Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

The Layers of Race

39-Cohen: It has been widely noted that the essential contradiction of American culture and society, of its democratic tradition, is centered on the question of race—including racially organized slavery—in the foundation of the nation. Race always has and continues to confound the meanings and powers of democratic ideas. Race is, in this sense, foundational in the American nation in ways distinct from other the narratives of construction of other nations. This essential contradiction in the foundation of America, in the foundation of the nation, finds its way into every arena of life ... it is perhaps the work of the immutable contradiction, rather than race itself, that reproduces this condition from arena to arena, era to era. It also becomes a structure that finds its locus and does its work in respect to such questions about loyalty to the nation of, or the dangers to the nation from, immigrant communities from Middle Eastern lands. The foundational nature of race (or the essential contradiction of race/racism and democracy) means on the other hand that there is no monological structure of ideas about democracy, nation, society, the United States, equality ... there is always a second reading in contention with a first.

40-Cohen: In our discussions, one of the seminar members took up the question of the intense focus on race and racism within the North American university. Does this centering of race, diversity, and multiculturalism in the university reflect the momentous shift from—to borrow Nancy Fraser'sPage  93 formulation—"redistribution to recognition". [39] Could Fraser's meditation on politics in a post-socialist age comprehend a shift in the university from a social sciences attentive to economic injustice and justice toward a social sciences consumed by questions of identity and rights? What is gained in such a shift? What is lost?

But Fraser's attention to a politics of justice is more complex than simply laying out a linear model. Fraser has argued that something critical is lost when we cannot sustain a simultaneity of attention, intellectual and political, to these two essential elements of justice, one resting in cultural recognition and one resting in economic equity. For scholars in the university debating the appropriate approaches to the study of the world, was our work shifting in important ways outside our own agency, beyond our own particular debates over priorities, relevance, inclusion, and objectivity, leaving us at a distance from an earlier focus on economic justice in the world and not quite yet comprehending a quite powerful and new politics of recognition?

41-Erazo: While the political correctness movement has made important strides in increasing awareness of subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination and dominance, it also has a dark underside. This is particularly the case when ideas about rights, discrimination, and dominance are imposed on the members of very different societies without an understanding of the way in which those societies are different from our own. In my own experience working with indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I have seen multiple instances of American-funded development projects attempting to impose North American ideas of gender equality, often with violent or counterproductive consequences. For example, in one project sponsored and carried out by an Ecuadorian, Quito-based non-governmental organization (NGO), women were invited to participate in ceramics classes, and men were purposefully excluded from these classes. This occurred under the development rationale that if women's income increases, they use their earnings to improve the livelihood of the family (purchasing food, medicines, etc.), while when men's incomes increase, they spend it on alcohol, gambling, and other "wasteful" pursuits. The men resented the exclusion, and violently took any earnings the women obtained from selling ceramics from them. This was not a typical reaction to the earnings that women obtained from other types of market-oriented work, and thus appears to have resulted primarily from thePage  94 NGO's politics of exclusion. The hydro-powered ceramics factory, installed at great expense to the foundation supporting this NGO, now sits deserted and rusting in the humid rainforest. Had the NGO personnel looked beyond their Western notions of gender equality and practiced more humility rather than almost missionary zeal in their attempts to train only women, the small factory could have provided a source of increased earnings for both women and men.

42-Gebert: "Well, in that case I'm Jewish, too" said a disgusted Mary Robinson in Durban, looking at a pamphlet distributed at the UN Conference Against Racism by the Arab Lawyers League. The pamphlet was illustrated by a cartoon depicting a Jew with bloody claws and fangs, bearing Israeli and Nazi insignia. The topic—"Zionist apartheid and genocide in Palestine."

Never since the anti-Semitic campaign in Communist Poland in 1968 did I experience an environment as deeply anti-Semitic as in Durban in September 2001. Pamphlets, posters and leaflets distributed by Palestinians and their supporters routinely described and depicted Jews and Israelis in vicious racism terms and form, directly reminiscent of "Der Stirmer." There is no doubt in my mind that if any other group (with the possible exception of Dead White Males) were to be depicted in that fashion, those responsible would be run out of the Conference—and rightly so. But anti-Semitism was a racism that the Conference allowed to fester.

