Tuesday, 4 October 2011

On the State of Race Theory: A Conversation with David Theo Goldberg

David Theo Goldberg

Interviewed by Susan Searls Giroux for the Theory Project 


Audio Interview: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5


In 1961, the distinguished British historian E.P. Thompson assessed the scholarly and social contributions of Raymond Williams, an ascending intellectual of the New Left, in the following terms:

With a compromised tradition at his back, and with a broken vocabulary in his hands, he did the only thing that was left to him; he took over the vocabulary of his opponents, following them into the heart of their own arguments, and fought them to a standstill in their own terms. (27)
Thompson was, of course, referring to Williams’ transformation of the field of literary studies through his rigorous historicization of its aesthetic mode of textual analysis and his insistent expansion of its narrowly conceived literary focus to include more diverse forms of cultural expression, such as film, television, and advertising. An engaged, oppositional intellectual, Williams played a decisive role in the “culture wars” of his time, challenging a deeply conservative and entrenched Leavisite tradition in British letters as well as the vulgar orthodoxies of mid-century Marxist theorizing, which understood culture as a secondary effect of a determining economic base. Uncannily, Thompson’s judgment might be said to perform double duty, as I attempt to demonstrate how, in the context of the current culture wars, his commentary serves as an appropriate and succinct encomium for the unsurpassed theoretical achievement and intellectual courage of the contemporary cosmopolitan philosopher of South African heritage, David Theo Goldberg.

The award winning filmmaker turned philosopher and social theorist has similarly transgressed and transformed not only the field of analytic philosophy and many of the central tenets of social and political theory—of modernity, culture, morality, subjectivity, the law and legality, the state—but also, and most comprehensively, the discourse of race and racism, to which he has lent intellectual vitality and political urgency. The author and editor of over a dozen books and scores of articles, David Theo Goldberg has produced a body of work as bold and capacious in its historical and geopolitical reach as it is exacting and meticulous in its modes of analytic engagement. Departing from the prevailing social scientific paradigm of putatively distanced and objective research, with its penchant for empirical methodologies and reductionist accounts of “race relations,” Goldberg draws on diverse theoretical traditions to fashion and refashion new conceptual apparatuses, new modes of analysis, and new critical vocabularies that unapologetically foreground an active commitment to “resisting particular racisms of given historical moments” (Anatomy xiii).

Guided by the Sartrean notion of a project (a figure he studied assiduously as an undergraduate), Goldberg is singularly committed not only to advancing critical knowledge but transforming contemporary political, legal, economic, discursive, and material conditions in the interest of dissolving racist expression and eliminating racist exclusions in the ongoing struggle for global democratization. Responsive to, yet often refreshingly critical of, key contemporarydialogues and debates within the university, his body of work is also generative and assertive. Well versed in theories of race and racism in cultural anthropology and in various schools of Marxist and postcolonial thought that have circulated with a great deal of currency in the humanities over the last several decades, he has consistently challenged—despite the obvious costs of such provocation—the critical aporias, omissions, reductions, romanticizations, and reifications in left-liberal analyses of race. He has also explored the work of post-war European intellectuals often neglected in the North American academy (until recently) in the study of race, such as Zygmunt Bauman and Michel Foucault. Advancing the scholarly conversation about such important and often enigmatic figures, Goldberg has succeeded in transforming their conceptual bequeathal into entirely new and startlingly original analytic frameworks for understanding the complex intersections of race, modernity, social subjectivity, and state power. He simultaneously remains in critical dialogue with a number of African American philosophers he counts among his cohort—Cornel West, Lucius Outlaw, Tommy Lott, Angela Davis, among others—with whom he struggled to assert the legitimacy of racial analytics and anti-racist practice in the American Philosophical Association and related mainstream professional assemblies, conferences, journals, canons, and curricula. The net result of his boundless intellectual energy and emancipatory vision is an oeuvre unmatched in its contributions to the field and uncompromising in the demands that it makes on readers as readers and ethical agents.

