<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Chopping Through the Foundations of Racism With Vijay Prashad
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Chopping Through the Foundations of Racism With Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad has come to be known for his expert critical analysis of US imperialism and war. But his most recent work in the field of cultural studies draws new focus on historical modes of resistance to domination by people of color. With particular focus on people of African and Asian descent, Prashad links the struggle against racism to the struggle against imperialism.

Review by Joel Wendland


Reviewed Here:
Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity
Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad's exciting new book -- in the vein of celebrated scholars as George Lipsitz. Robin D. G. Kelley, Yen Le Espiritu, and David G. Gutiérrez -- provides a fresh account of historical alliances and solidarity among the world's African and Asian peoples. Moving within and out of the geopolitical boundaries of the US, Prashad's book links the struggle against racism to the struggle against imperialism. Meanwhile, it thunders against the problem of searching for primordial origins, authentic purity, or racialist identities that obstruct honest and effective solidarity among the oppressed and exploited.

Racism, like racialism, is not natural to human social relations. More specifically, Prashad shows with devastating accuracy that, "White supremacy emerged in the throes of capitalism's planetary birth to justify the expropriation of people off their land and the exploitation of people for their labor." Although societies pre-dating capitalism and those outside of Europe did use slave labor and were sometimes xenophobic and ethnocentric, Prashad argues that, "It would be inaccurate to reduce this xenophobia or ethnocentrism to racism." Cultural and national differences developed and recognized before the system of private expropriation of socially produced value was transplanted by European (mostly English, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish) imperialism and were based primarily in language and geography -- not in human bodies. Prashad concretely asserts historical and linguistic evidence that the primacy of color in the Indian caste system emerged with the advent of British conquests.

Another important aspect of this work is the discussion of fascism. Prashad notes that, "Fascism or a movement with fascistic tendencies has at its core hierarchy, racism, and militarism." It tends to define the "nation" as "unitary" and tries to exclude or erase difference -- primarily that of ethnicity or race. Such a movement tries every strategy or tactic to set aside the "mess of democracy" and promotes the popularity of racial nationalism.

Though readers likely will recognize the US right-wing in this definition, Prashad also argues that elites in colonized (or formerly colonized) countries are not immune to these tendencies. Especially within neocolonial frameworks elites tend to try to emulate the sort of ideological and material practices of repression in order to assert their own power over the colonized working class. The result is highly hierarchical societies in which right-wing ruling cliques rely on imperialism (initially British, now American) to rule their countries. They build their power on the ability to repress dissent and difference within their countries and by orienting the labor and resources of their countries to imperialist interests.

But, even within this general picture of domination and fascism, the oppressed have historically fought back and, in so doing, built unique and sometimes forgotten alliances. These alliances, contrary to common misperceptions, have a deep and powerful history among Asians and Africans. Prashad documents ancient links between Africans and Chinese and Asian Indian merchant explorers. He notes Calcutta-born religious activist William Quinn, one of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He links Marcus Garvey with Ho Chi Minh and Ghandi. Ho visited UNIA offices while traveling in the US; Ghandi, while a leader of the anti-racist movement in South Africa, relied on Garveyite formulations and followers to develop a message for his constituents in the Indian National Congress; and Ghandi influenced and was impressed by the work of the leaders who formed the organizations that would become the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.

By the mid-20th century, these tenuous relations had been transformed into full-fledged alliances among Third World peoples. Rastafarianism and its cultural expressions were likely as much the result of the styles and habits of East Indian residents of Caribbean islands as they were of African descended people. Racially oppressed Dalits in India emulated the organization and rhetoric of the Black Panther Party, and representatives of the National Liberation Front (Vietnam) claimed to be "Yellow Panthers." Among Americans, Asian American, Chicano, Black, Puerto Rican, and American Indian radicals borrowed from and left their marks on a broad movement for social revolution.

This larger social trend was encapsulated, for Prashad, in the martial arts films of Bruce Lee. This aspect of Prashad's work should open up doors for greater detailed study of these movements. A powerful countervailing force to fascism -- whether from the imperialists or from the compradors (intermediaries) -- in Prashad's view, is an anti-racist and anti-imperialist national liberation movement formulated on shared social position, customs and practices, rather than skin color or desire to maintain class dominance. A true anti-imperialist strategy is a socialist-based movement.

Prashad's description and criticism of racism and its various disguises is crucial for contemporary cultural studies students and political activists. He contrasts two forms of racism (white supremacy) -- colorblindness and liberal multiculturalism. One of the successes of the civil rights movement, though it did not end white supremacy, was to reform the terrain on which white supremacists could operate. (Even Trent Lott and Phil Gramm -- one-time members of the White Citizen's Council and KKK, respectively -- had to change the framework, or hide, how they moved within these circles in order to maintain legitimacy.) Crude blatant racist became sophisticated "colorblind" libertarians. They appropriated and re-worded the rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and demanded the erasure of race. What they sought in reality was a political stick to use against the mild gains of the civil rights movement -- affirmative action or other protections against discrimination. Colorblindness was a way of normalizing the already normal white that dominates US society.

To this Prashad contrasts liberal multiculturalism. This version of white supremacy sets in motion a variety of racialized and essentialized cultural positions, assumed to exist in nature and to occupy the pre-designated skin tone and body shape of people, in order to manage the complexity of a multicultural society. Diversity, rather than colorblindness, is the political tool of social control and maintenance of class relations. When it comes down to it, both of these ideologies translate race into a device for forcing working-class people to compete for vital but scarce resources falling off the tables of capitalists. The latter, however, as Prashad indicates, opens space within which true anti-racist and anti-capitalist alliances can be organized and cultivated.

Joel Wendland is a peace activist in Michigan and Ohio and teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department at Bowling green State University.

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