Race and the Racialized State: A Du Boisian Interrogation

The events of September 11, 2001 did not begin, but accelerated, processes that have for some years been leading to the transformation of the US state and political system. These historic processes have culminated in the reconfiguration of the US state, establishing the hegemony of its military industrial/national security and police/domestic control sectors. As no less an authority than Richard Holbrooke puts it, “the American military has acquired an unprecedented role in the conduct of foreign policy.”1 At the same time, many of the state’s Welfare or New Deal features are being downsized, privatized and eliminated. Vast and radical attacks upon bourgeois democracy, civil and human rights, and civil liberties are under way, justified by the need for homeland security.

The current moment of empire and the new relationship of forces within the state are crystallized in the Bush Administration’s Doctrine of Preemptive War, the USA Patriot Act, and the Homeland Security Act. The Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department are designed as the command centers of the attack upon civil and political rights. International law and international institutions are being assaulted as the Bush Administration proclaims its right to wage war unilaterally anywhere in the world. The Administration has literally declared itself outside of international law and thus a self-defined rogue state. In economic terms a policy shift from Keynesian state economic and financial policies to Friedmanite free market, neo-liberal ones, has taken place.

Modern capitalism, bourgeois democracy, globalization, and other contemporary phenomena of the economy and culture are virtually incomprehensible without understanding the modern racialized capitalist state. Such an understanding cannot be carried on at the level of broad generalities; it must be specific and concrete. The US state must be explained as it has emerged in US history, in terms of the specific stages of its development, its ideological contexts and justifications, and the social psychology of its people, especially as it relates to their understanding of authority and governance. These social-psychological and ideological dimensions are particularly important. It is safe to say that the American population, particularly white people, views the current moment as a new and unsafe frontier. There is a perceptible transformation of psychological and ideological impulses among white Americans, a kind of collective traumatization, as the business of empire has come home to roost. The psychological and ideological moment is nourished by the concerns that ordinary white people have with their own vulnerability, and by their awareness that it is they who are called upon to make significant sacrifices in the name of empire. It is in this milieu that we witness the attempt of leading elements of the state to forge a new national identity and sense of purpose.

The subjective realities of ordinary white folk are filtered through the inevitable prisms of race and white supremacy. The threat, therefore, is viewed as a threat to white people as a collective and not solely to the economic interests of the nation, or even to specific class interests. For them the American dreamscape has been sullied and tarnished. Their sense of security and expectation of privacy are wounded. Their dreamworld has to be redeemed in order that the American psyche can be restored. In the deepest sense the privileges of whiteness and white supremacy are viewed as being under attack. Hence, the defense of America and of democracy are viewed, at their core, as defenses of the global rights of white people, articulated variously as defenses of civilization or the West.

The US state is the product of a distinct evolutionary history; it is an aspect of the evolution of whiteness to autonomous legal status, i.e., from the idea of whiteness as a product of nature and thus part of the natural order, to the recognition of it as a social relational category constructed and upheld by society and law: what Colette Guillaumin calls “the legal enunciation of the physical (somatic, genetic, etc.).”2 In US experience, the movement to elevate whiteness to autonomous legal status demanded significant changes in the psychic and ideological conditions of the dominant (white) group and the relegation of subordinated races to the status of Other.3

The transformation of the legal status of whiteness is decisive to the evolution of the racialized state. The very existence of the racialized state confirms the racialized nature of social relationships and negates the notion that social relationships are above race. The legal constitution of the racialized state, therefore, requires the elevation of whiteness to a legally protected category like that of property.4 This history can be broadly periodized into three stages: 1776-1873, 1873-1971, and 1971 to the present.5 Each begins and ends in a transformative economic and/or political crisis (except for the most recent stage, which is still in process). The first stage is the pre-imperialist stage of the US state, the second is the imperialist stage and the third is the stage of empire. Another way to conceptualize these stages is as (1) the pre-monopoly capitalist stage, (2) the stage of state monopoly capitalism, and (3) the transnational globalization stage. From the standpoint of state formation, each of these stages was a level in the evolution of the racialized state. Each stage is a level in the evolution of whiteness to autonomous legal status. For instance, in the first stage race and whiteness as legal foundations of the state are defined, more or less, by the three-fifths clause of the Constitution and the Dred Scott Decision (1857), affirming the protection of slaves as property and what amounts to the social death of black folk. In the second stage it is Plessy v Ferguson and the notion that whiteness is a form of property to be protected by law. The deployment of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) to defend white privilege against African American claims, defines the legal status of whiteness in the current stage. This represents a return to the protection of whiteness enunciated in Plessy v Ferguson.