Goldberg’s scholarly achievements are perhaps more profound when taken up within the contexts that inform their inception and production. Like the working-class Welsh intellectual forced to negotiate the culture of Oxbridge, Goldberg shares with Williams the outsider’s characteristic comprehension of political, economic, and cultural contradictions that reflect the fractured sensibilities and inherent instabilities of a divided nation and declining empire, contradictions naturalized and normalized by an increasingly complacent citizenry. Leaving South Africa in 1977, still a formal apartheid state, he arrived in New York City in 1978 to find a strangely familiar, because similarly discordant, informally regulated and racially ordered, urban space. The conservative backlash against the civil rights advances of the 1960s having gained considerable momentum by the late 1970s, the young PhD student witnessed first hand the unfolding of a “new racism” that would come to define the Reagan/Bush/Clinton eras. A more fluid, less obvious, deregulated and privatized rearticulation of racist discourse, the new colorblind, or “raceless racism,” he would later define in the following terms:
Expressly committed to race-blindness, that is, to a standard of justice protective of individual rights and not group results, raceless racism informally identifies racial groups so long as the recognition in question is no longer state formulated or fashioned. The possibility of racelessness publicly, and by extension of racial reference privately trades exactly on an implicit and informal invocation of the sorts of massaged historical referents now denied in the public sphere. This in turn makes possible the devaluation of any individuals considered not white, or white-like, the trashing or trampling of their rights and possibilities, for the sake of preserving the right to private “rational discrimination” of whites. (Racial State 228)
A diversified and implicitly intensified racism, coupled with neoliberal ambitions to dismantle the welfare state and shrink “big government,” continued to fuel for the next several decades a right-wing social movement as well funded—by large corporations, conservative think tanks, imperial militarists, and the religious right, among others—as it was well organized—from the grassroots to K Street. Its aim, in short, was and is to reshape government and refashion public culture in the interests, largely, of wealth and whiteness.

From the start, the university was a primary target. Like Williams in mid-century Britain, Goldberg resisted, and continues to resist, a very different, and I would argue more pernicious, set of culture wars that have been ongoing for two and a half decades in the American academy and in the mass media. The crusades of the 1980s and 90s—waged against “political correctness,” affirmative action, diversity, and multiculturalism, which was decried as “separatist” and “divisive”—eventually hardened into the more dangerous and more literal crusades of the present post-9/11 era. Organized around a kind of patriotic correctness, the current assault routinely blacklists professors and administrators perceived to be critical of the current Bush administration’s policies, or those of its allies, as it seeks state and federal legislative and judicial aid in efforts to render the university classroom an utterly instrumentalized space devoid of critical thought, self-reflection, and moral accountability.

In the midst of this conservative revolution, Goldberg struggles to keep the academy intellectually honest. When Racist Culture made its appearance in 1993, those who imagined philosophy a disinterested, nonpolitical scholarly profession went on notice with Goldberg’s insistence that we must “acknowledge the role of philosophical discipline in establishing racialized discourse and the culture of racisms, as well as the importance of philosophical analysis in any comprehensive commitment to their disarticulation” (1–2). At the time, there was widespread internal debate among scholars in the humanities and social sciences about the meaning and significance of “race,” a conceptual and political debate that often turned acrimonious when related, more difficult concerns with “racism” emerged. The prevailing wisdom held, and continues to hold for many, that race no longer matters and racism is now a thing of the past, an anachronism that only occasionally reappears in the form of individual ignorance or pathology (a characterization often meant to include the “politically correct” or “paranoid” scholar who dares to assert the contrary). Against typically singular and monolithic, ahistorical and unchanging conceptualizations of race and racisms, Goldberg advances the argument that racially significant expressions are most productively understood as a “field of discourse,” drawing in this instance on Foucault’s early archeological work. In spite of criticism leveled by Paul Gilroy and others against what might be perceived as a general or universal theory of race and racism that would necessarily sacrifice historical and cultural specificities, Goldberg argues for the validity of a “general but open-ended theory” that would “account for historical alterations and discontinuities in the modes of racial formation, in the disparate phenomena commonly expressed in racialized terms, as well as those expressions properly considered racist” (41). Thus transcending the often barren academic preoccupation with the tensions between the universal and the particular, Goldberg asserts in provocative and “pragmatic” terms that the theoretical validity of conceptualizing a field of racially significant expression must be measured according to the degree to which “it enable[s] and encourage[s] opposition to racist expression, for ultimately the efficacy of a theory about race and racism is to be assessed in terms of the ways in which it renders possible resistance to racisms” (41).

