The Common Good
March-April 1998

A Nation Within a Nation

by Eugene F. Rivers III | March-April 1998

The unique experience of black America.

Eugene F. Rivers 3d, a Sojourners contributing editor, is pastor of Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and co-chair of the National Ten-Point Leadership Foundation. He was interviewed by telephone on January 27, 1998, by Sojourners assistant editor Aaron Gallegos. —The Editors

Aaron Gallegos: In your opinion, does multiculturalism redefine the racial issue in the United States, or is it still largely based on the legacy of black and white history in this country?

Eugene Rivers: The ideological phenomenon of multiculturalism has been one of the most retarding influences to advancing a discussion of authentic diversity and elevating the quality of discourse on racism in the United States. The multicultural ideology asserts that America is one big multicultural, multiethnic salad and that the historical experiences of various groups are essentially the same as that of black groups that were enslaved.

That analysis is fundamentally flawed. The experience of slavery in the United States is historically unique—there is no contemporary analogue. Unlike those who voluntarily crossed the border into the United States, the myriads of black people who came here involuntarily have no way of locating their place of origin. For that reason, slavery is the pivotal question that still shapes the structure of racial discourse in the United States.

Much of the confusion around multiculturalism is because people refer to blacks as an ethnic group, a class, or a race. None of those categories capture the complexity and ambiguities of the black experience which is unique in the United States. Black people, as the historian Eugene D. Genovese has pointed out, are a nation within a nation. On the one hand, they're Americans; and on the other hand, they're a separate and distinct cultural and historical reality. Other ethnic groups now view themselves as competitors—incorrectly assuming that their experience is analogous to that of black people.

Gallegos: Still, a lot of Chicanos and Native Americans would say that their historical situation is analogous to the African-American situation. Although they weren't necessarily slaves, they were here before the United States expanded and crossed their borders.

Rivers: Let's take the Chicanos. Countries are conquered and people are displaced every day, from street corners to empires. There is nothing unique about that. In the case of the Chicanos, they were not enslaved, their identities can be traced geographically, and they can identify their historical traditions.

As you know, in the biological pecking order Chicanos are basically the same as Native Americans. The native population was the object of genocide. No two ways about that. There are a range of issues that need to be addressed there, but within the racial hierarchy of white supremacy, blacks were viewed as inferior to Native Americans.

In the Western imagination, blackness is the incarnation of evil. It's not about being African American, it's about the universal nature of blackness as that of being radically other. Blacks were viewed literally as the lowest person on the great chain of being.

The fundamental issue is not a battle in "victim sweepstakes." It is about how this country comes to terms with the fact that it hasn't figured out what to do with 35 million descendants of slaves. Although we resist the truth, we know for a fact that they will not all be integrated into American society. If King's dream included the belief that all black people would be integrated into society, it was fiction, because that will not happen.

Gallegos: Is there any way that blacks and other racial groups might come together along class lines to address these issues? Or does the line of race still threaten to separate and divide?

Rivers: There may be issue-specific alliances, but there is a naive notion of a rainbow federation for all people of color that is based on the fictional premise that our histories are more similar than dissimilar. We've got to challenge and reevaluate that progressive myth.

For example, does the fact that Asians are not white mean they will necessarily be more favorably predisposed to black people? There is no empirical evidence for that. We need to get beyond this largely sentimental notion that people of color have the same political and policy interests. In fact, in some cases, whites will be more sympathetic to the interests of black people than will white Latinos or Asians.

Gallegos: With the increase in the number of black Latinos and more recent immigration from Africa and the Caribbean, do you think that same sort of deconstruction could apply to the black nation in the United States?

Rivers: Absolutely. There are conflicting interests within the black nation. The black nation today is basically a federation of smaller black communities that will become increasingly identical as the kids stay here. A second-generation Somalian is essentially an Afro-American, though like most immigrant blacks, his or her parents don't understand black America. But once those children start watching Black Entertainment Television, listening to the Fugees and Puffy Combs, and join the hip-hop nation as adolescents, they are culturally part of the black nation. This evidence is increasingly found in the music. The black nation is a much more pluralistic community than it was 30 years ago.