Whiteness in this understanding is the dynamic and crucial factor of state formation. Traditional Marxian historiography understands state formation in the US from the standpoint of a class of slave owners, bankers, merchants, and small capitalists seizing state power in the name of democracy and the American nation. In this view, the American Revolution was a bourgeois democratic revolution. Du Boisian historiography asserts a racialized class, made up of slaveholders, merchants, bankers, small farmers and workers (Du Bois, 1896 and 1935) who seized power and deployed it to maintain the main form of property-slaves. It is significant that Du Bois defines the slaves in Suppression (1896) as workers and in Black Reconstruction (1935) as a proletariat. Here rests his visionary reconceptualization of class struggle and revolutionary agency. Indeed, it is the working class or proletariat as suggested by Marx that constitutes the revolutionary agency of modernity. Du Bois, however, in an act of profound theoretical displacement, argues that the racialized proletariat, the slaves, are the principal agency of progressive and revolutionary change. In this framework, the racialized identity of slaves implies giving a similarly racialized definition to the classes which comprise white people. In fact, the racialized dimension of these identities is overdetermining of other social relationships. The bourgeoisie in the American context (and to some degree in the European contexts and certainly in South Africa) is preeminently white. The working classes are, therefore, racially identified. All classes and strata of white people identify themselves as a separate race-class from blacks and identify the nation and the state in racialized terms. Hence, one can speak of a racialized nation-state; and within this mixture, the core, or organizing mechanism of race, class, nation, and nationality is the racialized state.

The slaves constituted in Du Bois’s thinking the principal proletarian agency in 19th-century US history. The racialized self- identification of white workers (what Du Bois called “a wage for whiteness”) bound them more strongly to the white bourgeoisie than to the Black proletariat.6 This wage for whiteness is, so to speak, an ontological benefit to being identified as white. Hence, an ontological identification exists between white workers and white slave owners, white workers and white capitalist etc. The state, therefore, is not just a mechanism of class rule; it is a mechanism of race-class rule. This rule is organized upon the ideology of white supremacy. Hence, the boundaries between the ruled and the rulers along class lines are blurred and fluid, while the real and most enduring boundaries are between the racially dominant and racially subordinated groups. Furthermore, as Du Bois suggests, the racially oppressed constitute the proletariat and within them resides the vast reservoir of proletarian consciousness and agency (Du Bois, 1935: ch. 4, “The General Strike”). The “class struggle” in this Du Boisian construal is organized around the struggle against white supremacy, and its central organizing principle is the struggle for black freedom. The racialized state functions as the instrument of white unity and white ideological identity against the threat of the black race-class and its proletarian core.

Du Bois’s conceptualization of the US state as a racialized instru- ment does not negate the Marxist theory of the state. His theory advances Marxism, realizing a new and more accurate synthesis. The Du Boisian construal is both theoretically elegant and highly predictive. Furthermore, it breaks out of the reductionist strategies of class essentialism and methodological individualism. This Du Boisian standpoint informs a growing body of scholarship. As a result, a significant reexamination of state theory and its legal implications is occurring. Some of this is associated with the school of critical race theory, and thinkers such as Derek Bell, Patricia Williams, Cheryl Harris, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Charles Mills. Alongside these is the school known as whiteness studies, or race traitors, whose proponents are David Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, Theodore Allen, and Joe Feagin, among others. Writers like Bernard Magubane and Clarence J. Munford have thought deeply about the state using traditional Marxism as a starting point, but going beyond it in a Du Boisian manner. Their line of research and reasoning represents the most fruitful approach to understanding the racialized state.

Charles Mills argues that the US state is formed out of a racial contract among white folk. The state, he suggests, is an a priori condition of modern racialized societies. Bernard Magubane shows a similar process with respect to South African state formation. Magubane’s study examines a white settler colony and the modalities of state formation that emerged from the conflicts and cooperation between English and Dutch settlers to control the African majority of South Africa. The historical account of the US state emphasizes that it was formed and legitimated by white people based upon a protracted history of compromise, conflict, civil war and armed struggle among themselves, accompanied by a long, brutal history of betrayal by white working and middle class people of black slaves, workers, sharecroppers, and middle classes. The betrayal of the Negro, to use Rayford Logan’s phrase, is critical in every moment of state formation and legitimation in American history. Noel Ignatiev’s study How The Irish Became White and David Roediger’s The Wages ofWhiteness are recent explanations of the consequences of the white working class’s betrayal and its role in the legitimation of whiteness. Ignatiev says…

In the combination of Southern planters and the “plain republicans” of the North, the Irish were to become a key element. The truth is not, as some historians would have it, that slavery made it possible to extend to the Irish the privileges of citizenship, by providing another group for them to stand on, but the reverse, that the assimilation of the Irish into the white race made it possible to maintain slavery (1995:69).