The implications of Goldberg’s theoretical insight become readily apparent when taken up in light of his ongoing critique of liberal modernity’s denial of its own racially conceived history and the attendant racist exclusions that its idealized commitments to liberty, equality, and fraternity nonetheless rationalize and sustain. Goldberg traces the history of racial denial through the work of the definitive philosophical architects of liberalism’s moral and political framework—from Rousseau and Kant, Bentham and Mill, to present day reassertions of the moral irrelevance of race in the form of commitments to “colorblindness.” For Goldberg, the dilemma at the heart of liberal modernity is elaborated as follows: liberal modernity assumes that the basic human condition—the economic, political, scientific, and cultural positions that moral subjects guided by reason might occupy—is understood to be naturally determined by race, yet simultaneously insists that race is a morally irrelevant category. When the denial of difference proves an impossible stratagem, liberalism is moved to either tolerate the other’s differences—a response that simultaneously indicates that the object of one’s tolerance is somehow repugnant—or develop modes of assimilation that will cast away difference through a universally imposed sameness.

As he discusses in The Racial State, Goldberg understands the academy’s tepid celebration of diversity and multiculturalism—as against a more robust commitment to empowering the once marginal through what he calls the “incorporation” of difference into the body politic—to be in keeping with liberalism’s vacillation between two equally problematic polarities of colorblind insistence and tolerant accommodation. He observes:
Cultural diversity and multiculturalism under their liberal interpretations constitute advanced stages of this (dis)integrative stage. They are administrative instruments that serve to contain and restrain resistance and transformation as they displace any appeal to economic difference by paying lip service to the celebration of cultural distinction. . . .  Similarly cultural diversity in the academy is invoked as a necessary recruiting mechanism at a time of decreasing enrollments and shrinking federal dollars. (Racist 220)
Universities rush to adopt inclusive curricula while at the same time two decades of skyrocketing tuition rates and affirmative action backlash work disproportionately to exclude students of color from post-secondary education. Whatever the tangle of intentions at work here, the consequence remains structurally racist. This genealogical exemplification makes clear the necessity of a theory of racialized discourse capable of mapping the transformations in what Goldberg calls, after Foucault, the “conceptual primitives” of racialized expression, the underlying preconceptual factors generative of the discursive field that become embedded in popular social, scientific, and political discourses, thereby gaining a measure of legitimacy. Absent a unified grammar of racially significant expression, skeptics can and do assert that past racisms have been delegitimated and have disappeared from public expression, if not consciousness, rendering new articulations invisible and thus the potential for critical response and redress nearly impossible. The implications for public policy reform and individual accountability, Goldberg notes, are quite considerable.

