RACISM & RACE IN THE USA (circa 1998, 2005)




The Filipino-American War of 1899-1902 was a brutal war, the “first Vietnam,” for many historians. However, most textbooks devote only a paragraph, if at all, to this period–a crucial stage in the construction of the American national identity. Over 1 million Filipinos died, more than 8,000 American soldiers perished, for the sake of “manifest destiny.”

Then president McKinley didn’t know where the islands were–officials joked whether the Philippines was a brand name of canned goods or some kind of pineapple. McKinley justified the forcible annexation of the Philippines to a delegation of Methodist Church leaders in 1899 with these words: Since the natives were “unfit for self-government,” McKinley intoned,” …there was nothing left for [the United States] to do but to take them all, …and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” Samples of these natives who would be uplifted by the Puritan work ethic and individualist self-help were exhibited in the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, one of a series of industrial fairs intended to project the global stature of the United States as the fit successor to the European imperial powers.

One of the scandalous if censored incidents of the U.S. campaign to pacify the islands was the defection of some African American soldiers to the side of the “enemy,” the revolutionary Philippine Republic. Soldiers fresh from the campaigns against the Plains Indians considered the Filipinos savages and “niggers” that needed taming and domestication; reservation-like hamlets had to be set up to cut short a guerilla war that was becoming costly. Right from the beginning, it was a thoroughly racialized war. The rhetoric and discourse of that “civilizing mission,” which had earlier legitimized the genocide against the Native Americans, slavery of Africans, and violence against the Mexicans, continued up to the time when thousands of Filipinos were recruited for the Hawaiian Sugar Plantations after the entry of Asian migrant labor then–Chinese and Japanese—was banned. Objects of the policy called “Benevolent Assimilation,” Filipinos, the new “nationals” who were neither citizens nor aliens but a hybrid of sorts—postcolonial denizens avant le lettre, were attacked by white vigilantes in Yakima Valley and the entire West Coast in the thirties and forties.

We should insert here a reminder that the famous Plessy v. Ferguson judgment took place in 1896, two years before the outbreak of the Spanish American War. The system of apartheid–not to be altered for half a century–was finally given its legal imprimatur.

Calling attention to the gap between the idealized representation of democracy in foreign adventure and its actual operations in the heartland reveals the authentic character of the expanding nation-state as a racial formation. It is one constructed on the basis of racial segregation, hierarchy, and violence. While the claim of “Manifest Destiny,” the American messianic mission, and the reality of a racialized system may appear incompatible, from a larger historical perspective, that discrepancy is itself the condition of possibility for the justification of empire.

A review of the political formation of the United States demonstrates a clear racial, not simply ethnic, pattern of constituting the national identity and the commonality it invokes. As many historians have shown, the U.S. racial order, following the logic of the expansion of the free market, evolved from three or four key conjunctures which, I submit, should be studied as the core of any general education program: first, the suppression of the aboriginal inhabitants (Native Americans) for the exploitation of land and natural resources; second, the institutionalization of slavery and the postCivil War apartheid or segregation; third, the conquest of territory from the Mexicans, Spaniards (Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, Guam), and Hawaiians, and the colonization of Mexicans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans; and, fourth, the subordination of Asian labor.

In the shaping of the national formation, the necessary element has been the norm of racial stratification, the sociopolitical construction of racial hierarchy. I think all questions of citizenship and individual liberties hinge on the theorizing of “race” and its deployment in various political and ideological practices of the State and civil society. While chattel slavery is gone, “wage slavery” is still with us. I am not denying progress on the civil rights front. However, the legal scholar Lani Guinier argues that race continues to be an organizing principle of the democratic nation state. She holds that “majority rule is not a reliable instrument of democracy in a racially divided society… In a racially divided society, majority rule may be perceived as majority tyranny.”

While vestiges of scientific racism exist, the political use of race as a biological/anthropological concept is no longer tenable. Ever since I came to this country in 1960, people always ask me: Where are you from? Where do you come from? I believe that Darwin has given that question a generic answer. On second thought, the question may be diagnosed as a symptom of the need to affirm a measure of common value in the modern milieu of alienation and reification. Identity politics has arrived.

Today, the problem of cultural ethos or ethnicity has become the major site of racial conflict. The notion of cultural diversity implies that there is a norm or standard—call it the American Way of Life, the common culture, the Great Books, the canon, whatever—compared to which the other is different, alien, strange, weird. Some people become problems by the simple fact of their existence.

