Wade seems to admit the very point at issue here, acknowledging ‘the persistence and indeed re-emergence of race in Latin America, despite the reluctance to use the term openly and to prefer references to “culture” and “ethnicity”’. That Wade misconceives my position is revealed by his claiming, rightly, that ‘race can only remain alive because the categories and concepts have not actually been erased, although they may have been removed from specific institutional levels and governmental instances’.

The point is well articulated, not as a criticism of The Threat of Race but, with one key qualification, indeed as the book’s view. ‘Buried alive’ is not erasure but repression, not absence but continued if unseen presence. That presence may have shifted from explicit state institutions to privatized expression, though that does not imply complete erasure. To trace those shifts historically across different racial regions and time zones was exactly the task I set myself in the book. Wade cites as critical evidence of the non-silencing of racial categories a series of examples about IVF clinics where women as well as policy statements explicitly or implicitly invoke racial categories as grounds for genetic matches or choice of surrogate mothers. That the statements are the official documents of state-funded but nevertheless ‘independent regulators’—whether agencies or care-providers—indicates the obfuscatory messiness in actual practices of neoliberalizing privatization. These examples then largely evidence not counters to my argument, as Wade would have it, but indications of the sort of suggestive shift from state required imposition to increasingly privatized (though still deeply shaped and ordered) choice that I indicate is a dominant pattern of racial neoliberalism.

There is a crucial point of distinction in our positions here though, revealed in Wade’s qualification to this point about erasure and absence. He adds: ‘If the categories and concepts had truly been erased, there could be no racism. It would be a different kind of oppression.’ Even in the more extreme case, however, complete erasure of concepts need not necessarily entail that the oppression has morphed from racism to some other kind. Institutional or structural racisms have long revealed the embedding of profoundly reproduced exclusions or discriminations in favour of members of exactly those population groups once marked explicitly by the racist terms now erased. The mark of racism is not only or simply whether explicitly racial categories pick out populations discriminated against. It is also whether populations historically discriminated against continue to suffer the ongoing patterns of those historical discreditations and their impacts no matter that the terms to reference them have been made to evaporate. It is as much the material conditions and effects of discreditation as the modes of (quieted, even purged, but implicitly lingering) reference that count as racism. That’s the very issue: how to identify racisms when their terms of account—both of identification and documentation, of expression and critical intervention—have been rendered invisible?


Nature’s racial culture/ culture’s racial nature

Wade’s interesting critical remarks regarding the interfacing of nature and culture with respect to racial histories are helpful in getting clearer about this question. Nature and culture, he insists, ‘blend into one another’. Racial articulation always configures ‘nature–culture hybrids’. Put in this way, racial reference always inscribes naturalizing implication, if not explication, even where cultural expression is most overt. As Wade recognizes, I agree with this, though he seems to object to my relative stress on one over the other as the dominant or driving determination at different times and places. The struggle for hegemony between cultural racisms and racial historicism, on one side, and biological racisms and racial naturalism, on the other, dominated the second half of the nineteenth century, with different expressive impact in different regions.2 I have spelled out at some length these shifting stresses on racial naturalism and historicism across space–time compressions in The Racial State.3

This pulls the point of distinction into sharper focus. The contrast I draw between dominant modes of racial conception and order across historical periods is not per se that between the biologistic and the cultural. It is, more broadly and insistently, that between the ‘naturalizing’ and the ‘historicizing’. Wade reduces my distinction to the more usual one between biology and culture—I confess, my formulation may sometimes encourage it—and this reduction causes the sorts of difficulties and conundrums he stresses. The contrast between the naturalistic and historicizing may look and sound like that between the biologistic and the cultural. But I intend the former to cut across the latter, to do the sort of work of assemblage and co-articulation for which Wade calls. Naturalizing tendencies can and have applied historically to claims of cultural distinction, hardening them into givens precisely of ‘cultural nature’ (or natural/naturalized culture). And this is exactly how race has operated at the interface. Likewise, there are strands of racial thinking—of insisting on racial difference—that nevertheless historicize the biological, that stress the possibility of natural advancement over time from more to less ‘primitive’, from less to more ‘advanced’ modes of social being. Social Darwinism may be just such a case in point. Racial naturalism and racial historicism, in short, regulate thinking as they structure the social, each coming to dominate at different space–times while constantly in elastic tension with each other.

To come back, in light of these comments, to Wade’s point about ‘silencing’ race. By the silencing of race Wade takes me to mean ‘the disappearance of its own name’ (race), ‘evaporation of an explicit discourse of racialized biology’ and ‘erasure of state institutionalizations of racial categories’. All this he thinks at least misleading, or simply inaccurate, given—as he puts it—that institutional overtness of racial categorization has been the exception rather than the rule of racial thinking.