Challenging the fallacy of conceptualizing racism as a singular and premodern prejudice—one that liberal modernity imagines itself to have overcome by the force of Enlightened reason—Goldberg insists that the discourse of race and racism is “one of the central conceptual inventions of modernity” (3). Here, Goldberg draws on Zygmunt Bauman’s double assertion that the modern project is principally concerned with order as “expressed through the domination of Nature by Reason; the transparency of Nature to Reason in the Laws of Nature; through the classification of Nature in rational systems of thought; and through the mastery of Nature, physical and human, by way of ‘design, manipulation, management, and engineering” and, in turn, modernity’s simultaneous preoccupation with order’s other (3). The flip-side of this archetypically modern ordering task is recognition of its own futility, as experienced in the horror of ambivalence, which Bauman defines as the possibility within the including/excluding logic of classification, of “assigning an object or an event to more than one category,” thus signifying the failure of the system and the introduction of chaos into order (1). Though critical of his analysis on a number of points, Goldberg underscores the overall significance of Bauman’s thesis and at the same time expands and deepens its theoretical value by developing a new analytic for engaging the constitutive role of race in modernity’s commitment to mastery and, it necessarily follows, subjugation. Goldberg’s insight, moreover, resists the inadequacies of the two dominant paradigms for explaining race and racism—those that reify race as a biological given and those that deny race any independent content, relying on the explanatory value of other putatively deterministic forces like culture and class, which appeals to race are said inevitably to mystify. Affording race and racism its own independent logic, yet at the same time refusing to reductively bracket its intersection with economic exploitation or patriarchal privilege, Goldberg elaborates at length:
Race undertakes at once to furnish specific identity to otherwise abstract and alienated subjectivities. Sufficiently broad, indeed, almost conceptually empty, race offers itself as a category capable of providing a semblance of social cohesion, of historical particularity, of given meanings and motivations to agents otherwise mechanically conceived as conduits of market forces and moral laws. Like the conception of the nation that emerges more or less coterminously, race proceeds at its inception by arming social subjects with a cohesive identity. It is an identity that proves capable of being stretched across time and space, that itself assumes transforming specificity and legitimacy by taking on as its own the connotations of prevailing scientific and social discourses. In colonizing these prevailing connotations, race in turn has been able to set scientific and political agendas, to contain the content and applicability of Reason, to define who may be excluded and to confine the terms of social inclusion and cohesion. (4)
Racial assignment thus works to keep ambivalence at bay, while the exercise of power in the form of racist exclusion curtails the threat of the unknown as it silently equates security and safety with racial homogeneity, a conceptual and political concern to which he returns in The Racial State. Against the general presumption of racism’s inherent irrationality, this line of argument further underscores the degree to which “racist exclusions throughout modernity can and have been rationally ordered and legitimated,” as exemplified in the way that the European participation in the slave trade and various colonial projects have historically assumed the force of a moral imperative (11). Rationality, in fact, becomes the defining feature of humanity and the crucial differential between racial groups; in contrast to the “Western Man of Reason,” the generic image of the savage is characterized by lack of reason, self-control, culture, or morality—a figure, a race, in need of salvation and civilization. Goldberg resists, however, delimiting modernity’s commitments to racial definition, order, and rule to its extensive colonial history, recognizing in the utterly transformed, postcolonial present its obvious and persistent traces.

If, by his own reflection, the role of state in reproducing and renewing—and occasionally challenging—racist expression and exclusion was undertheorized in Racist Culture, that absence is vigorously engaged in The Racial State (2002), where many of the themes of Goldberg’s earlier work are treated to further elaboration, revision, and refinement. Written in a post-9/11 world, in the midst of a global war on terror, intensified global instability resulting from neoliberalism’s blistering advance, and massive immigration from the global south to the north, Goldberg’s extended meditation on what he calls “the racial state” might at first glance appear anachronistic. I suggest, to the contrary, that it could not have proven more timely, especially as the presumption of the nation state’s declining power and political relevance as a result of the globalization of economic power threatens to become common sense. The emphasis here, he quickly explains, is “not the racial state, but the racial state, its forms and logics, histories and expressions” and is meant to rectify a lack of mutual engagement between state theory on the one hand and race theory literatures on the other (vii). Goldberg also seeks to challenge, in the latter body of work, a growing weariness—the ironic outgrowth, he suspects, of too much success—evident in the now ritual exchange in clichéd vocabularies and blunted, imprecise analytics in journal articles, books, conference panels and classroom seminars that belie theoretical rigor, critical depth and political commitment. “I have taken of late to warning students in my seminars,” he writes,
that they will no longer get away with flippant invocations of “racialization” and “sites of contestation,” “interrogation” and “narration.” The warning produces stunned silence, as though they have been robbed of the only language they have come to know for addressing racial matters and racist conditions. At the same time, concern with and about the latter has disappeared all too quickly before the drunken diffusion of racial categories, new domains in the name of whiteness studies, race traitorhood, identity claims, and the romance with hybridity. (1)
True to form, the arguments that follow are a decisive effort to move the critical conversation beyond the culturalism that has absorbed academic (in)attention for the last two decades, at the cost of anti-racist analysis and intervention.