No doubt, racial thinking still pervades the consensual procedures of our society–from the categories of the Census to the neoconservative attack on Affirmative Action and the gains of the Civil Rights struggles. It has acquired new life in the sphere of public, especially foreign, policy whenever officials rearticulate the binary opposition beween us (citizens of Western civilization) and them (the barbaric fundamentalists, rogue states, terrorists of all kinds). The common life or national identity rises from the rubble of differences vanquished, ostracized, and erased.

The twentieth century that ended with wars in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans, thus began with the entry of the United States as competitor in the game of colonial plunder. Defeating Spain in a few unspectacular engagements, the United States seized territories in Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean inhabited by peoples with their own cultures, economies, and histories. The imperative of modernization covered up for their loss of sovereignty. The century began with the United States becoming an imperial power that would, after World War II, displace its old European contenders and declare a pax American of the free market on the ruins of fascist Germany and Japan. This peace, however, rested also on a neocolonial discourse in which the Western democracies legitimized their mastery of the “Free World” in the crusade against Communist despotism. But, as historians have shown, this hegemony over nation-states (especially among formerly colonized and now neocolonized countries) is always already predicated on the continuation of the European narrative and vision of world domination, on white supremacy. W.E.B. Du Bois questioned the presumed universality of American nationalism when he wrote in 1945, in an essay entitled “Human Rights for all Minorities,” that black people in the United States were “a nation without a polity, nationals without citizenship.” Liberals like Nathan Glazer and Michael Walzer condemn any talk about national autonomy, collective rights, or empowerment of communities, as inimical to the unity and stability of the country. The “national question” involving people of color in the United States, which I think is the key to unlocking the race question, remains still unanswered by all participants in the culture wars, by relativists and law-and-order folks alike.

Meanwhile, the theme of global ideological conflict has now been revitalized. It moves up to center-stage in a recasting of the Cold War as, in Samuel Huntington’s words, a war of civilizations. Primarily a war between the West and “the Rest.” We need not prophesy the details of this coming “war” within one world-system of transnational corporate business. In fact we all live in one world where the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund occupy pride of place in the pantheon. We are confronted everyday in the media with scenes of ethnic cleansing, earlier in Bosnia, now Kosovo, all over what was formerly the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan, in Ruwanda and earlier in apartheid South Africa. Racialized antagonisms smolder in various parts of the world, in Quebec, in Los Angeles, Indonesia, Haiti, and elsewhere.

With the propagation of the Murray-Herrnstein notion of genetically defined intelligence, we are once more surrounded with ideas first synthesized by Comte Joseph de Gobineau in his book Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1953-55) and later elaborated by Social Darwinism, eugenics, and pragmatic utilitarianism. Its latest manifestation is, in my view, the theory of common culture–the heritage of Western civilization. It inheres in all philosophies and policies that legislate a scheme of general education for everyone based on a narrative of development framed by the classics of the canon, from Aristotle to Rorty and Lacan. Whether formulated in terms of modernity, progress, Enlightenment, competency, or individual self-fulfillment, the old belief in “our civilizing mission” persists despite claims of tolerance, liberal latitude, respect for cultural diversity, and so on. The aim of the cultural literacy espoused by E.D.Hirsch, for example, and assorted schemes of “general education” is to reproduce the liberal self, now assuredly more sophisticated and cosmopolitan, founded on centuries-old strategies of domestication and devaluation of Others.

I express here a view that may outrage defenders of tradition and the accepted disciplinary boundaries–perhaps evidence that despite changes and modifications on the surface, the deep structures of habitual thought and feeling remain entrenched. But what are teachers for, asked James Baldwin, if not to disturb the peace? While critical of the metanarrative of modernizing progress (courtesy of the IMF/World Bank), I should also say here that I do not count myself as one of those postmodernist skeptics who believe that everything is a manifestation of pure power, discourse or textuality, arbitrary social constructions whose truth-claims cannot be adjudicated. After all, reality is what hurts….

Multiculturalism is celebrated today as the accompaniment to the fall of the Evil Empire and the triumph of liberal capitalist democracy. Ishmael Reed, among others, has trumpeted the virtues of “America: The Multinational Society.” His term “multinational” continues the thought of Dubois, the proponents of La Raza Unida, and the theories of internal colonialism. Ironically, however, Reed declares somewhat naively that “the United States is unique in the world: The world is here” in New York City, Los Angeles, and so on. Reed, I suspect, doesn’t mean that the problems of the underdeveloped peoples have come in to plague American cities. With this figure of subsumption or synecdochic linkage, America reasserts a privileged role in the world–all the margins, the absent Others, are redeemed in an inclusive, homogenized space where cultural differences dissolve or are sorted out into their proper niches in the ranking of national values and priorities.