As should be obvious from my remarks above, Wade mischaracterizes my position to be insisting on a straight linear temporal displacement from overtness to silencing or evaporation of biologized racial conception. I repeatedly point out that naturalisms and historicisms interface, play off each other both by taking distance from and by outwardly rejecting claims identified with the other. At different moments in the history of racial thinking one comes to dominate the other in social arrangement and stress, emphasis and hegemony without eclipsing or more deeply destroying the other. The repressed returns, becomes more emphatic, even more dominating. And of course there are moments of hybridity, of confusion, of mixing and mashing up of conceptual terms and commitments, creating a garbled but none the less popular mode of racial expression, as we are witnessing regarding the Obama phenomenon in the United States today. So to say the institutional overtness of racial categorization is the exception rather than the rule, as Wade does, itself is unhelpfully to mischaracterize a much more complex, mixed (up) social history.


Knowing race, recognizing racism

The broader and, I think, more pressing question this line of critical interrogation opens up concerns how exactly to identify racisms, on my account. The question is most readily evidenced concerning the enigmatic and perhaps anomalous condition of ‘racisms without racism’ I ascribe to the extremes of contemporary neoliberalism in the closing pages of the book.

How first do we know race? I would say that, as with pretty much all tacit knowledge, it is habituated, socially inculcated in us through time, handed down through family, schooling and social and political culture. So much so that it becomes intuition, habitus, what Wade at one place hints at as ‘second nature’. We know ‘race’, as Wittgenstein might have said, through its use, through our use of the term, the references and the associated values, valuations, the practices prompted by what in the book I call presumptive filiation and designated non-belonging.

But the question concerns the slightly different if related order of identification not of race but of racism. Wade emphasizes two criteria key to such identification. The first concerns marking as racial phenotypic characteristics considered to identify presumptive filiation. The second is some reference to enduring categories of race. We know race, he says, ‘not by its name, but by its recurrent reference to specific categories of people and specific types of nature–culture hybridizations’. This, however, obviously is to reduce identification of racism to that of race. Here Nelson Maldonado-Torres’s reflections are very helpful.

Drawing on the work of the late George Fredrickson,4 Maldonado-Torres addresses the question in the context of spelling out the distinction between ethnic prejudice and racism. Ethnic prejudice refers to specific ideas people hold about groups that render them more or less sophisticated. The conceptual contrast between an ethnic group and a race, however, is that the former has at least the presumptive possibility of transforming itself to acquire the level of sophistication of their fiercest critics. Ethnic groups, on this account, are capable of development in the ways racial groups are thought fixed by nature. Maldonado-Torres properly points out that this makes Fredrickson’s conception of ethnic prejudice much like my conception of racial historicism. By extension, as he indicates, this only magnifies the question about what makes racial historicism racial exactly.

The distinction between ethnocentrism and racism, as I’ve pointed out at length elsewhere,5 is not purely conceptual. It will depend on the embedded social fabric historically contexualized, prevailing traditions of referential terms and assumptions, not least regarding the formation of social groups, social attitudes and materializations about inclusion and exclusion, political expediency about expendability and discardability, and so on.

Understood in light of the pragmatics of these factors, racial historicism is not simply discrimination or a negative attitude towards someone because of supposed culturally distinct behaviour, values or attitudes. Nor is it simply about prejudging another on such generally conceived prejudicial grounds concerning the group to which the discriminated is taken to belong. Racial historicism is based on a conception that a group, broadly and long considered to constitute a racial group, is presumed less well developed in intellectual and cultural capacities than those emanating from regions supposedly representing more appealing capacities and habits. The group is taken to have coalesced from the fragments of heterogeneous dispersals in some distant past into a supposedly geographically bound coherence, with attendant physical traits and cultural habits. Those making such judgements tend overwhelmingly to consider themselves members of the group now (self-)judged to be better developed.

So racial historicism is more specific in its claims than generalized ethnocentrism: it is not mere dismissal or put-down associated with cultural belonging. Rather, it is a claim about (non-)inheritance of developed cultural capacity over the long haul; and it is about the tying of cultural capacity to heritable characterological traits (developed as habits not only biologically conceived but tied to heritable phenotypes) considered by many to be racial.

Dismissing Obama as a Muslim on its own seems to be ethnic prejudice; dismissing him as ‘an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug’ is racist.6 The former is ethnic prejudice (absent any further indication) in presuming that in the mark of cultural difference there is something tainted, unacceptable, off-putting about being a Muslim, about Muslim character and culture as such. It presumes either more broadly that it is not a good thing to be a Muslim or more narrowly that Muslims don’t properly belong in (and to) the country in which such a claim is being made (in this case the United States, but one could experience such a claim almost anywhere in Europe, or perhaps anywhere where European languages dominate). It is a slight to Muslims as such, imputing at least implicitly that Muslim culture is somehow wanting. It doesn’t help to deny that Obama is a Muslim, for that simply reinforces or leaves untouched the implicit insult, as though the grounds on which the insult stands is firm. This latter consideration reveals both how close ethnic prejudice can come to racism and how racism operates often (but not only) as a sort of exaggerated form.

