Winter 2011

Freedom, Equality, Race

Jeffrey B. Ferguson

This essay explores some of the reasons for the continuing power of racial categorization in our era, and thus offers some friendly amendments to the more optimistic renderings of the term post-racial. Focusing mainly on the relationship between black and white Americans, it argues that the widespread embrace of universal values of freedom and equality, which most regard as antidotes to racial exclusion, actually reinforce it. The internal logic of these categories requires the construction of the “other.” In America, where freedom and equality still stand at the contested center of collective identity, a history of racial oppression informs the very meaning of these terms. Thus the irony: much of the effort exerted to transcend race tends to fuel continuing division.

JEFFREY B. FERGUSON is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Black Studies and American Studies at Amherst College. He is the author of The Harlem Renaissance: A Brief History with Documents (2008) and The Sage of Sugar Hill: George S. Schuyler and the Harlem Renaissance (2005).

Our current era of race relations in America maintains racial distinctions largely through the expectation that they will soon disappear. This stands in contrast with previous periods, in which such categories as black and white counted as durable facts of descent and destiny. One side of the current race debate plays up the disappearance of racial distinctions, sometimes by exaggerating the virtues of color blindness. The other side guards against the diminishment of such distinctions, at times going so far as to equate current racial problems with the dark and distant past of slavery and Jim Crow. For the first camp–what we might call a “party of hope”– current racial realities signal the promise of a raceless future where skin color may have no more societal import than does eye color. The second –a “party of memory”–aims for a similar goal, but it generally casts its ultimate purpose in more pluralistic terms. This party finds the waning of timeworn forms of racial identity, along with the deeply etched barriers that gave rise to them, threatening to the very political movements that might bring about lasting positive change. Ironically, the party of memory finds what the party of hope would call racial progress somewhat dangerous to ultimate racial justice. No less curious is the party of hope’s prevailing expectation that after more than two hundred years of constant racial strife, black and white identity in the United States will simply fade away. . . .

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