Review: Mike Hill’s After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
Commenting on the generalism of Edward Said, in an essay in the excellent Edward Said: A Critical Reader (Blackwell, 1992) by the late Michael Sprinker, Tim Brennan writes: “In the United States, such a gesture is a calculated rebuke to technological panaceas and professionalist poses in the academy and in official public culture” (82). Reading Mike Hill’s new book After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority, which is dedicated to Sprinker, his mentor, I was struck by Brennan’s felicitous insight more than ten years ago about this important, often forgotten, hallmark of Said’s intellectual career. Perhaps expecting too much, I was still taken aback by Hill’s lack of generalism in a text with such a generalist title and subject matter—“whiteness.” After Whiteness is not a generalist’s critique but instead a professionalist’s.
One of the consequences of Hill’s “professionalist” writing on the subject of the white identity is that he accepts uncritically much of the prevailing academic vocabulary in the U.S., such as “heterogeneity,” “intersubjectivity,” “postmodern fluidity,” “indecideability,” “difference,” “multiplicity,” “alterity,” “to move beyond”; and also “complicating” and “problematizing” every Enlightenment idea ever produced, including, significantly, the concept of “the masses” or “the majority,” the subtitle of his book.
As Said taught us, to question everything is, for an independent intellectual, the only code to live by. But there is a distinction between “problematizing” and questioning, I think. Under the former, the critique makes unnecessary concessions to state power, while the latter’s force is felt precisely in the total disregard for how the state power under critique might perceive the questioning—the reason why Said’s office at Columbia was protected by bullet-proof steel doors. Working squarely within the “problematizing” circle, Hill’s provocative text about “whiteness” makes the following unnecessary concessions to white bourgeois state power.
The first and most unfortunate concession, since there is solid empirical work on the historical origin of “whiteness” easily available—Hill, in fact, mentions it in his first chapter: Theodore Allen’s two-volume empirical study of white racial oppression, The Invention of the White Race (Verso, 1994/1997)—is that the “white race” is merely one race among perhaps thousands of others. For example, Hill wonders whether or not the “post-liberal” state will be able to deal with the “multiracial multitude” that is now reproducing itself in the wake of the African American civil rights movement. But by apparently opting for “multiracial state recognition,” evidenced for Hill by the remarkable change in the 2000 U.S. Census—that for the first time there is an ethnic, non-racial category from which to choose, “Hispanic”—U.S. elites have backed themselves into a corner. On the one hand, they successfully break free of all legal obligations to the African American civil rights legislation of the 1960s, yet on the other they open up the distinct possibility of losing forever the white identity as that special social glue holding together the white supremacist national-popular collective—the “American majority.” Thus Hill’s title, “After Whiteness.” In Hill’s words: “Put simply, race in the civil rights era was evidently more countable, but less multiple; more easily reducible to racial opposition, but less able to account for racial mutability, than is the case at the dawn of the twenty-first century” (36). Therefore his attention is on the “white/black binary” as it undergoes ideological tampering by the newly “racially emancipated state.” “In the post-white national imaginary,” he writes, “civil rights are expunged on the very authority civil rights once commanded. And for the first time in U.S. history the nation invents racism without the need for race” (52).
But this is to accept how the white bourgeoisie intend us to see the “white race”—that “whiteness” is either some kind of odd ethnicity (the “redneck,” “cracker,” or “hillbilly”), going back perhaps to King Arthur, or that it is an a-historical social construction (white privilege) produced exclusively by poor whites themselves (this is Noel Ignatiev’s thesis in How the Irish Became White, and David Roediger’s in The Wages of Whiteness). Those are the only two choices the makers of white supremacy are willing to tolerate, and the whole academic discipline known as “whiteness studies,” which Hill helped establish with his 1997 anthology Whiteness: a Critical Reader, seems mindful of this at all times.