Racial historicism, then, is racial—or dismissively racist actually—in virtue of being linked to a long historical tradition of dismissing the capacity, moral or intellectual, of people based on their imputed group membership as racial precisely because the group character itself is thrown in question. Obama is not just an Indonesian Muslim (he is neither, as it turns out, though it matters little to the claim). He has turned into a ‘welfare thug’. Whatever this is meant to mean literally, it is intended to resonate racially while denying any racial invocation.

There is now a century-long tradition of identifying welfare recipients not only as undeserving. That insinuation is already attached to the working or poor classes. The welfare recipient, uppermost in the mind of the accuser, is black. And Blacks on the take are thugs, corrupt destroyers of public good while using state agency for their self-aggrandisement.7 The lack of historical development—of character, of behaviour, of capacity to conduct oneself properly in society—is racially indexed without having to be named as such. But when named, the social problems are a product of this lack of development. Blacks are not only thugs engaging in thuggery; they are the new bullies on the block. Blacks in control of the state produce Obama the welfare thug, strong-arming poor Whites with one arm while the other hand is in the state till. On welfare, as all Blacks are presumed to be, made possible by his state thuggery at the expense of poor hard-working tax-ripped-off white folks. Race drips from every pixel of this picture.

Implicitly pervading the racial picture here are racially imputed but deniable degradations. The combination of racial imputation (corrupt welfare cheat and sovereign bully) with degradation demanding dismissal, whether literal or symbolic (‘thug’), effects the transformation of this racial characterization into racist demeanour. The transformation is possible precisely because history has made the links, connecting the dots in the ‘logic’—the ratiocination—of anyone for whom the relevant desire, and major and minor premises are considered connected. Racism, in short, is more often than not a mode of ‘practical reasoning’.


Racial coloniality

Israel no doubt embeds both naturalizing and historicizing elements in its racial characterization and oppression of Palestinians. In any case, this in turn raises the issue of Israeli specificity regarding the racial condition constitutive of its state-making, the central critical point Abu El-Haj presses. The Israeli state, she insists, is not only (self-regardingly) neoliberal but also a colonial occupier of Palestine’s territories. The West Bank and Gaza are ‘postcolonies by colonial design’. They signal not just apartheid or apartheid-like conditions but colonies of Israel.

There is no doubt something to both sides of this. The Occupied Territories embody conditions in many ways awfully similar to apartheid South Africa, as I point out in the book. And conditions of coloniality prevail: the arrogant freedom to settle, international criticism be damned, almost wherever and whenever Israelis determine; limited local self-government overseen by an all-controlling militarized Israeli regime setting conditions even for what local self-government does and does not have local jurisdiction over; the control by the Israelis of all strategic elements, including points of access, flows of people, goods, services, access of resources, outsiders, journalists and so on. So I agree, in part, with Abu El-Haj.

But only in part, for in the book I was suggesting that, with regard to Palestine, Israel had created a novel structure of oppression, one building on elements that preceded it, including elements both colonial and apartheid in structure and repressive expression. Building on these forms racial palestinianization nevertheless crafts a mode of racial rule not quite seen before. And it is for this reason that I hesitate to name it as ‘colonial’ (or ‘apartheid’). At the basis of this new modality of racial rule is the conception, as I say, taking off from Eyal Weizman’s insight,8 of a permanent temporariness, a virtuality, that may be embedded in potentia both in colonial and apartheid conditions but in neither is it quite actualized or even obvious. With racial palestinianization, this virtuality entails that it literally can be made into anything, filled almost as the ruler pleases, moulded pretty much to its whims. The qualifying delimitations to these possibilities of virtuality are a function only of external pressures—the world is watching, if tepidly for the most part, concerned about the excesses—and local resistances.

That said, virtuality means the territory can be claimed, settled or unsettled, destabilized in the name of stability, destroyed in the name of building a democracy, opened up or closed down whenever suiting dominant interests in the moment or as a response to longer term calculations. So, not simply coloniality or apartheid, or reducible to either (even as it builds on significant founding elements of both). Racial palestinianization elaborates a logic of virtuality, of permanent temporariness, of almost endless possibility (of which certain impossibilities are at least nominally composite) that, I have argued, is made possible, rendered even conceivable, by ‘virtue’ of its compositional raciality. Israel–Palestine, in short, represents more clearly than anywhere else to date the politics and logics of govern-mental virtuality, of pure virtualization.9

Perhaps racial palestinianization actualizes in whatever materializing ways it deems fit the virtuality that was always already potentially there, without even conscious recognition, in the colonial condition itself. Or perhaps it is the actualization of the colonial present, of colonialism in the present. Either way, I want to insist that racial palestinianization today represents something new in its conditions, not simply the colonialism from the past transplanted to Palestine.