We thus have plural cultures or ethnicities coexisting peacefully, without conflict or contestation, in a free play of monads in “the best of all possible worlds.” No longer a melting pot but a salad bowl, a smorsgasbord of cultures, the mass consumption of variegated and heterogeneous lifestyles. There is of course a core or consensual culture to which we add any number of diverse particulars, thus proving that our principles of liberty and tolerance can accommodate those formerly excluded or ignored. In short, your particular is not as valuable or significant as mine. On closer scrutiny, this liberal mechanism of inclusion—what Herbert Marcuse once called “repressive desublimation”–is a mode of appropriation: it fetishizes and commodifies others. The universal swallows the particulars. And the immigrant, or border-crosser like Guillermo Gomez Pena or Coco Fusco, our most provocative performance-artists, is always reminded that to gain full citizenship, unambiguous rules must be obeyed: proficiency in English is mandatory, assimilation of certain procedures and rituals are assumed, and so on and so forth.

Cultural pluralism first broached in the twenties by Horace Kallen has been refurbished for the needs of the “New World Order.” What the multiculturalist orthodoxy (of left or right varieties) of today elides, however, is the history of the struggles of people of color–both those within the metropolis and the peripheries. While the political armies of racial supremacy were defeated in World War II, the practices of the liberal nation-state continue to reproduce the domination and subordination of racialized populations in overt and subtle ways. The citizen-subject, citizenship as such, held to be the universalizing virtue of the liberal nation-state, remains defined by the categories that govern the public sphere and the marketplace, categories of race, geopolitical location, gender, nationality, sexuality, and so on.

Meanwhile, the highly touted concept of civic nationalism, a framework for harmonizing ethnic differences, is bound to reproduce the racialization of identity and the processes of stigmatization and marginalization witnessed in the history of the sociopolitical formation. Others who are different, inferior or subordinate to us, are constructed to define the rights-bearing subject of the liberal nation-state; these Others are excluded or exteriorized–undocumented aliens, etc.–to establish the boundaries of the nation-state. In the process, a fictive ethnicity of the nation as its primordial guarantee emerges to validate its legitimacy and naturalness.

Opposed to those who insist on conformity to a uniform monolithic culture, I am for the recognition of the integrity and importance of peoples’ cultures and ways of life, and for their right to exist and flourish. But how can this recognition of multiplicity be universalized?

I believe it cannot happen within the existing global logic of corporate accumulation. I believe that multiculturalism, as along as it is conceived within the existing framework of the hegemonic nation-state or bloc of states founded on inequality and hierarchy, cannot offer the means to realize justice, fairness, and recognition of people’s singular identities and worth around the world. The multiculturalist respect for the Other’s specificity may be the appropriate form of asserting one’s own superiority. This paradox underlies multiculturalism as, in fact, the authentic “cultural logic of multinational” or globalized capitalism. So I am afraid the race question will be with us in the next millenium as long as the conditions that produce and reproduce it are the sine qua non of the prevailing social structures and institutional practices of our everyday lives. (Written: 1998)


The goal of a class-less communist society and strategies to attain it envisage the demise of racist ideology and practice in its current forms. But progressive forces around the world are not agreed about this. For example, the World Conference against Racism World Forum of Non-Governmental Organizations held before September 11, 2001 in Durban, South Africa, publicized the global problem of racism but was unable to formulate a consensus on how to solve it. Its final declaration highlighted the historic origin of racism in the slave trade, colonialism, genocide, and the possibility of reparations for its victims, but did not offer a concrete program of action (see Mann 2002).

Given its composition, and the pervasive climate of reaction, the Forum could not of course endorse a radical approach that would focus on the elimination of the exploitation of labor (labor power as commodity) as a necessary first step. Given its limits, it could not espouse a need for a thoroughgoing change of the material basis of social production and reproduction—the latter involving the hegemonic rule of the propertied bloc in each society profiting from the unequal division of labor and the unequal distribution of social wealth—on which the institutional practices of racism (apartheid, discrimination, genocide) thrive. “Race is the modality in which class is lived,” as Stuart Hall remarks concerning post-1945 Britain (Solomos 1986, 103). Without the political power in the hands of the democratic-popular masses under the leadership of the working class, the ideological machinery (laws, customs, religion, state bureaucracy) that legitimizes class domination, with its attendant racist practices, cannot be changed. What is required is a revolutionary process that mobilizes a broad constituency based on substantive equality and social justice as an essential part of the agenda to dissolve class structures; any change in the ideas, beliefs, and norms would produce changes in the economic, political and social institutions, which would in turn promote wide-ranging changes in social relations among groups, sectors, and so on.