Hill acknowledges this when commenting on the 2000 census debates. “The social constructionist notion of race,” he writes, “and the endorsement of a post-white national imaginary are encouraged by the state in the simultaneous appropriation and demolition of [civil] rights” (47). Yet Hill’s discourse never questions the assumptions of these two state-sponsored approaches to “whiteness.” Which would be, it seems to me, the main concern of an independent intellectual writing on the white identity: to question systematically the theories and concepts now being raised up by the state. Instead his discourse moves constantly in between them, producing on the one hand brilliant speculative theses about the real historical (“materialist’) motivations of ruling-class policy change, and on the other a prose style that buries the author’s words beneath a pile of other people’s interpretations of these motivations and calculations.
Hill accepts these terms by failing to first elaborate a concrete definition of the “white race,” and to establish where it came from and who made it. This is of obvious importance for an undertaking such as his, for the most basic question that anyone interested in the subject is sure to ask is: But if the white identity has been working very well for bourgeois state power for three hundred straight years, why would they even consider changing it? (On this note, the recent “controversy” over certain left-liberal characterizations of the Bush II regime as “fascist” operates with the same white blindspot: why would the U.S. ruling class opt for fascism when they already have something much more effective—white supremacy? And where were all these antifascist critics during the reign of Clinton in which more African Americans were incarcerated than ever before?) Moreover, didn’t the ruling class pass the African American civil rights legislation mainly to avoid greater mass conflict, which had been inspired not only by Dr. King’s unchallengeable moral critique of white racial oppression but by the real prospect of white supremacy’s overthrow by a militant popular-democratic antiwar movement? Does not U.S. history show us that the white capitalist class will only consider an end to the “white race” if a loaded gun is pointed at their heads, in the form of a mass movement against white supremacy?
In all other events, they continue performing the routine tasks of ruling-class social control: co-optation of unruly elements; mass indoctrination, which includes, crucially, erasing the memory that there once was a race-free, equalitarian loaded gun and it still works; repression, through state terror, of anticapitalist and anti-white supremacist education and activism; busting labor unions; the rapid consolidation of state power through both a sweeping upward redistribution of wealth and a massive, reactionary expansion of the military budget; and damage control. How could a move “beyond whiteness,” toward “post-whiteness,” ever be squared with the history of white power? And getting back to the changes in the 2000 U.S. Census, instead of becoming more “racially multiple” and “complicated,” could not the new ethnic category of “Hispanic” be read in the historical light of the white bourgeoisie’s age-old tactic of aggressively adopting newly arrived immigrants into an already “white” American social order, as a new, stronger buffer between itself and the American working classes? Theodore Allen offers such a critique of the 2000 Census in his essay “‘Race’ and ‘Ethnicity’: History and the 2000 Census,” published in the Spring 2000 issue of Cultural Logic. “Now, in acknowledged reaction to effects of that struggle [the African American civil rights movement],” writes Allen, “the government has decreed that for the first time in its history, this country is to have an officially established distinct population category that is neither “white” nor not-“white.”
The difference between Hill’s interpretation of the new ethnic “Hispanic” category and Allen’s is stark because Allen understands “whiteness” as a ruling-class social control formation not merely a method of self-recognition in the face of the state. Or, rather, Allen considers the Foucauldian dimension (self-misrecognition in front of the state) to be a direct outcome, rather than an originary moment, of the ruling-class imposition of white racial oppression. In contrast, Hill’s emphasis is on the after-effects of the historic imposition and establishment of “whiteness,” and as such limits his critique, in my opinion, to cleaning up the detritus left behind rather than locating the origin of the problem and then adding on to critiques such as Allen’s, which have accomplished this historical task already—in Allen’s case, his scholarship is the result of more than thirty years of empirical research in the colonial archives. Whereas Hill reads the new non-racial “Hispanic” category as a “collapse of former race categories,” Allen asks poignantly: If Hispanics don’t have to be racial anymore, then why can’t everyone else opt out too? The answer to this question is historical, replies Allen, and can only be answered by examining the social control issue at the heart of all hitherto existing racial classifications in U.S. history and society, namely the U.S. ruling-class need to produce an intermediate social control stratum (the “white race”) but without the costly vicissitudes of class struggle. Unfortunately, Hill does not mention Allen’s critique of the 2000 Census, nor does he compare his conclusions about “whiteness” with Allen’s in The Invention of the White Race, a curious omission for any study of the white identity. It is similar to a scholar never referring to Said’s Covering Islam in a work about the portrayal of muslims by the U.S. media.