Mary Frances Berry (1994) takes the story further, urging that the US state and Constitution were forged in the struggle to contain black resistance. The logic of Berry’s position is that whiteness and the racialized state function to suppress Black resistance and maintain Blacks as a “sub-proletariat.” Lerone Bennett Jr. (2000) argues that through it all Lincoln was unprincipled vis-à-vis the freedom of the slaves, and that had he lived beyond 1865, he would, like Jefferson, have slaughtered the ideals of the nation upon the altar of white supremacy. Lincoln, in Bennett’s narrative, was another of a long line of white betrayers of blacks. What is missing in Bennett’s account is that Lincoln as President was first and foremost a defender of the racialized state, which both constrained and facilitated his actions. Nonetheless, his and Berry’s interpretations are as close as one can come, within the confines of academic discourse, to arguing that the US is a racist state.

Finally, the crucial moment in defining white rights and black denial and hence updating the US Constitution to reflect the new stage of US racial and economic life was the famous Plessy v Ferguson decision of 1896. Cheryl Harris (1993) insists that race and property rights define the foundation of US Constitutional law and that whiteness is a form of property to be protected under the Constitution.

The legal evolution of whiteness begins with the 3/5 clause of the Constitution and is perfected through multiple political and Constitutional interpretations and rulings. Among these are the Dred Scott Decision (1857), Plessy v Ferguson (1896), and most notably recent interpretations of the US Supreme Court with respect to race and whiteness. Cheryl Harris (1993: 1753) contends that in its landmark Brown v Topeka Board of Education decision (1954), the Court dismantled an older form of whiteness as property (as upheld in Plessy), but dialectically permitted its reemergence in a more subtle form, i.e., accepting as normal de facto societal inequities between blacks and whites. As Harris puts it, “In accepting substantial inequality as a neutral base line, a new form of whiteness as property was condoned.” Hence, the anti-affirmative action rulings of the Court in Bakke (1978), City of Richmond v J.A. Croson (1989), and Wygant v Jackson Board of Education (1986) were the Court’s application of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to protect the property interest in whiteness (Harris, 1993: 1766). Derek Bell Jr. (1995: 23) insists that racial equality is not deemed legitimate by large segments of the American people, “at least to the extent it threatens the societal status of whites.” He then points out that because of the prevailing attitudes of whites to racial equality the 14th Amendment may not be available as a remedy in cases of racial discrimination. In the current context, therefore, most legal remedies to counter racial discrimination have been trumped, thereby transforming the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment into a defense of whiteness, rather than a protection for those historically deprived of civil rights.

The evolutionary history of whiteness is connected to the state in much the way that the state is to the nation. Whiteness and white supremacy operate as deep structural foundations or unstated assumptions underlying state power and state organization. White (or American) nationalism is, in this configuration, the political manifestation of whiteness. The racialized US state is the central political organ of white power. It is, however, a complex network of relationships and socio-political forces. It is a site of intense political and ideological conflict. It is neither suigeneris, nor above the political and economic realities of the historical, socio-political and ideological contexts within which it exists. Thus one can observe command-and-control functions of the US state as well as mediation functions. Liberal theory generally points to the mediation or “above class” functions (Rawls, 1971; Nozick, 1974); Marxists and other radical theorists point to the command-and-control functions as primary (see Engels, 1884, and Lenin, 1918, as modern classics). There is another view, a reform socialist or democratic socialist stance (see Desai, 2002: 297), which believes that modern capitalism has wide possibilities of democratic expansion and reform through the expansion of civil society and non-governmental institutions. And certainly it is clear that both radical and liberal commentators on the US state make credible arguments supporting their views. However, the deeper issue is how it functions to configure, defend and promote race and race relations at particular historical moments. In this respect neither liberal nor traditional radical views are adequate. What is called for is an understanding of the US state as a racialized mechanism that is the principal organizer of racialized power. As an instrument of racialized power, i.e. the power of white people over non-whites, especially black people, it functions to mediate class conflict and fissures among whites and to exert primarily command-and-control functions with respect to blacks. This situation is not only deeply contradictory, but also profoundly ironic. Blacks, the most consistently democratic force in the country, have benefited least from democracy. Remaining outside of the social contract, excluded from the liberal framework constructed and defended by the state, and the chief objects of the state’s command-and-control functions, they appear almost as a stateless people, somewhat like the Palestinians or black South Africans under apartheid.

However, the theoretical defenders of the liberal “mediating” state are also defenders of the notion of a colorblind state, and thus are themselves blind to the historically constituted race-determined nature of the US state. It is they, in the end, not the US state, that are colorblind-a colorblindness which itself, as Charles Mills points out, entrenches white privilege.7 However, in being blind to the racial nature of the state, they ignore the state’s command-and-control functions, which are overwhelmingly constructed upon and defined by its role as defender of racialized social relationships. The liberal democratic state should have a sign outside its door that reads, “For Whites Only.”