Similarly, Goldberg seeks to challenge the reductionism in dominant critical accounts of the state that tend to break down in two rather predictable ways: first, the liberal view of the state as a “purely autonomous political realm” distinguishable from civil society and the realm of the economic, as evident in the work of Habermas, Rawls, or Kymlicka; and second, the ongoing legacy of Marxist-inspired accounts (an abiding concern in Racist Culture) in which the state, much like the category of race, is conceived as “epiphenomenonal,” a reflection of “deeper” underlying determinations, like class relations, the mode of production, or the economy more generally (6). Arguing instead for the relative autonomy of the state and capital, Goldberg points out that while states often occupy a structural position in reproducing capitalist modes of production, states can also represent or mobilize interests antithetical to those of capital.

In short, states—always already racial states—can and do operate according to their own logics. Goldberg explains,
The state has the power by definition to assert itself or to control those (things) within the state . . . [and] the power to exclude from state protection. In these senses, the modern state has readily lent itself conceptually to, as it has readily been defined by, racial (and gendered) formation. For central to the sorts of racial constitution that have centrally defined modernity is the power to exclude and by extension include in racially ordered terms, to dominate through the power to categorize differentially and hierarchically, to set aside by setting apart. . . . [These are] processes aided integrally by . . . the law and policy-making, by bureaucratic apparatuses and governmental technologies like census categories, by invented histories and traditions, ceremonies and cultural imaginings. (9)
Modern state power is defined by both its monopoly on force and its capacity to categorize, through which it acquires the necessary justification. The state determines who will be protected under the mantel of citizenship and who will remain alien, who will be declared friend and ally and who will be charged an enemy combatant. The social contract tradition—one such “invented tradition” enabling state power—offers Goldberg a key metaphor, not an accurate historical accounting, for engaging state origin, constitution, and legitimation. The very notion of a “contract” and the guarantees upon which it is founded—individual rights, property—underscore a “presumption of voluntarism” that “completely denies the constitution of power and its effects” within certain groups, legitimating the racial and gendered exclusion and exploitation it thus renders invisible (39).

Goldberg’s rigorous and nuanced genealogical analysis of social contract theory commences with Hobbes and moves forward to Rousseau, Kant, Marx, Hegel, Mill, and others. The modern state was established, according to Hobbes, to promote peace and social stability in the violent transition from feudal to modern industrial society, a commitment that informs his justification of the Leviathan. In efforts to shore up its necessary façade of permanence and inevitability, the modern state was required to alleviate any challenge to its authority—in the form of war, revolution, anarchy, or chaos.

Enter race. Further refining and expanding his earlier analysis of modernity’s drive to mastery and subjugation, Goldberg asserts that “Race appears in this scheme of things as a mode of crisis management and containment, as a mode mediating that tension, of managing manufactured threats, and of curtailing while alienating the challenge of the unknown” (40). Just as race is invented to defeat disorder and chaos—modernity’s ambivalent other—so too race “stands in for that which the modern state is not, what the state avoids, what it is to keep at bay” (40). Racial states are thus predicated on their capacities to restrict heterogeneity—“taken to inject into the safety and stability of the known, predictable and controllable worlds elements of the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable”—in the interest of securing political, cultural and racial homogeneity (23).