So this is not an ‘ambivalence about the Zionist project’. For one, my discussion of Israel’s founding in the context of anticolonial independence movements of the time was not with a view to legitimation so much as pointing to a historical contemporaneity along with a recourse at the time to a legitimating rhetorical invocation. After all, Jews in Palestine—can they at least historically be called Palestinian Jews or Jewish Palestinians?—explicitly justified their resistance to British presence as an anticolonial struggle. The critical compulsion nevertheless to recognize Israel’s right to exist in order to claim the right to criticize the Israeli state, which Abu El-Haj perceptively identifies while confessing to doing herself, has become for progressive critics also a rhetorical strategy: explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist so one’s legitimate criticisms of Israeli oppression cannot be dismissed as engaging the worst sort of antisemitism. Abu El-Haj rightly worries whether the ambivalence towards Israel that this recognition suggests entails the discounting of any ensuing critique as a consequence.

The worry is well taken. Insistence on Israel’s right to exist, as Abu El-Haj suggests, has become a political showstopper. End of conversation. Even if you proceed to a criticism of the Israeli government—perhaps especially if you do—you have thrown in your face the acid that you deny the right to exist to Israel, if not to Jews more generically. So, to get a hearing, to clear the space for political critique, the existential claim becomes (self-)imposingly necessitated. Abu El-Haj nevertheless reveals the political cost of giving in to this command: recognizing Israel’s right to existence entails at once (as she puts it) ‘ratifying [Palestinians’] own dispossession’. Brian Klug reminds us not only that such insistence was not always so but that it also does ‘the cause of peace’ (as Abba Eban once put it for very different reasons) no service.10

Two thoughts follow. First, in light of these comments, the recognized right to exist can be read in a qualified, more politically critical way. It can be pushed as the right of all people living in ‘greater Israel’, in historical Palestine, to exist so long as the existence of anyone or any part is not predicated on the demise of others, most notably those most directly and persistently subjugated by the state. And second, it follows that in expressing the right to exist one need not necessarily be committing to the right to exist in current political form or endorsing any other particular political form. One can pose it as the question concerning what state that existence should properly—justifiably—assume and work to actualize for all the state’s inhabitants in the state’s more extensive territorial reach. That was the strategy I sought to adopt in the book.

Similarly, Abu El-Haj partly misreads my remarks about suicide bombers in her nevertheless characteristically insightful critical analysis of motivations. We cannot know the motivations of the suicide bomber, she says, as they are multiple, varied, calculated and not simply, only or even ever (?) the irrational prompt of (mere) passion and anger. I take her compelling point that citizens have long been called upon to sacrifice—and sacrifice themselves, their very lives—for the sake of the nation. Countless conscriptions, wars and national service programmes attest to this. She is right, then, to read the suicide bomber in terms of considerations like social sacrifice and their implications.

So I agree that it makes most sense to comprehend suicide bombing in general as a ‘weapon of the weak’, both calculated in many ways and yet lashing out with invariably implosive political impact. And yet Abu El-Haj’s criticism that my characterization of suicide bombing is driven by emotive prompts such as passion, anger and frustration rests on the claim that my causal account is unidimensional. She chides me for assuming the very sort of irrationality so characteristic of Israeli representations of Palestinians. She may, however, be a touch too quick here. Emotionally prompted or even motivated responses preclude neither the assumption that suicide bombing is a militarized tactic of the weak nor that those so driven engage in careful rational deliberation. As Aristotle’s doctrine of practical reasoning makes clear, affective motivation readily and regularly initiates the calculations and ratiocinations leading from affect to action. Long influenced by Aristotle’s account of practical deliberation and praxis, it is precisely this account of practical reasoning I had in mind.


Racial neoliberalism

Finally, these considerations concerning the character of Israel’s oppressiveness draw into focus various critical remarks about my central line of argument regarding racial neoliberalism and its scope of application. There are two principal lines of analysis to which to respond here. The first concerns what the ‘racial’ specifically fuels regarding the condition of ‘racial neoliberalism’. The second concerns whether neoliberalism’s ‘erasure’ or ‘silencing’ of race is as characteristic as I am supposed to argue.

So, first, in modernity’s conflicted, often contradictory sociality, what exactly is it that the ‘racial’ in ‘racial neoliberalism’ makes possible? How exactly is the sort of endemic sadistic viciousness associated with strands of neoliberalism racially fuelled?