The race-class problematic in the formation and evolution of state power in the US is a special instance of the evolution of the state in general. This race-class situation complicates the realities of the state and the theories that attempt to explain it. There is a dynamism and fluidity to the US state that defies an either/or analysis. The class dimension of the state is dialectically contingent on its race dimension. Class, in a certain sense, is thus sabotaged as the central organizing dynamic of the racialized state. The very fluidity of race and whiteness, their historical contextualities and contingencies, their dynamic and changing political and social identities, makes for a certain indeterminacy with respect to the formations and evolutions of the racialized state. The racialized state is thus an unstable, ever-evolving structure. A major destabilizing factor is demographic change, resulting from immigration and from low birth rates among whites. This occasions the need to redefine whiteness in such ways as to guarantee a white majority, as a condition of legitimation of white authority. Non-black immigrants are faced with complex negotiations between anti-black racism and whiteness. Many Latinos and Asians are so positioned as to become in a generation white.

The racialized state is multivariant and contingent upon the evolving dynamic of racial formations and transformations, racial identity, and demographic changes. Hence the logic of racialized state-formation has the quality of what Bourdieu (1977:110) calls “overdetermination through indetermination.” Kontopoulos (1993:236) speaks of this same situation as heterarchy, wherein structures such as the state are determined in and through contingencies and indeterminacies. The logic of racialized state-formation, rather than being top down and hierarchical, is heterarchical, i.e., top down and bottom up both at once. At the same time, key individuals and collective actors within the state continually intervene to define and redefine its mission and meaning.8

To understand the racialized state is to understand its underlying principles of self-organization within given historical contexts such as that of the present moment, which is one of political fluidity, war, militarism, and economic transformation and uncertainty. Magubane (1996) shows that the racialized state in South Africa was constructed on the basis of a race-class dialectic. However, like the US state, it was profoundly malleable and entangled in a set of contexts that changed over time. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction is best understood as a study of the construction, deconstruction, and reformation of the racialized state in order to reestablish white power over former slaves, the work force in general, and the nation. This was a necessary condition for the establishment of state monopoly capitalism and US imperialism. Clarence J. Munford (2001) traces the ideological roots of the racialized state to Europe and European philosophy. He asserts that the Euro-American state is the principal agency of white civilizational power. As such, it is connected not just to class power, but to the more enduring cultural and civilizational patterns of white supremacy.

The racialized nature of the state is confirmed not only by historical, sociological and philosophical studies, but also by the nature of mass political mobilization to legitimate the state. Clearly the legitimation of the American state rests upon a broad white consensus and the mobilization of that consensus (the bottom up dimension) by the Democratic and Republican parties. In fact, the racialized state achieves legitimacy to the degree that it resolves the class problem among white people. In other words, the state mediates class issues in such a way that whiteness and race trump class in national politics. In this regard, I define the mediation to refer not only to economic class issues but also, above all, to ideological class issues. Thus Du Bois’s idea of a wage for whiteness, a non-material or ontological wage, is crucial to understanding the legitimation of the state. Seymour Lipset writes, “A system in which the support of different parties corresponds too closely to basic sociological divisions cannot continue on a democratic basis, for such a development would reflect a state of conflict among groups so intense and clear cut as to rule out all possibility of compromise” (1959:93). When Lipset in this classic statement refers to sociological differences, he means economic and ideological differences among white people. In the two-party system, both parties are multi-class and multi-sectoral structures that compete to achieve the upper hand in determining the modalities by which white privilege is dispensed and defended. They cooperate to legitimate a white consensus. Once class is no longer an issue (i.e., once any possible challenge from the white working class has been contained), the question is what then defines the state and whom does it operate for and against.9 The two sources of the state’s legitimation are the fear (real and imagined) of domestic unrest sparked by Blacks and the global threat, either from international communism in the past, or from anti-imperialist and anti-globalization movements or militant Islam in the present. The subtle and open message of the elite representatives of the racialized state is that it defends white privilege and whiteness against these domestic and foreign threats.10

Du Bois states in Black Reconstruction, “The record of the Negro worker during Reconstruction presents an opportunity to study inductively the Marxian theory of the state” (1935: 381). In thinking about Reconstruction, Du Bois was also thinking about the present and future of race, democracy, class conflict, and the state. He goes beyond themes that had appeared in his John Brown (1909): insurrectionary violence, the political and ideological agency of the slaves, and state power. In Black Reconstruction he suggests the possibility, in several southern states, of a dictatorship of the proletariat, aimed at realizing democratic rights and economic opportunity for the former slaves. In the end, this possibility was sabotaged by the failure to achieve an alliance of black and white working people. Du Bois also looks at what we today would call racialized relations of production, at whose core is what he called the “wage for whiteness.” His study establishes the framework for a larger revolutionary research project concerning US democracy, the racialized state, and the relationship of class and class conflict to race and race conflict. It carries enormous predictive power.