Gallegos: Are you saying that the black nation is primarily a cultural phenomenon rather than a racial one?

Rivers: I'm rejecting race. I don't define black people in racial terms. Black people are a nation as a function of history, politics, culture, and place. They are not a nation as a function of race. Black people come in all colors.

This is important in terms of advancing a new analysis of a nation within a nation. Part of the failure of the civil rights industry is that it failed to come to terms with the political and empirical reality that the black nation will never be fully integrated into the United States. The black bourgeois will be integrated up to a point, but only up to a point.

Gallegos: Do you think policies such as affirmative action still have a role, or do we need to rework them or dump them entirely?

Rivers: An exclusively race-based affirmative action approach is inadequate and should be abolished. Possibly we could reconsider its utility 10 to 15 years from now, but we need to establish a policy based on race and class.

Monica Lewinsky was a beneficiary of affirmative action. Her parents were rich and she went straight to the White House. There will always be affirmative action—the question is whether there will be any for black people. It will always be there for white women, and it's always there for white men. The question isn't whether there should be affirmative action, the question is whether black people should get any.

Gallegos: Do you think that the current reconciliation movement in evangelical circles will bring about an advance in racial relations in this country?

Rivers: To the extent that Promise Keepers and the reconciliation movement facilitate the intermingling of blacks with whites, it is a good thing. It is also an insufficient thing. The model that is being promoted is not reconciliation among equals, it's reconciliation between victims and victors. Reconciliation without justice may be cathartic and promote certain kinds of relationships, but it does not address the barriers established by institutional racism.

Coach McCartney and his colleagues should challenge Focus on the Family and other white conservative groups to present their vision of racial justice. The reconciliation movement must move beyond football stadium lovefests to promote economic development and empowerment in the black community.

An interesting dimension of the reconciliation movement is that white Latinos, who are in some cases more racist than English-speaking whites, have never been held accountable for their prominent role in the slave trade in Latin America and for the racism they practice against black people in the United States. The particular variant of white supremacy found among white Latinos has to be challenged by black people. Anglos are no more racist and oppressive than white Latinos. The liberal ideology of race relations has created these unofficial categories that have no basis in political or historical reality. They now must be transcended.

Gallegos: A lot of Latinos would recognize that while they have white blood, they also have Native American and African blood too. In that way, they are very similar to someone like Tiger Woods, who you might say tries to transcend the category of race.

Rivers: Tiger Woods being "Cablinasian" is basically the same as the multiracial mestizo model: we're part white, we're part Indian, we're part black—we create a third category for ourselves. That works in Latin America, but you always have a strata. Mulattos have been trying to do the English-speaking version of the mestizo model, and they still end up being "niggers." This has to do with the resilience and the power of white supremacy.

Gallegos: What can the white churches do to help further the discussion of race in this country?

Rivers: White churches have a unique role in supporting a new discussion on racial justice. The intellectual and progressive leadership of the white church can get beyond this multicultural ideology that obscures the uniqueness of the black experience.

The white churches must promote a discussion that deals with what biblical justice means for a nation of former slaves with whom Latinos or Asians would never be willing to substitute places. Martin Luther King's dream was the beloved community, but it was predicated upon a fundamental misreading of the meaning, politics, and history of the African in the United States. That's why we have this incredible impasse 30 years after the King's death.

Gallegos: What might be the dream for the black community for the next century?

Rivers: For black people in the United States, the dream is to rebuild a dying community and to heal the wounds that have been inflicted by racism and self-hatred. The dream is to resurrect faith and hope in a generation of children.

The dream now is not to look to others for charity, but to become a self-determining community that promotes reconciliation from positions of strength. The black community needs to be empowered through self-discipline, self-determination, self-reliance, and spiritual transformation and renewal. That's the dream as we greet the dawn of the 21st century.

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