Drawing on Hannah Arendt, Susan Giroux usefully points out that ‘annihilation’—and one could generalize to viciousness towards others more broadly—depends on ‘forceful separation, partitioning and sequestration’, on what Arendt theorizes as ‘isolation’. The isolation is both material and conceptual, metaphoric, symbolic. People are set apart: in neighbourhoods, schools, recreation sites, in jobs and opportunities, in hospitals and cemeteries, across cities, regions, countries. But this material isolation, separation, partitioning and sequestration are predicated on notional divisions and distinctions, on setting people apart in conception, on the basis of pre-selected differences. And while modernity’s driving distinctions underpinning insidious differentiation have been varied, race has figured among the most prevailing, pernicious, persistent and destructively productive. Sadistic viciousness has been so readily a force of modern modes of governmentality precisely because, in significant part, the isolating distantiation race makes possible has been so forcefully a feature of its rulership.

The privatizing individualization central to the logic of contemporary neoliberalism adds a distinctive fold in this social fabric, as I argue in Threat. In shifting the force of explicit racial power from the formally public realm to the more racially slippery and evasive private one, the state can safely deny any racial predication while the legacy of material partitions, divisions and separations persist, now unmarked by formal racial distinction. And the radical individualization neoliberalism is committed to absolutizing extends racially materialized division, now circulated as private preference. The racially symbolic political attacks on Obama—monkey, Kenyan, Muslim, Indonesian, welfare thug, pimp, witchdoctor, liar, fascist (Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe), communist (Nelson Mandela), terrorist, dictator, corrupt etc.—evidences this shift to privatized racial dismissal. Free, at last, to be as code-word racist as individual preferences warrant, with sometimes deadly threat: threats to Obama have increased 400 fold over his predecessor, including a recent Facebook ‘poll’ asking ‘Would you like to see Obama killed’ and neighbourhood political posters in Arizona defaced with ‘Kill Obama’.

Use of racial codes—implicitly explicit, explicitly implicit—has proliferated with the privileging of individualized preference schemes. As racial reference largely has been purged from explicit governmental expression in favour of private individualized preference expression, privately expressed racist sentiment and sensibility have been protected even when ‘privately’ expressed by public political figures. Individuals committed to expressing racially predicated distinctions in coded terms of the sort witnessed with regard to Obama have found little restriction, if not outright encouragement. The ‘birther’ movement that would have Obama born in Kenya and consequently unqualified for the presidency because not conceivably ‘American’ (enough) has been egged on vocally by Republican members of Congress. Most would deny any racist intent or animus, even as they would hardly think to mobilize these claims against a white president, no matter how liberal. Berlusconi’s repeated references to Obama as ‘tanned’ suggest this racial coding is hardly limited to American sensibility and soil. Say what you want, so long as you are not speaking for the state.

Such coded terms, ambiguous or nebulous, make it more difficult to pin racist claims or commitments to those expressing them. The codes are the pass key to a social club predicated on racial commitment when its identification is made slippery, more or less impossible to label. At the extreme anything can be done in its name because it has no name in the name of which anything is done. The perfect ghostly presence passing through the social, the odourless poison polluting sociality, suffocating any possibility of a postracialism unmarked by its terms. A congressman blurting out ‘You lie!’ at President Obama before a nationally televised address to Congress vehemently denied that he harboured any racial animus (this from one promoting the Confederate flag as the state symbol of South Carolina). And yet one can’t help but wonder whether the President’s blackness disposed Joe Wilson to the sense of presidential corruption, and to the liberty to disrespect him so loudly and publicly, blurring public political representation into the expression of ‘private’ outrage.

The second line of critical consideration concerning neoliberalism takes up its impact in tamping down racially explicit state policies and programmes. Wade thinks I fail to recognize fully that contemporary mestizaje formations across Latin America have enabled the forging of ‘plebeian’ counters to ‘rejection of blackness or indigenousness and the pursuit of whiteness’. Such counters, Wade insists, while ambivalent, are not about ‘euro-mimesis’ but hold out the promise of ‘racial democracy’ predicated on unpredictable heterogeneity. Wade admits that this possibility exists side by side with the ‘exclusive and hierarchical’ determinations of mestizo formations I reference in the book. He nevertheless stresses the ways in which Latin American governments in the past half-decade or so have legally recognized claims—regarding land, university admission, employment anti-discrimination measures and the like—explicitly in the name and to the benefit of Blacks and the indigenous.

