The Fearlessness of Passing

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-11-02 22:02Z by Steven

The Fearlessness of Passing


Charles Taylor

Ruth Negga’s Clare (left) and Tessa Thompson’s Irene in a still from Passing. (Netflix)

Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel continues the author’s exploration of the suffocating strictures of the color line.

Making a movie of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, one of the great works of the Harlem Renaissance—and, I’d argue, a great American novel—would be tricky in any era. That the actress Rebecca Hall, making her directing debut, has done a close-to-devastating job of it in this era is a remarkable achievement.

The novel is the story of two girlhood friends who reencounter each other as young, married women, one passing for white and the other firmly settled into the life of Harlem’s black bourgeoisie. Larsen practically invites the careless reader to fall into well-intentioned sociological clichés—in other words, to believe that this is a novel about the tragedy that befalls those who, driven by racist persecution, cross the color line and betray their own.

Actually, the novel is about the absurdity of the color line as a concept, about race as “the thing that bound and suffocated.” For Larsen, the idea that you could betray your race was another way of saying that people should stick to their own kind. It’s the passing Clare, a slim, pale-skinned, heedless beauty, who is Larsen’s heroine. Clare, taken in as a maid by her poor white aunts when her alcoholic father dies, doesn’t decide to pass because she’s oppressed but because she’s shunned by the well-heeled black people among whom she grew up. (In one stinging scene, Clare, already passing, approaches an old school friend whom she recognizes while shopping in Marshall Field’s, only to have the woman cut her dead.) Clare is hungry for life and for pleasure, which she takes as it comes to her. The way in which she crosses back and forth between black and white, between the thrill of a Negro Welfare League dance and white upper-middle-class society, makes a hash of the polite segregation—of both race and class—to which the novel’s other protagonist, Irene, pays obeisance…

Read the entire article here.

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Majority-Minority Myths

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Census/Demographics, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2021-05-15 23:01Z by Steven

Majority-Minority Myths

Spring 2021

Jake Rosenfeld, Professor of Sociology
Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

Outside a Latinos for Trump campaign rally in Orlando, Florida, in October 2020 (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It’s time to let go of the belief that changing demographics will bring about a progressive America.

The Great Demographic Illusion: Majority, Minority, and the Expanding American Mainstream
by Richard Alba
Princeton University Press, 2020, 336 pp.

Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics
by Zoltan L. Hajnal
Cambridge University Press, 2020, 362 pp.

The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals
by Christopher T. Stout
University of Virginia Press, 2020, 268 pp.

In a commencement address at the University of California, San Diego in 1997, President Bill Clinton spoke of a time when white people would no longer constitute a majority in the United States. In the decades since, the idea that growing diversity will bring about a “majority-minority” America in the near future has become a widespread belief across the ideological spectrum, propelled by periodic Census updates, like a report that 2013 marked the first year that more nonwhite babies had been born in the United States than white ones.

There are three major problems with this now-clichéd belief. First, it scares many white people, pushing their political stances toward the right. Numerous studies confirm that merely mentioning the demographic shift is enough to change their political views. As Ezra Klein has written, “The simplest way to activate someone’s identity is to threaten it.” Many white people interpret stories about the imminent reordering of the country’s racial and ethnic hierarchy as a threat.

Second, it leads Democrats astray. Divvying up the nation between whites and nonwhites implies a neat, fixed, and immutable ordering of a complex set of shifting racial and ethnic identities. The corollary—that a shared political identity should bind minorities to a leftist, emancipatory project against white oppression—induces complacency in Democratic Party organizing and policymaking realms, and ignores the varied ethnic and class backgrounds of those who comprise this broad, diverse population.

The 2020 election shook the premise that nonwhite voters shared a liberal political identity, with growing evidence of an across-the-board shift toward the GOP among Latinos and, to a smaller degree, African Americans. But evidence that the “browning of America” may not lead to progressive nirvana predated the election. Bush’s 2004 re-election bid was buoyed by his record performance among Latinos. Since then, between a quarter and a third of Latinos have voted for Republican presidential candidates despite the restrictionist turn in the party’s immigration policies.

Which brings us to the third problem with the majority-minority claim: it’s empirically wrong…

Read the entire article here.

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Brute Ideology

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2014-12-11 15:55Z by Steven

Brute Ideology

Fall 2014

Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History; Professor of African and African American Studies; Director, Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History
Harvard University

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields. Verso, 2012, 310 pp.

