The Confederate battle flag is far from the only worrisome symbol in America today.
Everyone is weighing in on the horrific murders in Charleston and blaming the mindset of the mass murderer on wider social pathologies. After the airing of the racist crackpot ideas of the unhinged Dylann Roof, calls have gone out to ban the public flying of the battle flag of the Old Confederacy, which has also been incorporated in various forms in four state flags. Perhaps we should step back and eschew symbolism that separates us by race rather than unites us as fellow citizens.
Aside from the specious argument that the flag, along with media like Fox News and talk radio, fuels homicidal maniacs like Roof, there is quite another question: whether implicit state endorsement of Confederate symbolism offers sanction for the old idea of an apartheid nation, and thus sends entirely the wrong message of American separatism rather than unity. While many Southerners object that the flag simply proclaims the battlefield honor of those who were defending their homeland, the Confederacy was so entwined with the idea of preserving slavery that the flag, even today, can evoke racial polarization. For all the Southern patriots who understandably see in the Confederate battle flag the historical resonance of Pickett’s Charge or the resistance to Sherman’s March to the Sea, there are probably just as many who equally understandably consider it a nostalgic icon of white supremacy. In a racially diverse society, it makes sense to phase out state sanction for the battle flag — as South Carolina governor Nikki Haley advocated yesterday, in calling on the state legislature to vote for the removal of the battle flag that has been flying over the grounds of the state capitol.
But perhaps we should not stop there, given increasing ethnic tensions and widening racial fault lines. There are plenty of other overt racialist symbols that separate Americans. One is the prominent use of La Raza, “The Race” — seen most prominently in the National Council of La Raza, an ethnic lobbying organization that has been and is currently a recipient of federal funds. The National Council of La Raza should be free to use any title it wishes, but it should not expect the federal government to subsidize its separatist nomenclature.
The pedigree of the term La Raza is just as incendiary as that of the Confederate battle flag. The Spanish noun raza (cf. Latin radix: “root” or “race”) is akin to the now-discarded German use of Volk, which in the early 20th century came to denote a common German racial identity that transcended linguistic and cultural affinities: To be a real member of the Volk one had to “appear” German, in addition to speaking German and possessing German citizenship.
La Raza is just such a racialist term. It goes beyond a common language and country of origin, and thus transcends the more neutral puebla(“people”: Latin populus) or gente (“people”: Latin gens). Raza was deliberately reintroduced in the 1960s to promote a racially superior identity of indigenous peoples and mestizos born in the Spanish-speaking countries of the New World. That is why the National Council of La Raza once had a close affinity with MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), the infamous racialist U.S. student group (its ironic motto is “Unity creates strength”), some of whose various past slogans (cf. the Castroite derivative “Por La Raza todo, Fuera de La Raza nada”) finally became sources of national embarrassment.
La Raza is now a calcified separatist slogan, one full of implications that are unworthy of taxpayer support.
The use of the phrase La Raza reflects its illiberal modern origins. It came into popular currency during the 1930s in Spain, when the Fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco wished to promote a new Iberian identity that went well beyond the commonality of Spanish citizenship and fluency in the Spanish language. Franco expropriated La Raza to promote the racist idea that the Spanish were a superior people by birth. He penned a crackpot novel, Raza, embodying Fascist and racist themes of Spanish genetic and cultural superiority. La Raza appeared on the big screen in the form of a hokey 1942 Spanish-language movie, full of racist themes, anti-Americanism, and fashionable Fascist politics.
But Franco was only channeling another, more famous contemporary Fascist, Benito Mussolini, who had his own Italian version of the term, la Razza. In 1938 Mussolini published his Manifesto della Razza (“The Racial Manifesto”), which defined Italians as a superior Aryan race and excluded Italian Jews, Africans, and other supposedly less pure groups from various positions in the Italian government.
In sum, the word “Raza” has a disturbing recent history, and that is why Spaniards and Italians today have dropped its common usage. Yet that well-known association with racial chauvinism was precisely why the founders of the National Council of La Raza, by their own admission, reawakened the word in the 1960s to focus on what they saw as a particular racial category of Spanish speakers. But La Raza is now a calcified separatist slogan, one full of implications that are unworthy of taxpayer support.