The evils Israel was being accused of were real enough, but the Jewish State was by far not the only, or most serious perpetrator. Whatever may be said of the fate of Israeli Arabs—apartheid it is not—not with fourteen Arab MPs in a 140-member Knesset. Whatever can be said of the fate of the Palestinians—ethnic cleansing it is not—not when deportees are but several hundred over the years. And it certainly is not genocide.

While the racist campaign against Jews and Israel was unacceptable, criticism of Israel was legitimate—if accompanied by a proportional criticism of those more guilty of the same evils. If the treatment of Palestinians elicits outrage, that of the Chechens should generate fury—but there was not one pro-Chechen demonstration during the whole event. If job discrimination of Arabs in Israel is to be condemned, then the legal interdiction of other faiths than Islam in Saudi Arabia should be branded, but nary a word was said about it.

Attacks on Israel and the Jews—the conflation itself a racist concept—Page  95were conducted using racist imagery and rhetoric, with the Jewish state singled out for condemnation and hatred totally out of proportion to its real or imaginary sins. This is racism. And it was racism that prevented delegates from expressing the solidarity an attacked minority now feels entitled to. In Durban the Jews were all alone.

And it was racism that made many delegations oppose almost to the end including a condemnation of the Holocaust—humanity's most massive racist crime—in the final declaration. As a partial rapporteur at the European preparatory meeting I had to lobby hard to convince Council of Europe delegates to include a condemnation of anti-Semitism. Eventually, a compromise solution was worked out: anti-Semitism would be condemned every third time racism would. The fact that during our debate synagogues had been torched in France might have helped convince the delegates.

9/11 occurred just three days after the conference ended. Though of course there is no cause-and-effect relationship, the same hatred, which pervaded the halls in Durban, motivated the al Qaeda killers.

43-Patterson: The pervasiveness of institutional racism in the United States certainly enables the practice of racial profiling and may partially explain its long and continuing life despite the unconstitutional and discriminatory foundations on which it is based. But prior to 9/11, critical mass seemed to be mounting toward a rejection of racial profiling as a legitimate means of apprehending criminals. In the academy, scholars in the social sciences and humanities had long been arguing for an understanding of race as socially constructed, and they were backed by colleagues in the natural sciences as to the biological fallacy of inherited racially-based behaviors. Several studies were conducted that uncovered institutionalized practices of racial profiling in police forces across the country. David A. Harris, of the University of Toledo College of Law authored a detailed report for the American Civil Liberties Union in June 1999 entitled, "Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our Nation's Highways," in which he traced the historical trajectory of the practice and argued that "racial profiling is based on the premise that most drug offenses are committed by minorities. The premise is factually untrue, but it has nonetheless become a self-fulfilling prophecy." [40] In his words, "skin color has become evidence of the propensity to commit crime, and police use this 'evidence' against minority drivers on the road all the time." AmnestyPage  96 International investigated more than ninety cases of alleged ill-treatment or excessive use of force by New York City police officers dating from the late 1980s to early 1996, and found that "more than two-thirds of the victims in the cases examined were African-American or Latino and most, though not all, of the officers involved were white. Nearly all of the victims in the cases of deaths in custody (including shootings) reviewed by Amnesty International were members of racial minorities." [41]

Vocal sectors of the U.S. public were commanding more attention as they decried the risks and injustices of racial profiling in the criminal justice and law enforcement systems. They responded with increasingly publicized outrage to the cases of police brutality that repeatedly target black males in such disproportionate numbers in the United States. Demonstrators gathered in New York to mourn and protest the death of Amadou Diallo, the twenty-two-year old immigrant from Guinea who was shot at forty-one times in front of his apartment door by police who had mistaken him for a suspect, and also Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, arrested outside a New York City nightclub and brutally beaten, assaulted, and sodomized with a toilet plunger by a group of four police officers. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, police officer Frank Gutowski made national headlines when he explained in a training lecture that Latinos, Indians, and members of other ethnic groups may be immune to pepper spray because of their diet of spicy foods. [42]