The modern state’s commitment to racial homogeneity, an unnatural condition invariably achieved through violence, is always understood to intersect with other political, economic, and cultural forces. The Racial State is devoted to richly elaborated and articulate analyses of the multiple ways in which variously configured racial state formations in the E.U., Brazil, the U.S., and South Africa historically conceived, implemented, managed and maintained forms of racial homogeneity—and how they do so at present. Goldberg proposes three historically shifting (though not necessarily superseding) paradigms for defining and thereby producing racial differences—naturalism, marked by the presumption of innate, biological conceptions of difference; historicism, defined by its rejection of biologism and its understanding of racial differences as a result of profound developmental lag described variously as “primitive” or “backward”; and contemporary commitments to state racelessness, which insist simultaneously that race is a politically irrelevant category yet make appeals to universal values and interests allied with whiteness. Differing conceptual definitions of race produce different mechanisms for the achievement of racial homogeneity in the form of states of whiteness—the drive to extermination (the eradication of difference), or assimilation (dissolving difference into sameness), or commitments to colorblindness/multiculturalism (aspirations to race transcendence in the form of universals equated with whiteness). The drive to racial homogeneity reflects an independent state logic that, Goldberg insists, must be taken up relationally with other state projects, like neoliberalism. In the wake of racial panic spurred by terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, Madrid, and London, and acts of state terrorism in Palestine, Darfur, Iraq, and Afghanistan; in the midst of headscarf hysteria in Paris and armed vigilante groups “patriotically” patrolling the U.S. border with Mexico; in the growing encampment of the stateless among the fates that await millions of economic migrants and political refugees; and in the aftermath of man-made “natural catastrophes” like Katrina, Goldberg’s nuanced, textured analysis of contemporary state commitments to racial homogeneity and neoliberal economics must be understood as a significant event in the history of race theory.

Goldberg’s latest work, The Threat of Race, brings readers closer still to world politics, war, violence, and death suffered in the name of race. The project was tentatively titled The Death of Race, a provocation meant to draw attention to a deeply disturbing contemporary paradox in which academicians, intellectuals, experts associated with think tanks, and political pundits call for the conceptual “death of race” while at the same time racially produced death—as a result of war, state violence, crippling poverty, famine, disease—grows exponentially. In ongoing efforts to imagine a different analytic vocabulary with a wider global trajectory than much of the work produced in, and often bounded by, the U.S. context, the current work in progress seeks to unsettle theoretical concepts and modes of analysis that have passed uncritically into the common sense of recent “cutting edge” race theory. Critical of the lack of specificity and the inadequacies that attend the concept of “racialization,” for example, Goldberg has organized his investigation of contemporary racisms in terms of regional configurations in the post-civil rights, post-apartheid era: racial americanization, palestinianization, europeanization, latinamericanization, southernafricanization, and their contemporary implications for challenging the presumption of racelessness (the death of race). Yet, in spite of such precise analytic interventions, one notes as well in this newest writing a different narrative voice, an experimentation in prose style that departs from certain academic protocols (citation, footnotes) in efforts to draw readers’ attention to argument rather than erudition—a genuine act of persuasion in an academy often taken with performance. While sacrificing none of the rigor and depth characteristic of his work, this new book challenges scholars existentially untouched by contemporary global crises because insulated, politically and intellectually, in what Susan Buck-Morss uncomfortably calls “theoryworld.”