Black Reconstruction displaces liberal, social democratic and Marxist analysis of the state and democracy. It is rare that so ambitious a project is so successful in realizing its intended goals. Du Bois asserts that the 20th century begins with the overturning of Reconstruction. Out of this defeat comes the modern US state, modern class and race relations, etc. But beyond this, the book sums up the 75-year historical cycle from 1860 to 1935, and on this basis establishes the ideological, philosophical and political framework for the struggles for civil rights and bourgeois democracy into the 21st century. The work insists upon the centrality of African Americans as the principal agency of progressive and revolutionary change, and points to the conservative and at times reactionary impulses that animate white working people’s consciousness. Du Bois is the first to establish that whiteness is a social category and that as such it is a critical core dynamic in the American social structure. In the end Du Bois redefines what class analysis is. He raises it above class reductionism and dogmatism to recognition of the embeddedness of class in race. Class conflict and bourgeois democracy are shaped in the context of the struggle against white supremacy and for freedom to Black people.

Du Bois had done considerable study in the methods of political economy, most notably at the University of Berlin. In fact, the German social science academy distinguished itself in that it sought to join historical and political economic studies with concrete empirical research. Du Bois’s research reflected this, especially his study of small and large-scale agricultural production in the South during slavery.11 Had he been allowed to complete his work in Germany, this would probably have been the direction taken by his dissertation. An important aspect of this study is its examination of the political economy of slavery. Political economy linked economic analysis to analysis of the state and of economic and social policies. From a reformist standpoint, this meant viewing the state as an instrument of progressive consciousness and policies.12 Socialists thus imbued the state with programs and policies geared to improving the conditions of working people. There is no doubt that Du Bois throughout his career saw this as one way to advance the immediate interests of the racially oppressed Black people. This stance perhaps reflected practical necessity given that Blacks were almost completely powerless and disenfranchised and living under what, in the southern states, was nearly a fascist dictatorship.

Du Bois’s professional career starts in the period of the Nadir, when Blacks had been completely deprived of civil and human rights. The justification for this denial was that Blacks were less than human, were without history, and had no standing as citizens. As a political text, Du Bois’s 1897 speech before the American Negro Academy, “The Conservation of Races,” is a defense of the rights to citizenship for Blacks based on their being part of human history and civilization. The paramount political task for black folk and their white supporters, therefore, was to achieve bourgeois democratic rights. The Souls of Black Folk should be read as a passionate defense of the civil and human rights of Black folk within the context of bourgeois democracy. The argument made in Souls and in “The Conservation of Races” is that blacks had made fundamental contributions to US culture and the shaping of its democracy, as attested to by their collective strivings, which have made black folk the best defenders of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Blacks thus faced the profound irony noted above, of being the most consistent democratic force in the nation, yet lacking democratic and human rights. The new situation, Du Bois argues, was occasioned by the overturning of Reconstruction and the return of Blacks, as he puts it, to a new form of slavery. The Courts, he points out, had become the universal device for the reenslavement of blacks. Du Bois’ intellectual work confronts him not just with the color line, but with the racialization of society’s hegemonic political and social institution, the state.

Du Bois understood that the modern US state was both liberal and racialized. Expanding democratic rights for whites went hand in hand with the state operating as an instrument of racial subordination. This feature could be found in European states as well. The difference was that European powers exercised the racialized dimension of state power in their colonies and in wars of national conquest and suppression (Du Bois, 1915). The uniqueness of the American situation is that both features were exercised within the boundaries of the US nation-state. Hence, the coexistence between the liberal view of the state, associated with social contract theory (and more recently with Rawls),13 and the proto-fascist or authoritarian view, which is as American as Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, albeit exercised solely against Native Americans and blacks.14

Already in his early works, including the Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois showed a clear predisposition to support the insurrectionary path to changing the racialized American state; this dimension becomes more pronounced in his writing after 1920, reaching its apogee in Black Reconstruction. His view would supersede prevailing socialist and communist constructions. On the one hand, it would supersede the Fabian idea that the state plays an instrumental role, organizing the intellectual resources of society for the purpose of advancing its technological and social relations.15 It would also go beyond the classical Marxist-Leninist position, that the state is the concentrated expression of the repressive power of the dominant class. In superseding these views, Du Bois would insist that the Western state was racialized and thus embodied the concentrated power of the white race and hence defended existing race relationships within their national boundaries and internationally through colonialism and imperialism.