The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis. Knopf, 2014, 448 pp.

The field of U.S. history today is characterized by a mania for management. The “new” history of capitalism has focused its attention on the creation and daily reanimation of the grand abstraction from which it draws its title: the mid-level market makers who take capital and transform it into capitalism. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, increasing numbers of historians have turned their attention to the histories of powerful historical actors we have too long ignored or dismissed as “dead white men” unworthy of the attention of the properly progressive historian: financiers, bankers, and businessmen of all kinds. Despite the obvious importance of the task and the avowedly critical purpose of the turn towards the study of the mechanisms of market practice, however, some of the bolder claims that have been used to mark out the novelty of this “new” history seem unwarranted, perhaps even misguided. Can historians really set aside the study of racial and sexual domination now that they have discovered the economic exploitation underlying all other history? Can they really write a better history of capitalism by simply replacing the history of the marginal with the history of the powerful? Amidst the end-of-historiography enthusiasm for the “new” history of capitalism, two recent books remind us of the enduring importance of some of the questions posed by the old history of capitalism: questions of determination, ideology, and hegemony, and of collective action, resistance, and (even) revolutionary social change.

Bringing together previously published and new essays treating U.S. history from the time of the American Revolution to the eve of the Occupy movement in 2011, Racecraft reminds us that, at the very least, the “new” history of capitalism has some very distinguished antecedents. Taken together, the writing of the historian Barbara J. Fields and the sociologist Karen E. Fields (sisters; hereafter “Fields and Fields”) provides a sustained and brilliant exposition of the history and practice of race-marking in America. If race is “socially constructed,” as virtually every educated person in the United States knows it officially to be, then why do we believe we can determine the race of the person on the other end of the line as soon as we pick up the phone?

As the title’s invocation of witchcraft suggests, the book is framed by the idea that there is something occult about such everyday practices of divination. For the authors, race is a kind of magical thinking, a way of isolating a few of the surface features of near-infinite human diversity and over-generalizing them into an architecture of biological, social, and even metaphysical difference. Race thinking, they suggest, is a sort of transubstantiation that adduces essence out of circumstance, made up of turns of phrase and ways of thinking so familiar and yet so powerful as to persistently remake the material world in their own image.

Fields and Fields illustrate and expose this sort of magic through a close reading of the printed matter of our times: newspaper accounts of proudly segregated high-school proms and white supremacists carrying guns to Obama campaign rallies; peer-reviewed articles published in scholarly journals and the bureaucratic memos that established the “multiracial” category in the U.S. census. They juxtapose the “troglodyte racism” of the crypto-Klan birthers to the breathless intonations of historical transcendence (“the end of racism??!!”) common among twenty-first-century white liberals. The main argument of the book is with the latter’s sometimes unwitting, sometimes self-congratulatory engagement with the dark magic of racial difference itself.

Take the “multiracial” moment—the idea that the bad old days of “black” and “white” may finally be giving way to an embrace of “mixture” and “difference.” But wait: “mixture” of what with what? According to Racecraft, the Census Bureau defines a “multiracial” person as “someone with two monoracial parents.” Through the heart of the celebration of the new multiracialism circulates a notion of blood purity worthy of The Birth of a Nation. For Fields and Fields, any invocation of “race” as an explanatory or even descriptive category is in and of itself racist. The use of “race” to explain anything from ancestry to economic inequality unwittingly reinforces the false belief in deep-rooted biological differences between black and white people. “Ancestry,” according to the authors, should be understood as a way that individuals are linked across generations without being thickened into “race.” Heredity, whether responsible for visible traits like curly hair or hidden ones like the sickle cell, is just that and nothing more: “‘genetic’ is not equivalent to ‘racial.’”

If we had only to worry about a mediascape where relevance is measured by the ability to attach ideas to beginnings and endings (the “post-racial” election of the “first black president”) things would be bad enough. “Racecraft,” however, has infiltrated even the hallowed ground of academia. Precisely and compellingly, Fields and Fields demonstrate that scientists use “racial” causes to explain what are in fact social effects. A recent scientific study of high asthma rates among schoolchildren in the South Bronx, for example, concluded that—in addition to heavy traffic, dense population, poor housing, and lack of preventative health care—the neighborhood was characterized by “a large population of blacks and Hispanics, two groups with very high rates of asthma.”…

Read the entire review of both books here.

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