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"...And Interracial Justice For All,"

by Michael Omi January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

At the first Advisory Board meeting of the President's Initiative on Race, a debate ensued between the chair, distinguished African American scholar John Hope Franklin, and board member Angela Oh, a Korean American attorney. Franklin argued that the Initiative needed to focus on unfinished business between blacks and whites. Oh argued for a "new paradigm" that would move beyond a bipolar model of race relations to engage the experiences of other racial minorities. While Franklin and Oh have subsequently downplayed their differences, their distinct perspectives have continued to provoke debate within academic and community activist settings. Historian George Fredrickson, in the New York Review of Books, says that Franklin has "historical justification" to argue against the multiculturalist approach of President Clinton and to center the Advisory Board's work on "the basic and enduring problem of black-white relations." As an admirer of Fredrickson's work, I regret that his position doesn't give Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans much room to maneuver.

The prevailing black/white paradigm misses the complex nature of race relations in the post-civil rights era and is unable to grasp the complex patterns of conflict and accommodation among multiple racial/ethnic groups. In many major cities, for example, whites have fled to surrounding suburban rings, leaving the core areas the site of turf battles between different racial minorities over housing, educational opportunities, public services and community economic development initiatives. Unfortunately, changing demographic trends and new political realities have not forced us to re-examine and interrogate our stock assumptions about race in the United States.

There is an urgent political necessity to do so. Political issues are emerging that exploit conflicts and tensions between (and within) racial minority communities. California, a state that should be offering the rest of the nation positive lessons on the transition to a multiracial society, sadly provides examples that illustrate this despicable trend. In the campaign for Proposition 187 to restrict immigrant rights, African American "interests" were framed in popular discourse as counter to that of Latino, and to a lesser extent Asian, immigrants. In debates regarding Proposition 209 on affirmative action, Asian American "interests" were defined in opposition to those of blacks and Latinos. Political issues are increasingly racially coded and framed in a manner that uncritically assumes a zero-sum game of race relations — where one group's gain is perceived to be another group's loss. Herein lies the potential for widespread, and perhaps violent, conflict.

The Advisory Board needs to convene sessions that explicitly deal with conflicts between different racial minority groups. These conversations could provide the space and opportunity to rethink race and racial meanings, identify and defuse potential conflicts, consider the possibilities for alliances and grapple with our collective identity as a people. A starting point for dialogue among racial minorities is to acknowledge the historical and contemporary differences in power that different groups possess. Groups are positioned in unequal ways in a racially stratified society. In a recent study of perceived group competition in Los Angeles, sociologists Lawrence Bobo and Vincent Hutchings found that whites felt least threatened by blacks and most threatened by Asians, while Asians felt a greater threat from blacks than from Latinos.

Such distinct perceptions of "group position" are related to, and implicated in, the organization of power. Some scholars and activists define racism as "prejudice plus power." They argue that people of color can't be racist since they don't have power. But things aren't that simple. In the post-civil rights era, some racial minority groups have carved out a degree of power in select urban areas — particularly with respect to administering social services and distributing economic resources. This has led, in cities like Oakland and Miami, to conflicts between blacks and Latinos over educational programs, minority business opportunities and political power.

To acknowledge differences in power between groups, whether real or imagined, has profound implications for the possibilities of coalition-building. Law professor Eric Yamamoto advances a concept of "interracial justice," drawing upon the 1993 campaign by the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ for an Asian American apology to, and reparations to, Native Hawaiians. Interracial justice, Yamamoto argues, reflects a commitment to anti-subordination among nonwhite racial groups — one that acknowledges the ways racial groups have harmed and continue to harm one another, along with affirmative efforts to redress inequalities. Such efforts are not meant to divert attention from the dominant reality of white supremacy and white racism, nor should they be read as minimizing or erasing the class and ethnic heterogeneity of the racial categories that we so glibly refer to as "black," "Latino," "Asian" or "American Indian." The emphasis here, however, is on racial minority groups acknowledging differences and beginning to transform "power over" one another into "power to" coexist, cooperate and work together politically.

The Advisory Board needs to advance such a conversation. It should convene meetings in cities where conflicts are occurring, encourage groups to articulate their concerns and interests, and consider the ways groups can engage in coalitional efforts to deal with admittedly difficult issues. In situating and interrogating these conflicts, the prevailing black/white paradigm of race relations will be of limited utility as a framework for analysis. But a multiculturalism that merely celebrates cultural "difference," while ignoring inequalities between groups with respect to power, will equally not be up to the task. Moving beyond the debate over paradigms, the Board need to re-center the discussion on how to advance and achieve interracial justice for all.

Michael Omi is professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California-Berkeley and a senior research fellow at the Applied Research Center in Oakland. He is the co-author (with Howard Winant) of "Racial Formation in the United States."
 
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