Race risks

Histories of Race and Racism: The Andes and Mesoamerica from Colonial Times to the Present
Edited by Laura Gotkowitz
2012, Duke University Press
400 pages

IF RACE has offered a tool both of colonial power and the capitalist domination that it has given rise to in the Americas as well as of recurrent efforts to forge community in conflict with dominant groups, it remains a highly complex instrument that is poorly understood.

That is largely because any effort to subordinate the notion of race to promote a form of class-based or political universalism – the multiethnic coalition beloved of social or progressive democracy – is often based precisely on the marginalization of racial identity that has for so long privileged white domination.

If it is possible to draw a simple set of global lessons from the study of race and racism everywhere, it is that capitalism has used racism to justify conquest, plunder and slavery as well as to divide and rule. Therein lies the difficulty and danger facing indigenous peoples in the Americas, who have recurrently embraced identity as a mobilising force in their pursuit of greater political and economic rights – for just as race can serve to unify, simultaneously it can be used to divide. It is this feature of the idea of race that has always served to place its use as a category of analysis in question.

As Florencia Mallon points out in her conclusion to Histories of Race and Racism:

“The present moment provides in some ways a unique opportunity to decolonize social relations by building yet another multiethnic coalition… A full excavation of Latin America’s postcolonial palimpsest, however, also gives us pause. As earlier revolutionary experiments, as well as the contemporary case of Bolivia demonstrate, a multiethnic coalition, whether led by colonized people or not, carries within itself the memories, practices, and power relations of earlier constructions of race and power.” [p 335]

In her introduction to this collection of essays about race and racism over five centuries in the most indigenous parts of Latin America – the Andes and Mesoamerica – Laura Gotkowitz points to the very real consequences that these constructions can have, leading in the case of Bolivia to a spate of racialized violence in recent years that revives and transforms earlier discourses about race at every level of society.

Multiple forms of racism

Gotkowitz notes that it is in this climate that an increasing number of scholars and activists are finding it impossible not to use the term “race” in Latin America and in so doing are recognising the multiple forms that racism has taken and continues to do so. This book addresses precisely the questions generated by this changing landscape. She writes:

“What accounts for this shift, from what some consider a long history of denying racism in Latin America to recognition of its multiple forms? And how are we to understand the specific shapes that racism takes? Are we witnessing a new or neoracism? A cultural racism? Or does the term ‘racial ambivalence’ better capture the workings of race and racism in present-day Latin America? What type of antiracist activism and policy have come to the fore at this time of increasingly visible racism? Was there really such a totalizing denial of racism in the past, as is often thought?” [p 2]

The contributions to this book focus on race-making and racism in a series of historical cases in the Andes and Mesoamerica in an effort to draw broader conclusions about the region as a whole. It is written, of course, in a context in which indigenous mobilisation has become one of the most dynamic aspects of Latin American politics. Among other things, contemporary indigenous movements across the region have fuelled the contemporary debate about racism.

Nonetheles, it is to Bolivia that the collection repeatedly returns, and that is because it has been there more than in any other country that racism against indigenous people has become a central theme of debate, largely because of the ascent of Evo Morales to the presidency.

Contributors address in different ways the principal tendencies that have marked work on race and racism over time which links these to ideologies of biological hierarchy, emphasise culture as the basis of racist practice and thought, or argue in different ways that the notion of race reflects a sui generis fusion of biological and cultural thought.

Gotkowitz notes that regardless of these intellectual categories and the credibility of the categorisations that they are based upon, race has nonetheless often remained meaningful outside the rarefied confuines of intellectual pursuit. If scholars themselves challenged the notion of biological race, the concept certainly did not disappear – and this brings us neatly back to the potential uses to which race and racism have been put, of which Latin America provides so many examples.

There is no doubt that among these, state- and nation-building have been prominent, and it has been the state itself that has often built the source code on which racial narratives have been and continue to be based. In many ways, discourses of multiculturalism – often referred to as neoliberal multiculturalism – are just the latest in a long line of state and elite formulations within liberalism designed to both emancipate and control highly diverse and potentially revolutionary populations.

Nationalism – a core characteristic of Latin American politics from the 1920s to the 1960s – relied heavily upon the theme of race to advance unifying and also anti-imperialist arguments, traces of which remain.

Histories of Race and Racism makes a valuable contribution to understanding the role of the state and of intellectuals in both writing and shaping the history of race in Latin America.

But this story has neither beginning nor end – as the case of Bolivia demonstrates – and it continues to influence the development of social movements in countries such as Mexico and Bolivia. And as the final contributions to the book by Pamela Calla and Mallon remind us, it is often difficult to distinguish between politicised and racialised violence.

In short, race and the mechanisms that give it meaning remain as elusive to a comprehensive understanding as ever.