Race and the American Sonderweg

In the Spring of 2015, I stumbled upon Ta-Nahisi Coates at Howard University reading an excerpt from his Between the World and Me. The reading sent me to my bookstore where I purchased several copies of Mr Coates’ book. I gave it as Christmas presents that Winter to all of my relatives. Now two years later, equally serendipitously, I stumble upon Thomas Chatterton Williams’ review of Mr Coates’ most recent volume: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (see “How Ta-Nahisi Coates gives Whiteness Power,” NYT 10/06/2017). Writing from Berlin, Williams, who is also African American, appears even less happy with Coates’ latest offering than he was with the first.

Race and ethnicity have served as social markers for just shy of 2.4M years. The boundaries these markers erect or reinforce depend greatly on the social formations in which they appear. Understanding race therefore requires both that we understand these formations and that we understand them as socially and historically specific; race along with the formations in which race is embedded often perdure long after the conditions that marked race in socially specific ways have waned.

I was reminded of this problem of race by the way that Mr Williams framed his disagreement with Mr Coates; he framed his disagreement in terms deeply familiar to students of modern German history — in terms of the Sonderwegthese.

In the study of German history, there is the notion of sonderweg, literally the “special path,” down which the German people are fated to wander. In different eras, and depending on who employed it, the term could imply different things. It began as a positive myth during the imperial period that some German scholars told themselves about their political system and culture. During and after World War II it turned distinctly negative, a way for outsiders to make sense of the singularity of Germany’s crimes.

Yet whether viewed from within or without, left or right, the Germans could be seen through such a lens to possess some collective essence — a specialness — capable of explaining everything. In this way, one could speak of a trajectory “from Luther to Hitler” and interpret history not as some chaotic jumble but as a crisp, linear process.

. . .

A similar unifying theory has been taking hold in America. Its roots lie in the national triple sin of slavery, land theft and genocide. In this view, the conditions at the core of the country’s founding don’t just reverberate through the ages — they determine the present. No matter what we might hope, that original sin — white supremacy — explains everything, an all-American sonderweg.

No one has done more to popularize this “all-American sonderweg,” according to Williams, than has Coates.

As in the German Sonderwegthese, so in the all-American one, we are invited, writes Williams, to entertain a particularly virulent version of “identity epistemology, or knowing-through-being,” which then became “identity ethics, or morality-through-being.” In the same way that post-war German historians made Antisemitism and authoritarianism a near ontological quality of being German, so believing one’s self to be “white” became an ontological attribute of this belief itself — a kind of covering principle for the thoughts and actions of all persons who entertained this belief.

So, for example, Williams takes issue with Coates’ seemingly ontological inflection of gentrification:

“To empathize on any human level with the lynched and the raped, and then to watch all of the beneficiaries just going on with their heedless lives, could fill you with the most awful rage. I feel it myself, for example, walking through Washington, D.C., or Brooklyn, where gentrification has blown through like a storm. And I feel it not just because of the black people swept away but because I know that “gentrification” is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy, is the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years, and these new urbanites living off of that interest are, all of them, exulting in a crime” (Coates, We were Eight Years).

The issue Williams takes with Coates on gentrification arises not only from the fact that both writers — Williams and Coates — have each lustily participated in the process.

In my own young black life, I have done my part to gentrify a half-dozen mixed neighborhoods ranging from Spanish Harlem to Fort Greene to the ninth arrondissement of Paris. Many of my well-educated black, Latino, Asian and Arab friends have done the same. Most of us harbored conflicted feelings about the processes we were engaged in, but few of us considered advancing white supremacy to be one of them. Mr. Coates, a self-made millionaire and longtime Harlem resident, briefly catches himself in the essay, admitting, “And I know, even in my anger, even as I write this, that I am no better” (Williams NYT)

The issue is with the implication that individuals with means to purchase properties out from under their long-time occupants in gentrifying neighborhoods are investing money that, in “a more pleasing name for white supremacy, is the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years, and these new urbanites living off of that interest are, all of them, exulting in a crime.” That is to say, the issue that Williams takes with Coates’ characterization is that it makes those who participate in a specific action — in this case gentrification — complicit in a range of other activities, and bearers of ontological qualities, that Coates equates with “whiteness.”

