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America, Assumed Identities
Postethnic America, Assumed Identities - David Palumbo-Liu
The most respected contemporary liberal view on the need to move beyond ethnicity comes in David Hollinger's Postethnic America. Hollinger pleads for us to set aside the insistence on ethnicity, and to focus rather on a common ground: "I have taken for granted that the economic, political, and cultural obstacles to a postethnic America are truly formidable, but I also take for granted that revulsion against ethno-racial prejudice is strong enough in the United States today to render the ideal of postethnicity worth developing." 23 It is interesting to note that Hollinger's argument here is nothing if not a pair of assumptions ("taking for granted"). The huge difference between the two assumptions is, of course, that while the "economic, political, and cultural obstacles to a postethnic America" are well documented historically and evinced in everyday life, as my examples above show, the faith Hollinger places in "revulsion against ethno-racial prejudice" is evinced only locally and discretely. While legislation against hate crimes can be pointed to as evidence to support Hollinger's faith, one can also point to an overwhelming body of evidence showing that prejudice is not only well and alive, but thriving (besides the widely documented cases of court-sanctioned violence against minorities and women, we can point to socioeconomic policies such as Clinton's "welfare reform," and so on). As worthy as Hollinger's plea for a "postethnic America" may be, it is important to note whom he is addressing--for he has in mind precisely those who argue in favor of multiculturalism. Hollinger asks us to drop our weapons and shake hands with a historical institutional situation that is armed to the teeth. 24
Rather than to place the responsibility for moving beyond ethnicity on ethnic and racial minorities, it would be better to respect the dialectical engagement of race and ethnicity across multiple tableaux. Rather than to place faith in an assumption of psychological revulsion against racism and the historical efficacy of that revulsion, it would be better to see the production of inequality as taking place in specific institutional practices that are often as not shielded from sight, bureaucratically rationalized on the basis of assumed identities. Such cases require the identification of racism to bring them out from their assumed neutrality to their actual everyday historical life: "We can speak of identity only in terms of what Marx calls the 'ensemble' of social relations, a set of relations whose historicity is a fundamental aspect of identity's existence" (RI 115).
But the real problems with the argument for postethnicity, at least in terms of the sociological tradition that still deeply informs our sense of how identity is formed in the first place, are that, first, it imagines that [End Page 777] the narratives which preceed the social encounter can be erased from memory and made inactive. Rather, it is the case that the historical narratives of prejudice are carried forward in handed-down stories, and realized in present-day violence, as my several examples illustrate. Second, it assumes that the determination of identity is equally decided (that is, that we are dealing with a case of identity and not type). The pervasiveness of racism comes from the refusal to grant identity and the assumption that, for minorities, women, and other groups, behavior is that of the group identity, particularly arrived at. The question, again, is not how to get beyond identity in the classic sociological sense of "identity," but how to get to identity in the first place, that is, how to move beyond type to individuals whose identity formation is arrived at in democratic interaction. This move is necessary before we can go beyond ethnicity and see our way clear to a postethnic coalition (one which I would then heartily endorse). Yet this move will be far from easy, not because minorities and women obstinately cling to identity, but precisely because the narratives that have been put into place to deny them identity are deeply rooted, and the psychic form of racism is thoroughly entangled in institutional forms.