The second thing is that in After Whiteness there is a drawing of equivalences between the “white race” and African Americans (as well as all other not-whites) that could only please the historic makers of the white identity. For Hill, both identities are classic instances of a Foucauldian will to self-disciplinary “governmentality,” and as such are indistinguishable conceptually one from the other: each is shaped by the same “dynamic”—“the will to category,” the title of Hill’s third chapter—or, less theoretically, “the struggle for self-recognition.” So the NAACP and the KKK cancel each other out. Here it becomes evident, toward the end of Hill’s Part One, “Incalculable Community,” that the real object of his study, and target of impassioned criticism, is the Enlightenment discourse of civil society not the white identity, which is stated explicitly in the closing sentence of his third chapter. “My goal in what follows is to connect the perfidious rightward trajectory of a new politics of racial multitudes to an insistence on the left, no less objectionable, that the defense of civil society is our last best hope for imagining more democratic futures” (54). Later he posits: “Multiracialism brings on an apparent weakening of civil society, though it does so via civil society’s own means” (58).
Parts Two and Three of After Whiteness are about the “displacement” of “the Enlightenment subject in the very name of civil society.” In these discussions, Hill takes his reader down a winding road of familiar U.S. academic cultural studies topics: sexuality; the family; the death of literature; postmodern identity; the politics of the university (in particular, academic labor or “the corporatization” of teaching); and the discourse of cultural studies itself. Rather than place each topic in the context of the white identity, Hill places “white critique,” as he terms it, within the context of these various topics. It is an honest gesture, for Part One seemed to show a certain desire to be done with the “white race” talk once and for all, revealed by Hill’s disinterest in engaging the historical analysis of Allen and other scholars of “whiteness” and his enthusiasm for the emergence of a new multiracial discourse in its stead. But since this new discourse has yet to be produced, in Parts Two and Three he is stuck with “whiteness” still, yet makes the most of it by ing a pallor over “whiteness studies,” “a dialectics of embarrassment,” he calls it (173). To conclude his dour assessment of this new field, he remarks that “what is being called whiteness studies is really after-whiteness studies (emphasis in original 184). It is so, because “To the extent that whiteness is knowable in a university setting that shares the peculiar condition of ruin, it too is knowable only by its being gone” (184).
It is unfortunate that Hill feels this way, since so many idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, and richly researched books and articles now exist on the white identity. Many are in use all over the academy, from new anthropology curricula to American studies and sociology. Each year, several of my students produce long research essays questioning the white identity, in literature, popular culture, and social policy. They study DuBois’s Black Reconstruction closely, and apply his concept of the “white blindspot,” as well as Toni Morrison’s and Ted Allen’s compatible theories of how “whiteness” is the real “race problem” in the U.S. not “blackness.” Putting the “white race” under the bright lights of critical examination and inquiry has been, in my opinion, one of the great intellectual breakthroughs of the past ten years and a tribute to the long struggle of the African American civil rights movement. I would like to think that rather than being “after whiteness,” we are right where we should be, at a fruitful departure point for diverse intellectual projects on the subject, much like people were probably feeling a few years after the publication of Orientalism. Yet it is a disturbing thought to consider that less than ten years after the publication of Orientalism could a scholar think of writing a book called “After Orientalism.” So much had yet to be done.
Allen, Theodore W. “‘Race’ and Ethnicity: History and the 2000 Census.” Cultural Logic. Spring 2000, vol. 3, no. 1.
Brennan, Timothy. “Places of Mind, Occupied Lands: Edward Said and Philology.” Edward Said: A Critical Reader. Ed. Michael Sprinker. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. 74-95.