The New Nadir: The Political Economy of the Contemporary Black Racial Formation

The New Nadir: The Political Economy of the Contemporary Black Racial Formation

The Black Scholar

Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

IN “THE NEW NADIR: The Political Economy of the Contemporary Black Racial Formation,” using the Marxist method of historical materialism analyze the period after Turner’s investigation, that is, from the early 1990s to the present. Like Turner and Mendenhall, attend to history, economy, politics, and ideology. I explore how the transformation to financialized global racial capitalism has structured the lives of contemporary African Americans. My main thesis is that the transformation to a new capitalist accumulation structure has reversed or mitigated most of the socioeconomic, but not the political gains achieved by the civil rights and Black Power movements. In the context of the pivotal events in the transformation of the U.S. and world political economies, I highlight four seminal events in the construction of the New Nadir. They are: (1) the suppression of black voters in Florida in the 2000 presidential election; (2) the racialized social catastrophe caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; (3) the devastating loss of African American wealth due to the subprime foreclosure crisis in 2007; and (4) the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president in 2008. These events illustrate the contradictory nature of the contemporary black racial formation. Dividing the effects on African America into their primary economic and political impacts, I explore ten major transformations that financialized global racial capitalism has wrought on African America. Like Mendenhall and Turner, I suggest that the way forward from this moment of devastation, rollback, and retreat lies through a (re)engagement with Marxism. Until capitalism can be destroyed, what is needed are fully developed black Marxist critiques of “the paradox of the contemporary conjuncture” and the construction of radical strategies for black liberation and social transformation in the age of financialized global racial capitalism.

ON MAY 9, 1865, Frederick Douglass addressed the last meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In an atmosphere bursting with excitement and pride of accomplishment, Douglass offered a cautionary note. He speculated that emancipation would witness the metamorphosis, rather than the end of “Slavery.” According to Douglass:

“Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names. It has been called ‘the peculiar institution,’ ‘the social system,’ and the ‘impediment.’ It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”

Douglass knew slavery was merely one form through which a more fundamental and durable phenomenon manifested itself. Though he did not name it, Douglass was conceptualizing black racial oppression, the systematic, pervasive, and persistent domination of people of African descent in the United States of America. (1)

Black racial oppression has undergone three transformations since Douglass observed its chameleon-like capacity to transform itself. (2) The contemporary black racial formation, the New Nadir is a consequence of the transformation to financialized global racial capitalism, a new stage of capitalist accumulation which is characterized by three interconnected processes: globalization of production and markets; neoliberal(ism) social policies; and financialization, the shift of investment from production to monetary “products.” (3)…

…The repudiation of “blackness” or African American identity is another significant aspect of the political fragmentation occurring within African America. The ideological assault “blackness” is rooted in colorblind racial ideology and its desire to promote a post-black identity or allegedly to move beyond race. The push to transcend racial identity is a joint project of two overlapping sets of political actors, neoconservatives and the bi- or multiracial identity movement. This collective enterprise has alternatively challenged the use of racial categories in public policy, research, college admissions, and in employment. Yet they have also labored to expand the racial categories on the census and throughout U.S. society, further undermining racial political solidarity. The mixed-race identity movement casts African American identity as an atavistic essentialism, a fiction based totally on the notion of hypodescent or the “one drop rule.” Mixed-race philosopher Naomi Zack and other leaders of the multiracial movement suggest that African Americans have colluded with Euro-Americans to suppress “mixed-race” persons’ right to “self-identification” and “selfhood,” by denying them the right to embrace the fullness of their parental background or “racial” heritage. Rather than constitute a move to destroy racial categories, the creation of a bi- and multiracial classification represents an attempt to construct a new “racial” group. To shift the U.S. biracial classificatory schema and racial order to a multiracial system would locate light-skinned persons of mixed race in a space above African Americans, and perhaps Latinos/as, Asian Americans, but definitely below whites. It would represent what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has called “the Latin Americanization of racial classification in the USA.” (39)

GIVEN ITS ASPIRATIONS, it is ironic that the multiracial identity movement is a consequence of the Civil Rights movement, specifically three of its partial successes, Loving v. Virginia (1967), Affirmative Action, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act and its 1988 enhancements. The Loving decision abolished miscegenation law. Affirmative Action provided a generation of African Americans greater access to education and to newly created positions in the expanding technical-managerial sectors of the U.S. political economy or business set-asides for their entrepreneurial ventures. The 1968 Fair Housing Act provided a mechanism for exacerbating the class-based spatial division within African America. It also owes much to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which eliminated the nationality quotas that were legislated by the 1924 Immigration Act.

According to historian Minkah Makalani: (40)

“Following 1967, when anti-miscegenation laws were declared unconstitutional, more than one million persons were born of mixed parentage in the United States. In the 1990s alone, these births (more than 300,000) were 1.4 percent of total U.S. births, 8.9 percent of all births with at least one black parent, and 43 percent of all births with parents from two different racial groups. On the 2000 U.S. census, only 784,764 persons (0.6 percent of the U.S. population) marked black and white as their racial designation.”

In 2000, the census identified only 784,764 individuals as having one black parent and one non-black parent. Additionally, bi- or multiracial-identified individuals constituted only about 2.1 percent of the 36.4 million African American people. This meager figure is not surprising, since exogamy among blacks is extremely low—6 percent for men and 2 percent for women. Nor is it surprising that 43 percent of such individuals are the product of a relationship between a black and a white person. Asians and Latinos/as, regardless of nationality, rarely marry or have children with African Americans or other blacks in the United States. Sociologist Steven Steinberg discovered that 40 percent of the children of Asian immigrants and a third of U.S. born Latinos/as between ages twenty-five and thirty-four marry non-Latino whites. In truth, the African American and black communities in the U.S. remain shockingly inassimilable. Generally, only other blacks find African Americans, West Indians, and Africans worth marrying. Given the smallness of their numbers, why has the contemporary mixed-race phenomenon received so much scholarly and popular attention? (41)

THE MIXED-RACE issue among African Americans derives its significance from its class and ideological implications for the new black racial formation, not its size. The fact is that a disproportionate number of those adopting this designation or having it thrust upon them are middle-class. Like Africans and Caribbean blacks, individuals identified as mixed-race seem to be supplanting those designated as African American in high profile economic, social, and political positions. This is especially so with student admissions at the nation’s elite universities and increasingly so among the professoriate and the intelligentsia. In many ways, it represents a return to a pre-Black Power intraracial class hierarchy. Given the material conditions of black racial oppression and the contemporary racial ideology of colorblindness, this move would result in further solidifying the historic relationship between light skin color and class in the African American community. Correspondingly, it would further fracture its already frayed class relations. Several scholars have documented the legacy of the color-class connection in African American history. Richard Seltzer and Robert Smith, for instance, have demonstrated that, “the black community continues to exhibit a degree of class stratification based on color, with lighter-skin blacks exhibiting higher education and occupational attainments.” A successful multiracial identity project would make it easier for a comparably wealthy sector of African American society to adopt conservative political positions supporting their privileged economic status, rather than policies more closely linked to that of the black majority…

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