One wonders why in 2015 there is still nomenclature such as “the Congressional Black Caucus,” over half a century after the civil-rights movement sought to promote integration and the idea that Americans should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.. The Caucus ostensibly seeks to ensure the end of exclusion by race from full participation in American society by creating a lobbying group focused entirely on one particular race. The postmodern rationale is either that groups that have suffered past disfranchisement and discrimination should not be subject to current anti-discriminatory protocols, or that they should at least enjoy a compensatory period of exclusion from color-blind values to offset centuries of oppression.
The premise seems to be that African-American House members seek to promote a common “black” agenda that transcends their local, county, or state interests.
Thus the group’s membership is entirely race-based. The Caucus is not open to those members of the House of Representatives who are not African-American, but who might share the Caucus’s racial or political agenda — as the Jewish-American Representative Steven Cohen learned when he was elected to Congress in 2006. The Lebanese-American Ralph Nader was once attacked at a Caucus meeting in clearly racial terms on the understanding that the group was exempt from charges of racism. How far is the racial concept transferable — “the Asian Caucus”? “the Latino Caucus?” “the White Caucus?” “the European-American Caucus”? The premise seems to be that African-American House members seek to promote a common “black” agenda that transcends their local, county, or state interests. If an Asian, white, or Latino voter’s congressional representative is a member of the “Black Caucus,” does that mean that the voter will receive less attention than a black voter — as de facto white caucuses in the Old South most certainly did ignore the interests of their non-white constituents? Is that why conservative African-American legislators who see all their constituents in terms that transcend race tend to avoid joining the Caucus? Could not the “Black Caucus” rebrand itself as the “Civil Rights Caucus” or the “Progressive Caucus”?
Reexamination of the battle flag offers us a teachable moment. Critics made a good point that any state sanction of the secessionist flag inevitably sends the wrong message to millions of Americans, who in their private lives are free to display any symbol they wish. But the current racialist reaction to past racism has become equally indefensible in an increasingly fragile multiracial state. The state should not support any racially separatist symbols, titles, or groups.
We should pause to appreciate that the American democratic experiment in ethnic and racial diversity is nearly unique. Indeed, the very idea of racial diversity and nationhood does not have much of a record of success in history. Few countries have been able to transcend their ethnic origins and sustain a racially pluralistic society. Rome was an exception and pulled it off for nearly 500 years, as the Roman Empire grew to encompass non-Italian peoples from the Euphrates to Scotland before unwinding into tribal chaos. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires worked for long periods, though they relied on the use of autocratic force and imperial coercion to suppress minorities, in ways antithetical to modern notions of governance.
In more recent times, religious and racial diversity — in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, or contemporary Nigeria — has resulted in chaos and, occasionally, genocide. True, some nations have been able to incorporate different tribes, as in the United Kingdom’s unification of the various peoples of the British Isles, but usually after hundreds of years of fighting and only when there were underlying racial and cultural affinities that could trump tribal differences.
In other words, the United States is history’s exception, not its rule. America is a great, evolving experiment of a constitutional republic in which peoples of all different races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds are equal under the law and see themselves as Americans first and members of tribes second — appearance and religion being incidental rather than essential to the American body politic.
In an America that was originally founded by mostly Northern European immigrants, a Juan Lopez from Oaxaca is freely accepted as a U.S. citizen in a way that a white Bob Jones would never fully be embraced as a citizen of Mexico, a country whose constitution still expressly sets out racially chauvinistic guidelines that govern immigration law. Someone who appears African or European would have a hard time fully integrating as a citizen in Chinese, Korean, or Japanese society, in a way not true of Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese in America. The world assumes that in America a president, attorney general, secretary of state, or Supreme Court justice can be black; but it would be as surprised to find whites as high public officials in Zimbabwe as to find a black as prime minister or foreign minister in Sweden or Germany.
In the last half-century, Americans have increasingly tended to emphasize race and tribe in promoting “diversity,” rather than seeking to strengthen the more tenuous notion of unity with their fellow citizens. We have forgotten that human nature is fond of division and must work at setting aside superficial tribal affinities to unite on the basis of core values and ideas.
Symbols, flags, organizations, and phrases that emphasize racial difference and ethnic pride are no longer just fossilized notions from the 1960s; they are growing fissures in the American mosaic that now threaten to split the country apart — fueling the suspicion of less liberal and more homogeneous nations that the great American experiment will finally unwind as expected.
That would be a great tragedy, but a catastrophe entirely predictable if citizens seek symbolic solidarity with their tribe rather than in the common idea of just being American.