Embedded in Wade’s critique is a more general point addressed by others. Can neoliberalism be made to account for the disparate racial conditions across the sorts of regions I discuss in the book, or are the variations bound to undercut the scope of the more general claims I make regarding racial neoliberalism? Both Peter Wade and Kelly Gillespie in their respective contexts and historically thick regional formations point to critical counter-traditions prompted or enabled to some degree by racial expression or arrangement. Following Charles Hale, Wade calls this, in the Latin American cases, ‘neoliberal multiculturalism’; for Gillespie, it is more complexly tied to a resistant tradition of South African anti-apartheid and post-apartheid nonracialism. And Nadia Abu El-Haj also questions the applicability of neoliberal arrangement to the Palestinian Occupied Territories while conceding its force within the boundaries of Israel. For Wade, then, neoliberalism has led in Latin America not to the evaporation of racial reference but in some ways to its state emphasis in redressing historical inequities. For Gillespie, nonracialism is not so much the burying of unaddressed racisms as a serious effort to turn back their historical reach. And though the Israeli state today may be self-regardingly a neoliberal state, what, Abu El-Haj asks, ‘makes Israeli rule over its Palestinian subjects neoliberal?’ with regard to ‘its’ Occupied Territories.

Building on others, Wade insists that neoliberal multiculturalism reveals the contradictory modes of contemporary Latin American state-making that purges race from some elements of state management while stressing the necessity of programmatic address in others, like affirmative action or land redistribution programmes. Wade admits the impacts to date are limited. But he sees the multicultural—by which he seems to mean racially indexed—component as running partly counter to my argument that neoliberalism erodes state-based race-explicit programmes while making it more difficult to identify and address non-state or privatized expressions of racism.

Gillespie of course is right that a racially inflected commitment to national(ist) configuration pervades at least twentieth-century South African history, the thread sewing together dominant social self-conception across the pre-, high and post-apartheid moments. She reads even the Freedom Charter in the 1950s and the ANC post-apartheid embrace of its principal themes as committed to this vision of South Africa made up of racially constituted, more or less discrete national groupings (though I think both are somewhat more ambivalent on this question than Gillespie allows). Apartheid’s aftermath is still marked, if less assertively, by apartheid’s long conceptual reach. As Gillespie points out, South Africa has had a long tradition, even pre-dating official apartheid, of liberal pluralist race relations. More recently, racial secularization remains more than inflected by the theology of racial terms and conception, even while resisting it.11 Multiracialism, Gillespie concludes, is far more the dominant reality of South African history than the sort of nonracialism I insist on discussing critically as the commitment to which neoliberalism leads. Nonracialism accordingly appeared mainly in the tradition of the Unity Movement, serving more radically as a truly constitutional break from this dominant trajectory of raciality.

Even if, as I think, the resistance history of nonracialism in South Africa is more varied than Gillespie insists, she may be right that the tradition identified with the South African Unity Movement cannot be ‘folded into neoliberalism, or even liberalism’. Nevertheless, the sort of nonracialism and its tradition of radical political activism she wants admirably to keep alive cannot escape the taint of the presiding paradox of race: any effective critical response or resistance to racism must resort in some way to racial categories as an instrument of recognizability and a political tactic of antiracist address. Gillespie acknowledges this regarding the Unity Movement, which invoked race ‘as a short-term tactic’ in combatting racism. To fail to do so would disable recognition of racism for what it is. And yet, once invoked, this tends to reify the very terms that are the grounds for discriminatory injustice. No recognition without the terms; but the terms themselves reify raciality as a mark of the social, polluting the body politic, extending divisiveness, mistrust, exclusion. The one demand necessitates extension of the other, in both directions.

Important as it is to keep the tradition of radical nonracial political unitarianism alive in the South African context, as elsewhere, I’m afraid it doesn’t magically escape the paradox. The distinction Gillespie draws between tactic, strategy and principle with regard to invoking race is importantly useful, in this as in other applications. A principled nonracialism, as the Unity Movement rightly insisted, should do no more in deploying race than to turn to it as a decidedly short-term tactic, always qualified, always insistent that the terms of racial invocation—Black, White, Coloured, mestizaje etc.—should be foregone whenever possible in favour of less divisive, more critically incorporative, more deeply politically and materially mobilizing formations such as ‘the exploited’, ‘the precarious’, the ‘socially abandoned’. But also in favour of trans-categorical formations that encourage what Angela Davis has stressed as coalition politics. Neville Alexander’s suggestion, however, that racial categories such as ‘black’ and ‘white’ in the South African context should be replaced by the more inclusive one of ‘African’ highlights the trap of racially infused histories. ‘African’ resounds with racially charged history, identified overwhelmingly in racisms’ long historical imagination with debilitating racial resonance. As too does Wade’s all too casual recourse to ‘racial democracy’, which, in the Latin American context, as he would know as well as anyone, drips with histories of lopsided racially privileging presumption. The sour taste of race has a way of souring even the most transformative of instrumental and architectural efforts.

