PRINT January 1991


David Duke

“RACE,” IN BENEDICT ANDERSON'S COMPELLING TERMS, is a form of “imagined community”; and as a product of the imaginary it has been promoted by a series of more or less unbelievable myths. So much is common knowledge. What seems less noticed, however, is that the mythological characterizes discussion of racism’s various manifestations almost as commonly as it does their constituent beliefs. What I call Buckley’s Principle, for example (after William F. Buckley, Jr., who has done much over the past twenty years to make it popular), holds that Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Civil Rights Act (1964), and the Voting Rights Act (1965) have excised racially determined considerations from the structure of American society. William Bennett, first U.S. drug czar and now Republican national chairman, recently advocated Buckley’s Principle in declaring, “There was and has been and still is [discrimination] in some places, [but] it stops at some point. . . . Officially in America, it stopped with the Civil Rights Act of 1965.” It follows from Buckley’s Principle that whatever racism now exists is mere personal prejudice, an individual rather than an institutional concern. And Americans, we are constantly reminded, have fared just fine in erasing their racial prejudices.

It is of course true that out of the civil rights movement there emerged constraints upon racial discrimination and discourse in the public domain. In the past decade, however, a new racialized assault has emerged. And past reservations about explicitly racialized social analysis have been buried beneath characterizations of the body politic in the terms of a reinvented, often coded racial language, a discourse that expresses itself through veiled concerns about criminality, immigration, education, residential location and public space, welfare, the underclass, and equal opportunity. Perhaps we expected too much of the civil rights movement and its obvious successes. After all, it’s not just that people who have benefited so long from racist institutional structures are unlikely to give up their psychological commitment to these structures so readily and generously; it is also, and more emphatically, that investment in the institutional structures themselves, real and imagined, has hardly been spent.

In this sense, David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader whose election bid for senator from Louisiana came unsettlingly close to victory last fall, represents the return of the repressed. But it is a repressed that in its reemergence has taken on new form. It is not so much that the public consensus on the existence of civil rights or antidiscrimination legislation has shifted. What has altered is the interpretation of the content of discrimination: what counts as discrimination, and who are its objects; who ought to be members of civil society and who beyond its bounds. Increasingly and insidiously forgotten in this reinterpretation is history itself, the history of exclusion, erased from the memory of a public intent to live out its present in mythical reinventions of the American Dream. Duke has managed to code his more extreme denial of history—of fascism, slavery, colonization, lynching, racial classification for exclusionary purposes, etc.—in terms of this widening commitment to a racialized reinterpretation of past and present. Those who forget history are destined to repeat it; and those who would deny the past—indeed, their own past—are driven to reinstitute it.

The national media have explained Duke’s rise in terms of a white electorate drawn to a picture-perfect, made-for-television candidate, the post-Modern politician. Willing to forgive or ignore his past, white voters are supposedly finding that Duke’s rhetoric, purified of its fascist overtones, resonates with their concern over economic conditions approaching recession. The compelling explanation, however, is more subtle: this recession is only a stage in the slippage in economic conditions of the middle, lower middle, and working classes over the past ten years—conditions only now becoming apparent to them as they finally face the credit payments that enabled them to think otherwise for a decade. And Duke’s implicitly racialized rhetoric is a rationalization that they have, after all, assumed as their own in embracing Reaganism. Duke has managed to encode his segregationist commitments in more politically acceptable terms not to fool the popular white vote but to liberate, to give voice to, its own repressed dispositions. In this, Duke is to American politics what Enoch Powell was to British politics in the late ’60s and ’70s, and what Jean-Marie Le Pen was to the French in the ’80s. But there is a twist. Powell and Le Pen were as much cause as symptom of the political mood of their countries, a mood they moved sharply to the racist right, at least over issues like immigration. Duke is a product of the sharp rightward swing of the Reagan years rather than its cause. He is an effect of Reaganism perhaps as McCarthy was of the early cold war, though at present on a smaller stage.

One might well wonder why the stage is Louisiana rather than any number of other states. Again, common media wisdom would have it that Louisiana’s economy is especially troubled, and that unemployed whites, their families, and friends are quick to scapegoat blacks and immigrants as the cause of the country’s economic plight. And in a state that has a notable “immigrant” presence (not only Latin Americans but also Vietnamese) and is 40 percent black, many whites find a scapegoat more easily than they find work. In his attack on affirmative action, Duke would hardly point out that since 1940, nationwide unemployment for black men has generally been a little over twice as high as for whites, or that infant mortality rates are now also more than twice as high for blacks as for whites.