There emerges from the analytic dimension of his work the paramount role of African American political and moral agency in the context of the American republic. The slave rebellions and insurrections, the role of the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint, his view that the role of the white masses in the history of resistance to repression was exaggerated by historians and had not measured up to the maroon and slave resistance, and the startling view that the slaves’ refusal to work after 1862 constituted a general strike, represented a revolutionary approach to American history writing. From this, the sense that the crisis of slavery from 1860 to 1880 constituted a revolutionary situation and that black folk were the principal agents of revolutionary change led logically to the hypothesis that in several southern states a kind of proletarian dictatorship could possibly have emerged.16

It is important to examine how these ideas worked themselves out in strategy, tactics, organization, and politics. The pressing need for blacks to achieve bourgeois democratic rights and liberties, as part of the struggle for full liberation, would require practical day-to-day organization, education and agitation. Du Bois’s organizational work speaks above all else to his attempt to implement his ideas. He fully understood that the path of bourgeois democracy for blacks would not proceed as it had in Europe or for that matter as it had for whites in the United States. It would be, in the end, a struggle for bourgeois democratic rights without the leadership of an existing or aspiring bourgeoisie. It would be, as he conceptualized it in Souls, a struggle for these rights by a people. The texture of this struggle was similar to what would become the national liberation struggles of the mid-20th century. At the start of the 20th century, rather than a revolutionary path to achieve these rights, the reform path was the only option available to blacks.17

The modern American state can be traced roughly to the end of Reconstruction. The Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877 can be thought of both as a coda and as the inauguration of the modern state system in the US. The South is back in the Union and Blacks are being pushed back into a new form of slavery. The US is again a continental nation. America’s victory in the Spanish American War is the nodal point in the political and ideological consolidation of the US state as racialized and imperialist, seeking global reach. Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency, and with it the style of the strong-man executive, defined the political and personal characteristics associated with contem- porary American executive leadership. The Presidency from TR’s time until now has largely usurped Congressional power, usually justifying this by reference to one or another crisis that demanded centralized state leadership.

By this time the US was second only to England as an industrial nation and sea power. The two-party system became the institutional framework for ideological and psychological mobilization of the masses. Appeals to whiteness, Manifest Destiny,18 and scientific racism19 were fashioned to give a progressivist cover to this mobilization (see Smedley, 1993: 191, and Zuberi, 2001: ch. 1). The centrality of this period in defining the 20th-century US nation-state is being examined by any number of establishment historians. Warren Zimmerman’s First Great Triumph: How Americans Made Their Country A Great Power tells a tale of the men who changed US state policy and ideology in such ways as to prepare it to assume a role on the global stage. I would argue a direct lineage to the present war and unilateralist policies of the current Bush Administration from that period and the Presidency of TR. With the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, the state as guarantor of the economy’s health and as principal regulator of social and economic processes was established. Keynesianism became the policy and philosophical framework for this new state interventionism. At the same time Congress’s power was profoundly diminished. The Cold War occasioned a renewal of the political and ideological rationale for the US state as the instrument of US imperialism and global reach. The 19th-century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and the trope that white Americans were a chosen people, became a global doctrine in the struggle against “communism,” best enunciated in the Truman Doctrine. The scope of Manifest Destiny included the vast majority of the world’s peoples in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Social Darwinist aspects of this doctrine were clear to any who would dare to look. Manifest Destiny as a 20th-century doctrine expressed itself in the treatment of Africa during the Cold War. Every major power competed for the upper hand over the resources of the continent. As a result, Africa became a major site of Cold War conflict.20

The current phase of the formation of the US state begins roughly with the Reagan Administration. The balance between the Welfare and Warfare aspects of the US state, which had been maintained between 1945 and 1980, was upset in favor of the military industrial side. One could speak of the period up to the Reagan Administration as that of a Keynesian-neoclassical synthesis,21 wherein the state serves the free market system and at the same time maintains the balance between classes and social strata within the white population. It thus restrained class conflict among whites, while holding to its racialized, repressive, and control dimension vis-à-vis blacks. With Reagan, however, the balance of state power shifted increasingly to the military-industrial and police dimensions. The process leading to this moment has been uninterrupted. Both parties supported it, albeit with differing rhetoric and tactical schemes. The competition dimension of the two-party system was thus lessened, and the differences today are so slight as to be inconsequential. Friedmanite neo-liberal economics prevail; Keynesianism as policy is dead.

W.E.B Du Bois was among the earliest social scientists to seriously consider the state as a product of racialized social relations. He came to view the US state as a principal defender of the color line and race relations. His long career of understanding and explaining what he variously referred to as the Veil or the color line compelled him to engage state theory, state formation in the US, citizenship, and the struggle to achieve bourgeois democratic rights for African Americans. The state, for Du Bois, rather than standing above race, emerges from the nation’s racial history and is deeply implicated in the racial divisions of society.

