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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

This is what happens when race is everything

By David Brooks

Besides being offended by the racist comments made by members of the Los Angeles City Council — as so many people were — I was also struck by the underlying worldview revealed during their leaked conversation.

Council President Nury Martinez — who has since resigned from the Council — along with two colleagues and a labor ally talked about a range of subjects, including redistricting, but two assumptions undergirded much of what they said. Their first assumption was that America is divided into monolithic racial blocs. The world they take for granted is not a world of persons; it’s a world of rigid racial categories.

At one point Martinez vulgarly derided someone because “he’s with the Blacks.” You’re either with one racial army or you’re with another.

The second assumption was that these monolithic racial blocs are locked in a never-ending ethnic war for power. The core topic of their conversation was to redraw Council districts to benefit Latino leaders.

“It’s real simple,” one of the participants in the conversation said at one point. “You got 100 people, right? Fifty-two of them are Mexicano. I feel pretty good about it. I feel pretty good about my chances of beating your ass.”

Those two assumptions didn’t come out of nowhere. We have had a long-running debate in this country over how to think about racial categories. On the one side there are those, often associated with Ibram X. Kendi and others, who see American society as a conflict between oppressor and oppressed groups. They center race and race consciousness when talking about a person’s identity. Justice will come when minority group power is used to push back on white supremacy. “The only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination,” is how Kendi puts it.

On the other side, there are others, such as Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes and Reihan Salam, who argue that racial categorization itself can be the problem. The concept of systemic racism is built upon crude racial categorization. As Williams puts it, America should fight racism while over the long term getting rid of “the categories that come out of the collision of Africa and Europe in the slave trade and the New World.”

You do that by emphasizing how much all humans have in common and by emphasizing how complex each person’s identity is — that it includes race but so many other things, too. The last thing you want to do is traffic in the sort of racial essentialist categories that were so rampantly on display during that conversation among the City Council members.

That conversation is what happens when the assumptions of the former school of thought are embraced as a matter of course. You don’t get a righteous struggle against oppression. You get a bunch of people who assume that public life is a brutal struggle of group against group, and who are probably going to develop derogatory views of people in rival groups.

Los Angeles is a version of the American future. America is diversifying rapidly, and before long there will be no single majority group. On the ground, groups are mixing and blending. About 3 in 10 Asian newlyweds were married to someone from a different race or ethnicity in 2015, as were about 1 in 4 Hispanics and roughly 1 in 5 Black Americans. Six years earlier, 35% of Americans said that one of their close kin was married to someone of a different race.

As this blending continues, racial and ethnic categories get a lot more fluid. In an essay for The Atlantic, Richard Alba, Morris Levy and Dowell Myers noted that by 2060 40% of the Americans who will say they are white will also claim another identity. Fifty-two percent of the individuals categorized as nonwhite will also identify as white.

But while all this complex pluralism is happening on the ground, many politicians and conflict entrepreneurs like Tucker Carlson revert to crude racial binaries in order to justify their status and gain power. Sadly, history shows us how ridiculously easy it is for people to whip up in-group versus out-group hostilities, especially if they can spread a worldview that asserts that life is essentially about a zero-sum war of group against group.

“The essential challenge that diversifying states face is the evolution of their identity,” Justin Gest writes in his recent book, “Majority Minority.” That means the crucial struggle is in the realm of ideas and the imagination. What stories do we tell or what rhetoric do we use to define who we are?

If we use rhetoric and tell stories that expand the definition of “we,” if we continue to emphasize how complicated personal and national identities are, if we emphasize overlapping and inclusive identities, then we have a shot at making something special out of all this diversity.

If we use rhetoric that assumes that we’re all locked into rigid racial blocs and that group conflict is the essential element of public life, then group conflict is what we will get — Balkanization on a continental scale. That’s not just about LA City Council members. That’s about a set of ideas and a way of talking too readily accepted in this society.

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