This latter point poses the issue more broadly. Any terms of social class that assume their reference in societies deeply marked by racial histories will more or less implicitly be marked by the bruise of racial significance. This is so not just for terms historically identified with racial geographies such as ‘African’, but for any class terms, whether traditional ones like ‘bourgeoisie’ or ‘proletariat’, or more recent variations such as ‘the precarious’, ‘the disposable’ or ‘the exploited’. One of Stuart Hall’s key lessons for us has been that class is the modality through which race or gender is inscribed and prescribed, race the modality through which class and gender likewise composed.12 The paradox of race within the historical formations of racially configured societies and orders is pretty much pervasive.

So I am not averse to deploying ‘different tradition(s) of nonracialism’. But no such tradition, so far as I can see, escapes the paradox because the paradox may be contemporarily inescapable. Obama’s postracialism is learning this with considerable pain to its project. The paradox is constitutive of racial conception and its materializations. Or, even more deeply, of social conception and ordering once race historically has taken hold of it. Like heart disease it leaves more or less undetected scar tissue in its wake, easily overlooked but once detected by the doctor sticking to the medical record like a pre-existing condition to insurability. While I am generally averse to invoking metaphors like ‘cancer’ or social illness to characterize racism—they often obscure as much as they reveal—the case of cancer is revelatory in at least this regard: one never is quite sure that a cure catches all or whether things are just lying in remission, socially suppressed for the moment but breaking out when least expected. The metaphor of disease, more broadly, at least draws attention to the dis-ease racial categories pretty much invariably conjure in social circumstances of consequence.

The most effective response may be to deploy race mindful of the distinction between tactic, strategy and principle Gillespie usefully elaborates. But a merely tactical invocation places one squarely at risk of racial reification, if not as constitutively or inescapably as strategic or principled exercises of racial politics, nevertheless beguilingly so. The paradox is persistent in an extended sense: invoke the terms tactically and risk the reification; refuse its invocation and the conditions the terms reference remain unaddressed, festering and possibly replicating.

The debate over racial tactics itself prompts possible extension of the debilities with which racial reference is associated, however minimally. As Neville Alexander puts it, in one of the quotes Gillespie cites, Xhosa should sometimes be left to speak alone, in their own vernacular, cursing Whites if they want, dreaming about chasing them into the sea. Even as a vanguard party seeks to educate them about the impolitic implications. There may indeed be no other way, but romancing the stone certainly is no guarantee that the terms tactically invoked and the sentiments to which they invariably attach don’t linger. That’s what the vernacular will do. A pragmatics of a racially invocative antiracism especially in the face of official denial of state racialities is all a progressive politics has to work with. Recognize the paradox ever mindful of critically addressing its frames of reference and implications.

Sometimes this will mean standing inside, embracing, turning inside out the terms of debilitation, as Frantz Fanon has shown. At other times it will entail explicitly rejecting the terms of reference as much as the associated sentiments. The difficulty, of course, is that satire can devolve into parody, irony into farce. In hewing closely to the terms being called into question, parody and farce can quickly cement in place those very terms and their social conditions of referentiality that are being held up to humour. The ambiguity in the notion of ‘humour’ itself should give pause here.

Gillespie calls in her conclusion neither for denial nor embrace regarding race. She appeals, rather, for articulating ‘a set of future-oriented principles that allow for radical experimentation in the present, that reject the often compromising terms of presentism’. This was exactly the sort of engagement I was floating in reflecting on racial irrelevance. Steve Biko pointed to an endpoint of ‘a true humanity’, what Fanon called ‘humanism’ in stark contrast with ‘racialization’. This would be unachievable through a nonracialism leaving untouched the historically engendered structural relations of power racially inscribed across all dimensions, whether political, economic, legal, cultural, interpersonal, psychic, gendered. For Biko, racial liberalism and, on my argument by extension, racial neoliberalism fail by design to take on these structural relations of power for which racial arrangements of the kind I discuss in the book stand. Quite the contrary, they extend them by rendering them less identifiable and visible, more slippery, less tangible.

That said, Abu El-Haj’s question to which I responded earlier regarding my supposed neoliberalizing of the Israeli occupation becomes especially pressing. That response reveals something more general also regarding the criticisms advanced by Wade and Gillespie. Each is right to insist on the regionally contextualized specificities with which they are concerned. But that too was the point of my discussing specific racial regionalizations in the book. My mode was not to assume the applicability of racial neoliberalism and then to find it no matter the regional distinctions. Rather, it was to pursue the regional specificities and their relations and relational prompts in each instance so as to consider, in the book’s closing chapter, whether it would be possible to draw an abstractly common logic from the generalizations across the differences. Both South Africa and many Latin American states continue today to use historically racial categories to redress the legacy of social racisms. Israel continues to deny assertively it ever discriminated in the past in ways it would necessitate to redress by invoking the terms of race now. Yet, as Wade concedes regarding Latin America, the scope of racially indexed redress is delimited and the effects marginal, the assertive rhetoric of complaint notwithstanding. The stress on mixture, of an unremarkable blurring of racial distinction and division remains the dominant commitment.