Speaking as a European historian, I find myself conflicted by Williams’ objection. The Sonderwegthese was and remains simplistic. Moreover — and I take this to be Williams’ point — it brings us to credit mechanisms such as race and ethnicity with powers that in fact lie elsewhere and so brings us to ignore or downplay the real mechanisms at work. In the case of Nazi Germany, purveyors of the Sonderwegthese downplayed class as a factor and ignored the progressive, democratic dimensions of German politics and society from 1871 to 1932. Similarly, perhaps, in the case of gentrification, when we focus on “whiteness” we may ignore or downplay social and economic mechanisms driving the invasion and occupation of urban landscapes by the well-graduated and well-compensated at the expense, to be sure, of minority families forced to occupy these same neighborhoods a century ago. In this sense, Coates’ single-minded focus on race — on “those who believe themselves to be white”; on “whiteness” — may bring us to overlook mechanisms such as economic policies that appear to have less to do with race than with wealth, power, and prestige.

But, now let us suppose that, like every thing in any modern capitalist social formation, we take race also as a commodity, a social form composed both of utility, for those who find race useful, and of abstract value, which integrates race into the comprehensive world of other value-bearing commodities. If this is the case, if race is a commodity along these lines, then its value as a social marker needs to be distinguished from the ways race has been inflected in other kinds of societies where it has played a role. In our society, where abstract value mediates all social relations, race has value. At the very least this means that race is exchangeable for things that have equal value, that it is subject to opportunity costs, to trade offs, to diminishing marginal returns, to monopoly and quasi-monopoly constraints, to regulation, to gluts and dearths, etc. Here the value of “whiteness” continues to differ from the value of “blackness”; in aggregate, it requires more units of “blackness” to equal “whiteness.” Or, if you prefer, “blackness” trades for less on the open market.

If I am correct, Coates is not inviting us to ontologize race so much as he is challenging us to recognize the continuing, persistent value race enjoys within an economic formation that differentially values “whiteness” over “blackness.” He is challenging us to recognize that these differential values arose socially and historically out of a specific history; a history in which human labor, already commodified, was also forced to be African, and a history where its “blackness” earned higher returns for equal amounts of labor insofar as it was legally owned and wholly controlled by those who employed this labor; whereas, by contrast, “whiteness” cost employers more insofar as it could resist employment legally. This differential valuation has not disappeared. So, while single-minded focus on race may bring us to overlook or downplay social and economic mechanisms, it is also true that these mechanisms are racially inflected: “blackness” has value.

Since we have not, as a society, had this conversation — have not institutionalized and memorialized it — we are not ready to move on. The invasion of the Americas was driven by Europe’s sudden economic expansion; but it was the economic inflection of America’s indigenous peoples — peoples who, in Jeremy Bentham’s memorable expression, enjoyed “no government, consequently no rights: no rights, consequently no property — no legal security — no legal liberty: security not more than belongs to beasts” (1789). Europeans’ rights to the Americas was erected on the view that unexploited land, like unexploited labor, was unnatural and subhuman: “beastly.” But, we have not had this conversation. We have neither institutionalized nor memorialized this genocide. Nor have we institutionalized or memorialized the genocide to which this one paved the way.

When the production of wealth is made the only legal means to produce — much less understand — value, the generation of value will take precedence over everything else, not simply as a means for producing material wealth, but even more as a means for understanding the world at all. When men and women are forced to feed this process; when against their will they are compelled to produce the wealth that commands value, their bodies are subject — as Adam Smith put it — to the natural wear and tear of any means of production whose utility arises from its relatively more favorable marginal cost relative to other means of production; for example, of machines or European wage laborers. We have not had this discussion. We have neither institutionalized nor memorialized the reduction of men and women to mere means of production because were we to have that discussion it would implicate us today. In a society mediated by commodity production and exchange, race has value.

Once race no longer has value — even then — it will not be time to forget the value “blackness” contributed to the immense, expanding engine of US industry from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. The value “blackness” has contributed economically can be calculated; and not only the value of cotton, tobacco, rice, and soy. The value of “blackness” also includes the efficiencies transferred from Africans to Europeans when I easily slip unnoticed into secure neighborhoods that enjoy well-funded schools and well-maintained homes on well-lit streets monitored by smiling, congenial police officers. I did not “earn” this “right.” I worked not one minute for it. But someone did.

Is this an all-American Sonderwegthese, as Williams suggests? No. Were we to talk openly about the value of “whiteness” and “blackness”; were we to institutionalize in our schools, laws, and regulations; were we to memorialize in our parks, museums and public spaces the violence of this economic calculus, including its continuing racial inflection — then we could happily report that we are not talking about European Americans today, but about European Americans in the past. Lacking such institutionalization and memorialization, however, we are talking and need to continue to talk about the still peculiar path of America. Race has value.


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