None of this individuates Louisiana, or explains the popularity of a Duke there. In fact, appeals to charismatic explanations deny the underlying historical determinants much as Duke would efface his past. Beneath Duke’s present and possible future political success is the history of formal race classification and exclusion, a history more recent in Louisiana than in any other state in the nation. As late as 1983, Louisiana law continued to define as black anyone with a “traceable amount of Negro blood.” This is perhaps less surprising when one remembers that Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the case that set segregation in stone for nearly 60 years, originated in Louisiana. In 1983, after a well-publicized case in which a woman who considered herself white indignantly sued the state to alter the “Negro” classification on her birth certificate, the Louisiana legislature moved to redefine as black anyone with “one-thirty-second Negro blood” (the number was a political compromise). In the ensuing public outcry the state finally acted as virtually all the others had done over a decade earlier, namely, to classify a person’s race purely on the basis of self-identification. (We have only David Duke’s self-proclamation, in other words, that he is the standard-bearer of “whiteness.”) In choosing Duke in the Louisiana state primary for U.S. Senate, 44 percent of those voting were trying to guarantee by political fiat what the law no longer formally sanctioned, namely, the sort of racist classification and exclusion they had known less than a decade before.

I do not mean to suggest that what Duke represents is likely to be localized to Louisiana. For what is at issue, I repeat, is not a particular political candidate but the regeneration of a racialized rhetoric the raison d’être of which is exclusion. And central to these interests, as Duke makes abundantly clear, is a more widespread attack on affirmative action in the name of equal opportunity. It should surprise no one that Bush, in November, vetoed the Civil Rights Bill on grounds that it promotes quotas, or that Duke should capitalize on a photo opportunity by traveling to Washington to congratulate the president on his veto.

There is a sense in which affirmative action has worked almost too well. It has helped to establish a small black bourgeoisie—if it makes any sense to talk objectively of minorities, this is the minority of minorities—whose members hold their own with any bourgeois class faction. But it has served as well to salve the conscience of a society (was this its original design?) that has done little if anything to better the prospects of those racially marginalized blacks who remain truly and perennially disadvantaged. Affirmative action, beyond its important advances, has served as a blind, veiling entrenched exclusions. And precisely because it has obscured disadvantage, it has created an opportunity for misguided racist criticism. Duke’s attack on it expresses in fact the standard white gripe: because affirmative action discriminates in reverse against whites, it’s unfair, and because it promotes educating and hiring the ill-prepared and second-rate it is a cause of the nation’s economic decline. The second point rests upon a widespread false assumption, and represses the real causes of economic decline (in any case, how many incompetent hirings has white privilege promoted?); while the first assumes that social position is the proper historical possession only of whites (and males), and that present-day blacks are the improper benefactors of wrongs done in the distant past to their ancestors. Both points implicitly deny the deep discriminatory exclusions that blacks (and other racially defined populations) continue to suffer. In the past decade, the language of equal opportunity has been narrowly construed to mean maximizing competition for available resources. But until equal opportunity means a commitment to equalizing the possibility the society offers for all to develop their abilities and talents, a nonracialized equal opportunity can only serve as a subterfuge for continued white privilege.

There is a more insidious logic yet at work in Duke’s attack, and it consists in his linking affirmative action to immigration. Immigration, like affirmative action, is supposedly turning Amerika [sic] into “a third world kind of country, with third world values and economics.” Debt-ridden and aid-dependent, the third world, Duke supposes, is incapable of self-government; third world presence in the United States is welfare bound, and the cities that blacks control politically are unsafe and a burden on the nation’s treasury. The logic is not limited to the likes of Duke: in a recent New York Sunday Times Magazine article on Detroit, Ze’ev Chafets draws a similar analogy between what he describes as the tragic decline of that city under black rule and the inevitable decline of independent African nations. One can only conclude that for those short on historical memory nothing has changed, everything is forgotten.

If we are really to get at racism in a way that begins to extinguish the flame, we have to stop thinking of the set of conditions it represents simply as a social pathology, as a cancer to be cut away, leaving the body politic untouched. We have to start acknowledging that race has been and continues to be basic to the way this society has been constituted. To rid ourselves of the cultures of race, then, we need to think of how to reconstitute the social order in nonracialized terms, in terms that place the all-too-readily constituted other not at the margins but at the center of ourselves—economically, politically, culturally, esthetically, and morally. And this means that one of the primary political tasks now facing us is unmasking the likes of David Duke.

David Theo Goldberg is assistant professor of justice studies at Arizona State University. He is the editor of Anatomy of Racism (University of Minnesota Press, 1990), and is currently writing a book on racist culture.