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Dialectics of Race and Racism—Marable and Roediger in the Journal of American History

Chris Webb 1 May 2011

In an interview with Democracy Now! Dr. Cornel West accuses Obama of "looking for the wrong Lincoln." The greatness of Lincoln, he argues, lies instead in the way he repsonded to the demands of social movements led by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. These movements were not responding to some professed American value, but rather fighting against the construction of race and racism though the ideas, policies and institutions that reproduced its fundamental logic. This is the argument David Roediger advances in How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon. A reviewer in The Journal of American History praises the book as "a compact survey of race in U.S. History."  

Viewing race as part of a series of dialectical formations, the author unravels a number of paradoxes at the heart of American history, explaining, for example, how the democratization of white citizenship was accompanied by a dramatic expansion in black bondage and the dispossession of native lands, how a capitalist system that was only supposed to see profit (and labor as an abstraction) organized some of the most racially stratified workforces on the planet, how a "color-blind" liberalism gave rise to deeply entrenched racial inequalities in the postwar period, and why race will likely survive the election of a black president.

Emancipatory impulses in US history have often been complicit in producing and reproducing racial hierarchies and divisions in American society. Roediger argues that race endures in US history because of its ability to mould itself around new historical conditions. Overcoming the confines of raced-based politics, while criticising claims of post-racialism, is the aim of Manning Marable's Beyond Black and White: From Civil Rights to Barack Obama, also reviewed in The Journal of American History.

According to Marable, the task of black studies is to examine this structural inequality from a global rather than a national perspective. He also calls for a global perspective and seeks to construct a left-based coalition of the most marginalized groups in the United States to pressure the Obama government for progressive change.

In the preface to the second edition of Beyond Black and White, Marable suggests that the Obama presidency filled the vacuum created by a weak and unorganized Left. While Obama embodies the hopes and aspirations of millions of black people, Marable insists that "Obama will only assume that progressive role if African-Americans and the most oppressed pressure his administartion from the left to implement his own political rhetoric." Without this pressure from below, we are left searching for the "wrong Obama."

Subscribers can visit The Journal of American History to read the reviews in full.

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