Amid the many trials and tribulations of life in New York City, one of the quotidian boons has been the fact that my daughter has grown up with an African-American best friend. In fact, my daughter has always seemed color blind to me; she essentially takes this form of privilege for granted.
How different from my own experience. Most of the institutions I’ve inhabited since arriving in the U.S. from South Africa in the 1970s have been informally but nonetheless pretty thoroughly segregated. For instance, I currently teach in the largest urban public university in the world, the City University of New York (CUNY). According to a 2007 survey, New York City is 44% white, 25% African-American, 12% Asian American, and 17% Other; Hispanics and Latin@s, who may belong to any of these ethnic groups, make up 27.5% of the above classification. CUNY’s undergrad population is currently 27.2% white, 28.8% African-American, 27.4% Latin@, and 16.4% Asian Pacific Islander. CUNY’s student body, in other words, is even more diverse than the city’s population in general. CUNY faculty, however, are not. 64% are white, 16.5% are African-American, 10% Latin@, and 9.3% Asian Pacific Islander. As an African-American colleague of mine recently put it in an acerbic moment, the only time he spends all his time around white folks is when he’s at work.
Unfortunately, the stress of the present is taking its toll on my daughter. As she feels the intense pressure of competition with her peers to get into high schools in the city and surrounding region, I see racial animus coming out in my daughter. In what seems to be an argument that she’s rehearsed through conversations with friends, she recently railed against the fact that her best friend has been more aggressively courted by some of the same schools she’s applying to, and expressed anger that this was presumably because of her ethnic background. My attempts to explain the tokenistic character of what remains of affirmative action policies in the U.S., and the persistent structural racism that affects people of color in this country, have been met with mounting scorn.
I believe that my daughter will have access to life situations and educational resources that will transform this worrying trend in her thought. I’m certain that her life so far has prepared the foundations for anti-racist thought and behavior as an adult. But I nonetheless think that the recent animus that she’s expressed is characteristic of very disturbing trends within the U.S. and on a global scale.
The conditions are ripe for significant forms of racial backlash. A recent production by Big Noise Films called “White Power U.S.A.” tracks the resurgence of the white supremacist movement today. The film makes the point that although contemporary neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are relatively few in number (30,000 hardcore supporters and 250,000 active sympathizers, according to watchdog organizations), they are actively and successfully building bridges into more “mainstream” wings of the conservative movement in the U.S. The film highlights, in particular, the broad resonance of anti-immigrant politics during a period of economic downturn, looking in detail at the Minutemen movement in Arizona, which is populated many hardcore white supremacists. A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security also warns that white supremacist groups are organizing with increasing success within the U.S. military, and notes that Right-wing extremism currently represents the greatest terrorist threat to the U.S.
The election of Barack Obama figures particularly prominently in contemporary white supremacist rhetoric. At meetings and marches of the Tea Party movement, the rhetoric of white ressentiment is everywhere apparent, in more or less coded form. The argument that Obama is not an American is pretty common at such rallies, as are calls to “take back America” (implicitly from the people of color who have captured it). This sort of rhetoric gets massively amplified when it is picked up by commentators on talk radio and the Fox channel. Precisely the issues that should be galvanizing a progressive movement – the economic melt down, the Wall Street bail out, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – are, according to white supremacist activists quoted in “White Power U.S.A.,” bringing people into their organizations.
I saw precisely the same conditions while living in Italy two years ago. There, the economic downturn and the splintering of the Left led to the reelection of Silvio Berlusconi, whose electoral coalition included the explicitly xenophobic Northern League in a much-empowered role. In fact, in the weeks after Berlusconi’s victory at the polls, I saw carabinieri, the Italian paramilitary police force, swoop down on a family of Roma window washers at a traffic light near where I was living. The inevitable outcome of this upwelling of race baiting politics was evident last weekend when race riots ripped apart a town in Calabria where organized crime syndicates was keeping immigrant laborers in sub-human conditions.
Given the strong likelihood that the downturn will endure and even intensify for average people in the U.S. and Europe, it’s pretty certain that we’re only seeing the beginning of this latest wave of racism.