Within a historical-materialist framework, the starting point and end point for analyzing the relations between structures in any sociohistorical totality cannot be anything else but the production and reproduction of material existence. The existence of any totality follows transformation rules whereby it is constantly being restructured into a new formation (Harvey 1973). These rules reflect the dialectical unfolding of manifold contradictions constituting the internal relations of the totality. Within this conflicted, determinate totality, race cannot be reduced to class, nor can class be subsumed by race, since those concepts express different forms of social relations. What is the exact relation between the two? This depends on the historical character of the social production in question and the ideological-political class struggles defining it. In his valuable treatise, The Invention of the White Race, Theodore Allen has demonstrated the precise genealogy and configuration of racism in the U.S. It first manifested itself when the European colonial settlers based on private property in land and resources subdued another social order based on collective, tribal tenure of land and resources, denying the latter any social identity—“social death” for Native Americans. We then shift our attention to the emergence of the white race and its system of racial oppression with the defeat of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1677 and the establishment of a system of lifetime hereditary bond servitude (for African Americans): “The insistence on the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group, is the hallmark of racial oppression” (Allen 1997, 243). In effect, white supremacy defining the nature of civil society was constructed at a particular historical conjuncture demanded by class war. The result is a flexible and adjustable system that can adjust its racial dynamics in order to divide the subordinates, resist any critique of its ideological legitimacy, and prevent any counter-hegemonic bloc of forces from overthrowing class rule.

Class struggle intervenes through its impact in the ideological-political sphere of civil society. Racial categories operate through the mediation of civil society which (with the class-manipulated State) regulate personal relations through the reifying determinations of value, market exchange, and capital. Harry Chang comments on the social mediation of racial categories: “Blacks and whites constitute social blocks in a developed setting of ‘mass society’ in which social types (instead of persons) figure as basic units of economic and political management…The crucial intervention of objectification, i.e., relational poles conceived as the intrinsic quality of objects in relation, must not be neglected here. Racial formation in a country is an aspect of class formation, but the reason races are not classes lies in this objectification process (or fetishization)” (1985, 43). Commodity fetishism enables the ideology of racism (inferiority tied to biology, genetics, cultural attributes) to register its effects in common-sense thinking and routine behavior in class-divided society (Lukacs 1971). Because market relations hide unequal power relations, sustained ideological critique and transformative collective actions are imperative. This signifies the heuristic maxim of “permanent revolution” (Lefevbre 1968, 171) in Marxist thought: any long-term political struggle to abolish capitalism as a system of extracting surplus value through a system of the unequal division of labor (and rewards) needs to alter the institutions and practices of civil society that replicate and strengthen the fetishizing or objectifying mechanism of commodity production and exchange (the capitalist mode of production). If racism springs from the reification of physical attributes (skin color, eye shape) to validate the differential privileges in a bourgeois regime, then the abolition of labor-power as a commodity will be a necessary if not sufficient step in doing away with the conditions that require racial privileging of certain groups in class-divided formations. Racism is not an end in itself but, despite its seeming autonomy, an instrumentality of class rule.

Reification of nature and all social relations is the distinctive logic of the political economy of bourgeois domination. Racial differentiation and class antagonism converge in the revolutionary process when, as C.L.R. James states in a gloss on Lenin’s thought, the colonized subalterns (e.g., the Irish in 19th century Britain) and racially oppressed peoples/nations (African Americans, indigenous communities) begin to act as the “bacilli” or ferment that ushers onto the international scene “the real power against imperialism—the socialist proletariat” (1994, 182). Socialist revolution is thus the requisite precondition for ending racism.


Allen, Theodore. 1997. The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America. Vol. 2 of The Invention of the White Race. New York: Verso.

Chang, Harry. 1985. “Toward a Marxist Theory of Racism: Two Essays by Harry

Chang.” Ed. Paul Liem and Eric Montague. Review of Radical Political Economics 17.3: 34-45.

Harvey, David. 1973. Social Justice and the City. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

James, C.L.R. 1994. C.L.R.James and Revolutionary Marxism. Ed. Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1968. The Sociology of Marx. New York: Vintage.

Lukacs, Georg. 1971 (1923). History and Class Consciousness. London: Merlin Press.

Mann, Eric. 2002. Dispatches from Durban. Los Angeles, CA: Frontlines Press.

Solomos, John. 1986. “Varieties of Marxist conceptions of ‘race,’ class and the state: a critical analysis.” In Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations. Ed. John Rex and David Mason. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.