Du Bois’s ideas on the state are embedded in his larger historical and sociological studies. Scholars, political theorists, and social activists have an obligation to excavate Du Bois’s important contribution to state theory. Such a project is a pressing theoretical requirement in the struggle to achieve and defend the rights of black folk and other peoples of color after the events of September 11, 2001. The anti-democratic and white supremacist assault upon the people’s rights is in a very profound sense the outcome of America’s racial history. For democratic rights to be defended will require either radical reforms of the existing state system or its complete overthrow. Du Bois at various moments in his career argued both positions and suggested tactics, strategies, and organizational modalities to achieve each.22

Notes

1. Holbrooke, examining a body of new revisions to earlier revisionist scholarship, says (2002:149): “Max Boot, for example, has shown recently in The Savage Wars of Peace that, contrary to the ‘Powell Doctrine’ and the views of the current leaders of the American military, the United States has conducted endless small military interventions with success throughout its history. Walter Russell Mead, in Special Providence, has identified four different themes in American foreign policy and found continuity stretching back to the founding of the republic. Looking at events that straddle the Cold War but from a wholly post-Cold War perspective, Samantha Power has offered up ‘A Problem from Hell,’ her wholly original examination of consistent American failure to act in the face of genocide. And Eliot Cohen’s Supreme Command is a somewhat different sort of book: a study of four historical events designed to prove the indisputable thesis that war is still too important to leave to the generals.” What Holbrooke suggests about this scholarship is that the US has been a warfare state since the beginning of the 20th century. See also Zimmerman (2002).

2. Guillaumin’s idea of the elevation of race to an autonomous legal category is based upon her idea of the move from the biologization to the socialization of social relationships. She argues that in the 20th century the idea of race was “given legal status alongside older categories such as property, sex and age.” Her point is well taken. She is wrong in observing this development only in conjunction with Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. In fact, this process began over two hundred years ago in the United States.

3. Clarence J. Munford (2001) makes an important contribution to the understanding of the racialized state in Euro-American history. See esp. ch. 4, “The State and Race.” He concludes, “Despite liberal reform spasms and civil rights concessions extracted by struggle, since ca. 1876 the US state has never once ‘stood above’ the white majority. It has never been independent of the ruling racial-class. The reason is simple: Black folk have never yet been able to garner the political power to assert African American interests and needs against white opposition” (161).

4. Cheryl Harris (1993: 1725f) has persuasively argued that whiteness “fits the broad historical concept of property described by classical theorists.” She further says, “White identity conferred tangible and economically valuable benefits, and it was jealously guarded as a valued possession, allowed only to those who met a strict standard of proof.”

5. This periodization can be disputed on grounds of being overly generalized. Certainly, within each of these periods one can define distinct stages or moments. However, what I have attempted to get at is the periods of major transformations. The stages are, therefore, connected to central changes in the economic structure, the political party structure, and the legal status of race.

6. David Roediger (1991:12) correctly interprets the meaning of Black Reconstruction, pointing out that the book is organized around issues of race and class, and that in teasing out these issues Du Bois “continually creates jarring, provocative theoretical images.” Roediger points out that at the center of the problem of the class struggle in the US is what Du Bois called “a public and psychological wage” of whiteness. Charles Lemmert (2000) insists that Du Bois in writing the history of Reconstruction was actually writing the history of the present and future.

7. Charles Mills (1997: 77) writes, “The black philosopher Bill Lawson comments on the deficiencies of the conceptual apparatus of traditional liberalism, which has no room for the peculiar post-Emancipation status of blacks, simultaneously citizens and noncitizens. The black philosopher of law Anita Allen remarks on the irony of standard American philosophy of law texts, which describe the universe in which ‘all humans are paradigm rightsholders’ and see no need to point out that the actual US record is somewhat different.”

8. Heterarchical, or multileveled logics of social structural formation are manifested in the formation of the racialized state. The processes that unfold are far more complex than the hierarchical top down logics usually identified with state formation in Marxist and left discourse. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction identified this heterarchical logic and suggested that the strategy for the achievement of bourgeois democratic rights by black folk would require multiple tactics. Du Bois even suggested that black folk seen as strategic actors could alter the political landscape and in so doing manipulate time, i.e. the rhythms and sequences of events (on Du Bois’s views, see Lemmert 2001; on strategic actors and the manipulation of time, see Bourdieu 1977).

9. Lipset (1996) makes the point that the US state and nation are basically conservative. He says that this conservatism during the New Deal period took on a social democratic tinge (38). Postwar economic growth lessened the class tensions that defined the Great Depression and returned the nation to its traditional conservatism. I would add that the conservatism is now tinged, to use Lipset’s word, with reactionism. This shift to the right and far right in American conservatism fuels the new drive towards global hegemony and empire.

10. An aspect of this ideological function of the state is its past and current treatment of black masculinity. I am at present studying the modalities of black masculinity in times of war, and am writing an essay entitled “Black Masculinity in the American Dreamworld.”