As I emphasize, however, racial mixture is only one of two dominant strands of contemporary racial neoliberalism. So I nowhere claim that, with regard to the Occupied Territories, Israel of late—or ever—has made anything of personal preference in housing or educational discrimination. The trajectory of my argument should make clear that I concur Israel has always been about racial domination in the name of racial denial, only that now the racial denial is insistent, explicit, even furious. No ambivalence here. There no doubt are considerable connections of continuity from Israel’s founding to its current condition. These structural relations of racially fashioned, fuelled and facilitating power are amply exemplified in the case of Israel and ‘its’ Occupied Territories, as Abu El-Haj reminds us. Yet this does not undercut the shifts I have sought to identify in the name of neoliberalism. I still want to insist that since the 1980s the emphatic, persistent and pretty much uninterrupted necropolitical violence Israel has unleashed regarding Palestinians fully represents the second strand of neoliberal racial governmentality. Where mixture is seen to fail—or more strongly is insistently made to fail, repeatedly—violence is the recourse, if not the default position of state racial order. Israel, I argue, is the poster child of this position. So neoliberalism racially advanced involves not the diminishing of state force but at least in part its shifting of resources and priorities to support repressive modes of state rule.

Racial neoliberalism, in short, keeps race socially alive where its explicit expression and social force have been displaced from the formal regulation of governmental rule. Where the sociality of racial mixture fails to maintain the status quo of more or less sustained white privilege, racial neoliberalism extends voice to the consequent social hypochondria and the privatization of responsive violence. Racial neoliberalism represents resistance to states seen to be insufficiently protective or restorative of lost privilege, to those now supposedly representing the interests of the once racially dispossessed, or to those (failed or rogue or aspiring) states insufficiently deferential to racially dominant state orders.

In closing, then, it remains to say that there is no more authors can ask for than to have their work read carefully, the ideas taken seriously and struggled with rigorously. Even—perhaps especially—where it makes evident critical disagreements, shortcomings, oversights and over-reaching. To be granted the gift of five such engaged critical readings is far more than I could have hoped. So I want to thank warmly Nadia Abu El-Haj, Kelly Gillespie, Susan Giroux, Nelson Maldonado-Torres and Peter Wade for their time, effort and, above all, for the thoughtfulness, insight and seriousness they have each extended the arguments in the book.


This article appeared in the Feburary 2010 issue of Patters of Prejudice.

Sade’s revenge: racial neoliberalism and the sovereignty of negation
Susan Searls Giroux

Racial palestinianization and the Janus-faced nature of the Israeli state
Nadia Abu El-Haj

The presence and absence of race
Peter Wade

Reclaiming nonracialism: reading The Threat of Race from South Africa
Kelly Gillespie

The time and space of race: reflections on David Theo Goldberg’s interrelational and comparative methodology
Nelson Maldonado-Torres

Call and response
David Theo Goldberg  


1 See David Theo Goldberg, ‘In/visibility and super/vision: Fanon on race, veils, and the discourses of resistance’, in Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Renée T. White (eds), Fanon: A Critical Reader (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell 1996), 179–200.

2 David Theo Goldberg, The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neolberalism (Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 269.

3 David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell 2002).

4 George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2002).

5 David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Oxford: Blackwell 1993), ch. 5.

6 Mark Williams quoted in Nicholas Graham, ‘“Tea Party” leader melts down on CNN: “Obama is an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug’, Huffington Post (online), 15 September 2009, at (viewed 16 November 2009).

7 On his radio show on 15 September 2009, Rush Limbaugh was railing against Obama at the same moment as introducing a sociality in which black kids literally were laughing while watching ‘their kin’ beating up white kids.

8 Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (London: Verso 2007).

9 A conversation with Diren Valayden helped me to clarify this point in my own thinking.

10 Brian Klug, ‘Was es bedeutet zu sagen, Israel habe ein Existenzrecht’, in Sophia Deeg and Hermann Dierkes (eds), Bedingungslos für Israel? nur bedingt für Menschen- und Völkerrecht? Positionen und Aktionen jenseits deutscher Befindlichkeiten (Cologne: Neuer ISP Verlag 2010)

11 Goldberg, The Threat of Race, chs 8, 9.

12 Stuart Hall, ‘Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance’, in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism (Paris: UNESCO 1980), 305–45.

2 Responses to “Call and response”

  1. [...] book also has a blog, and the blog leads one to a piece by Peter Wade I have not seen called “The presence and [...]

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