There was nothing all that new about the selective list of events described above, but the connections being made between them, particularly in the eye of the mainstream U.S. media, were forcing local and national leaders to speak out against the practice of racial profiling. In fact, in George W. Bush's February 2001 address to Congress, the president stated that he had asked Attorney General John Ashcroft "to develop specific recommendations to end racial profiling. It's wrong, and we will end it in America.'" [43] Since September 11, however federal authorities have committed themselves to this practice with new vigor. Now racial profiling is not only fully embraced by leaders in government and police spheres, but it has been put into practice with an alarming intensity. Shortly after 9/11, males of Arab descent in our own community in Ann Arbor received letters in the mail requesting they come into police stations to be interviewed for possible leads in the search for the terrorists. While the target of racial profiling in the United States has shifted to include Arabs and Muslims, blacksPage  97 and Latinos continue to be disproportionately monitored and stopped by police for unmotivated searches based on their perceived racial or ethnic identity.

One of the reasons that racial profiling has been so difficult to eradicate is that it consists of a range of practices, carried out by different types of people at various levels. Like discrimination in general, it permeates all levels of U.S. society. "Special Agent Richard Egan, head of the Boston FBI office's civil rights and public corruption units, stated that the FBI has been receiving up to 1,000 calls a day about 'suspicious activity, noting that police officers are not the only ones guilty of racial profiling. He told of people calling the FBI to report others whom they consider suspicious because of their appearance. He explained that the FBI only follows up on calls alerting them to certain types of behavior, not appearances. In the words of expert David Harris, "Racial profiling is a communicable disease. It spreads by contagion from the police on the beat, to the security at the airport, to the customer at the post office to the stranger on the street." [44]

Regardless of historical moment or targeted group, racial profiling is detrimental to us all. As Harris eloquently writes, "This vicious cycle carries with it profound personal and societal costs. It is both symptomatic and symbolic of larger problems at the intersection of race and the criminal justice system. It results in the persecution of innocent people based on their skin color. It has a corrosive effect on the legitimacy of the entire justice system. It deters people of color from cooperating with the police in criminal investigations. And in the courtroom, it causes jurors of all races and ethnicities to doubt the testimony of police officers when they serve as witnesses, making criminal cases more difficult to win." Many critics have argued that the time and resources spent sifting through huge numbers of perceived potential suspects would be better utilized in following established leads and developing informed intelligence. In the words of Angela Davis, "racial profiling isn't the best way to catch terrorists. One important lesson of the War on Drugs is that focusing on race rather than behavior causes law enforcement officials to miss a lot of criminals." [45]

In the United States, perceived racial identity affects who is watched, stopped, searched, arrested, imprisoned, and increasingly, deported. [46] In the post September-11 context, racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims has spread fear among members of these communities, and as Arab-American Jennifer Riddha wrote to the New York Times, it "has only served to marginalize thePage  98 Arab community and foster fear among its members and their neighbors. As a result, it has likely discouraged those who may have relevant information from coming forward. For the same reasons that it is wrong in ordinary criminal investigations, racial profiling is inappropriate in the government's terrorism investigation." [47] On June 2, 2003, the inspector general of the Justice Department released a highly critical report on the treatment of detainees in connection with terrorism inquiries. The report cited detainees being held without being informed why, harsh conditions of confinement, and excessively slow processing by the F.B.I. Some detainees were subjected to a "pattern of physical verbal abuse," and according to the New York Times, "detention centers routinely blocked efforts by detainees' families and lawyers to locate them." [48]

Making judgments based on race alone is inefficient and ineffective, not to mention a breach of basic civil liberties. While it may be newly permissible in the post-September 11 climate of insecurity and fear, as Benjamin Franklin said, "He who sacrifices freedom for security is neither free nor secure."