11. David Levering Lewis (1993:143) says that the two principal influences upon Du Bois in Berlin were Gustav von Schmoller and Adolph Wagner. Their theory of the state and the economy, Lewis tells us, came from Ficthe’s notion that competing economic interests were kept in equilibrium by an intelligent state. This idea of the relationship of the state to social and economic forces will find its way into Souls, but has all but disappeared by the time of Black Reconstruction, where the state is conceptualized as the instrument of white power.

12. Adolph Reed (1997) identifies Du Bois’s early political thinking within the bounds of Fabianism, i.e., the idea that science and scientific programs could advance progressive goals from within the state.

13. Modern communisms as well as modern social democracy emerge from 19th-century debates over the nature of the state, rather than over class per se. It is my view that while Hegel is a central influence, vis-à-vis the idea that the state transcends society and as such represents it (a view that seemed to inform Kautsky’s notion of a “pure” democracy resulting from the democratic evolution of society), Kant’s view that the state is both moral and ethical arbiter of societal conflict has pronounced and enduring influence upon both social democratic and liberal theorists of the state.

14. The American state is indeed a peculiar democratic institution. Like American society it is “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Hence, while democracy expanded throughout the 19th century for whites, repression and genocide increased for Native Americans and blacks. White populism as manifested by the Presidency and ideology of Andrew Jackson stood for expanding rights for whites, with the Trail of Tears for native Americans and Fugitive slave provisions to protect the rights of slave owners. Late 19th-century populism, like the main thrust of trade unionism, signified to all sides of the “class struggle” an expansion of white identities and white rights. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the warfare state is viewed as the instrument of consolidating global white rights and hegemony.

15. Adolph Reed (1997) discusses how Du Bois understood the state in the early part of his career as an instrument for altering race relationships in the US. This, Reed suggests, was an essentially technocratic view, especially in addressing the color line. Hence, Reed sees Du Bois’s early effort as attempting to merge Fabianism to the struggle against racial oppression.

16. Du Bois (1935: 381) rejects the explicit applicability of “dictatorship of the proletariat” to the Reconstruction setting, referring instead, in the course of his discussion, to a “dictatorship of labor” (limited by other social forces). Hebert Aptheker (1989: 251) contends that Du Bois, at the time of his research for Black Reconstruction, had not studied Lenin’s theory of the state, and therefore that his uses of concepts like “dictatorship of the proletariat” are confusing. But whether he uses “dictatorship of the proletariat” or “dictatorship of labor,” Aptheker says, Du Bois’s intent is clear: to point to the radical possibilities of Reconstruction.

17. Here there are two questions in the tactical and strategic struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One is the stance of Booker T. Washington and later Marcus Garvey, who not only trivialized the struggle to realize bourgeois or civil rights for blacks, but also attempted to substitute an economic program for them. The other was the socialist-Marxist view to bypass the struggle for bourgeois democracy in favor of the struggle for socialism, saying that the class struggle is the struggle for black rights.

18. Smedley (1993:191) points out that the idea of Anglo-Saxon superiority became a central part of American racial thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries. She continues, “It also became part of the American mythology associated with republicanism, Protestantism, democracy, laissez-faire economic theory, progress and empire building. The superior ‘racial’ traits of Anglo-Saxons became a stimulus for American expansion. Indeed the myth was at the heart of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, by which white Americans expressed belief in themselves as a ‘chosen people’, destined to dominate others. Over time, many non-English whites also assimilated this myth because it provided the basis for the general ideology of white supremacy.” Important to the new racism of the early 20th century was “scientific racism” or eugenics, fathered by Francis Galton (see Zuberi 2001:53).

19. The idea of white Americans as chosen people is not adequate to meet the ideological needs of rising American imperialism; a rational or “scientific” justification was needed.

20. Cold War historiography generally fails to understand the critical role of the African liberation movements as central agents in the struggle against imperialism and neo-colonialism. This made them targets of European and US imperialism. Moreover, the West, especially the United States, considered the radical ideological and political trends in Africa especially troubling. Africans were viewed as child-like tools of one or another great power. The current situation in Africa can in large part be explained by the intense and vicious struggle and devastation wrought by the Cold War.

21. The notion of a Keynesian neo-classical synthesis I take from Osadchaya (1974); see also Skidelsky (1992).

22. In this regard the views of Munford (1996, 2001) and d Magubane (1996) are critical. Both are “revisionist” theories of the state and both draw upon Marxist class notions, but supersede them by arguing that the racialized dynamic is the core or central dynamic in state formation in the West. Munford asserts, “the modern Western state has legitimized white racism while constantly modernizing it” (2001:111). Magubane asserts that the South African example leads him to concur with Fanon and Cesaire who regard fascism “not as an aberration, but as a logical outcome of European colonialism brought home to roost.”

References

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