The Threat of Race boldly and bravely addresses the most combustible issues of the day—the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the U.S. led war in Iraq and Afghanistan (and its “born again racism” at home), the global war on terror, the rise of what Etienne Balibar has called “European apartheid” with the fall of the Berlin Wall—in an academic context where one is increasingly surveilled and harassed for such views. And Goldberg speaks in a public voice, though he has expressed a not unwise concern with what it means to assume the role of the public intellectual to “take center stage in the public and not just the academic theatre” under conditions in which “like any public figure . . . [one] is no longer so clearly in command of [one’s] meaning” (Racial Subjects 111). Identifying the risks of entering the “marketplace of popular policy analysis,” Goldberg exercises discretion in selecting the appropriate media through which to engage public audiences, as he insists that “The power of language gives way, if only silently and subtly, to the language of power, if not to the gaps between language” (111). These risks seem doubly so when one dares to speak the truth of race to power. “Where the subject is race,” he recognizes, “the silences speak louder than words” (111). Yet, at no other time is such risk more necessary—and no other figure more capable of such critical public engagement.

If the popular and critical success of the summer 2005 blockbuster and Academy Award winner Crash is an indication, it may well be the right time for a conversation. Crash gave North Americans a ready metaphor for its encounters with race that simultaneously underscores the existential isolation, loneliness, and despair that have come to characterize postmodern metropolitan life and the intense fear and suspicion with which we regard others. The “cure” for the latter—more segregation, more security—merely exacerbates the symptoms of intense anxiety and insecurity that mark the former, further weakening the body politic. Excising encounters with otherness from our daily repertoire of human interaction, as Goldberg’s analysis of racial homogeneity cautions, only renders us less capable of negotiating differences and more invested in the supposed safety of sameness, more insistent on uniformity, more comforted by conformity—and more contemptuous of strangers. Goldberg’s insight resurrects as it gives greater depth and specificity to Richard Sennett’s influential work on the city and the danger to democratic public life that the intensification of isolation and individualization—of  “ghettoization” parading as community—invariably produce:
Modern community seems to be about fraternity in a dead, hostile world; it is in fact all too often an experience of fratricide. Furthermore, these terms of personality which govern face-to-face relationships in a community are likely to cut down the desire of people to experience those jolts which might occur in a more unfamiliar terrain. These jolts are necessary to a human being to give him that sense of tentativeness about his own beliefs which every civilized person must have. The destruction of a city of ghettoes is both a political and a psychological necessity. (296)
Exploding the myth of the colorblind society in its exploration of post-9/11 Los Angeles, director Paul Haggis seeks to make visible the social costs of racist expression and exclusion, the fratricidal tendencies of failed fraternity. But those “crash moments,” to invoke Oprah’s unfortunate idiom for racist encounters—isolated incidents, rendered in privatized terms—belie the “everyday nature of racism and the ongoing experience of inequality structured into one’s social, economic, political, and cultural subjective location (see Essed). Moving beyond the black/white racial dichotomies that overwhelm contemporary urban representations, the film paints Latinos, Chinese, Persians, whites, and blacks with much the same strokes. With few exceptions, everybody is angry, undone by difference, a little racist. What seems like an invitation to moral outrage, self-scrutiny, and critical accountability dissolves into melancholic contemplation of humanity’s sound and fury, set to the tinkling of a new age musical score—a trauma witnessed and then gently covered over, like the blanket of white snow that drapes the LA nightscape in the mystical urban montage with which the film concludes. Such representations and the identifications and investments they mobilize vividly attest to what Goldberg calls “the paradoxes of racism”:
Never again, and yet again and again, even now, never more so before our very eyes. Seeing but not; seeing but not believing; believing but believing at once its not my problem, our problem; seeing and believing but frozen from action, too distracted or busy or unconcerned to do anything about it; acting but not in concert. (Threat n.p.)
Goldberg’s eloquent commentary carries both insight and warning, echoing with chilling appropriateness the powerful conclusion of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism:
Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together, “acting in concert” (Burke); isolated men are powerless by definition. (474)
It is against such horrible potentialities, increasingly perceived as inevitabilities in a contemporary context saturated with violence, terror, and authoritarian tendency, that David Theo Goldberg’s body of work has passionately committed to both challenge and dissolve.