Arguably, American history has been constituted by a continuity of tensions that realize themselves along racial lines. This is apparent from the very outset of contemporary American history: the landing of European immigrants in America created a situation in which the Native American tribes were confronted by a foreign other. The resulting United States of America is founded, therefore, on a form of racial genocide through land appropriation. Subsequently, the legacy of African-American slavery and the current question of illegal immigration from Mexico constantly underscores the presence of race as issue in America.
However, as Elizabeth Martinez argues in her paper “Seeing More Black than White?”, the problem with social and historical discourse in the United States is not that it has ignored the large role racial division has played in American history and the various stratifications of American society. Rather, Martinez argues that a disproportionate emphasis on the particular division between black and white has dominated our discourse on race, with a negative effect, as she notes of “serv(ing) as the foundation for White Supremacy.” (109) Martinez notes that historically, while other minorities such as Latinos and even Asians, could “have also been officially counted as white in some historical periods” (109), whereas “blacks, on the other hand, were not defined as white, could rarely become upper-class and maintained an almost constant rebelliousness.” (109) Accordingly, the reason the white-black distinction dominates American discourse on race is because it is the most explicit example in American history of a division that appears insurmountable. Martinez finds this particularly troubling because, in her viewpoint, this leads to a separation of minorities grouping together against the dominant “white supremacy.”
Arguably, however, this approach merely extends the opposition to white, instead of providing a positive construction of racial discourse. It does not repeat the simplification of white-black, but instead offers its own simplification of white/non-white. Does this type of division not merely increase a certain feeling of ethnic tension, instead of revealing it? Certainly, the fact that American history is founded on genocide and slavery is a clear divining feature of the American historical consciousness. But re-configuring the white/black model in terms of the white/non-white model seems to be merely continuing the divisions that make genocide and slavery possible. For example, we have to note that not all countries with white populations practiced genocide and slavery, and not always along racial bounds: genocide and slavery were common military strategies. Yet other countries have also carried out this strategy, for example, Belgian excesses in the Congo and Spanish violence in the South American continent. In light of these comparisons, we have to ask ourselves what makes the American version of this history so disturbing? Obviously, it can be because these are purely American problems and we live in America. Every country has its own problems of racial tension. Arguably, what makes the American version of racism exceptional, is that the dominant population is not autochthonic, and furthermore, American propaganda and ideology is constantly structured around discourses of freedom and equality.
Accordingly, the expansion of discourse on race in America is a welcome step, since the white-black binary fails to capture the historical and social scope of American racism. But simplifying it to a white/non-white model hardly takes the problem more seriously. Rather, expanding the discourse on racism in America has to include instances of American ideology, whereby rhetoric about freedom and equality are viewed as radically inconsistent not only on racial lines, but also on class lines. In this regard, we have to understand racism better as merely one sign of a highly stratified society, and thereby de-bunk the notion that freedom and equality exist despite the rhetoric, as evidenced, for example, in forms of non-racial equality such as class and gender.
Martinez, Elizabeth. “Seeing More Black than White”, In: Editor’s First Name Initial. Editor’s Last name (ed.) Book title in italics. City where published: Publisher, Year of Publication. pp. 105-111.