Published by Rutgers University Press
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At the turn of the twenty-first century the world has largely dispensed with the overt racial hierarchies that existed before the post–World War II racial break: colonialism, racially demarcated labor reserves, explicit policies of segregation and apartheid, and candid avowals of racial superiority and inferiority all appear today as hopeless atavisms, relics of a benighted past. International organizations like the UN have for decades made opposition to racism a central priority. And the globalized “culture industry”—from Hollywood to Bollywood, from Disney to
Globo to Benneton—has produced a continuing stream of anti-racist messages: legitimating interracial romance and friendship, stigmatizing prejudice and discrimination, and fostering the hybridization of cultures and styles.
Yet as all this anti-racist policy-making, multiculturalism, and hybridization proceeds, the vast gaps between North and South, haves and have-nots, whites and
“others,” also persist. Pick any relevant sociological indicator—life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, access to health care, income level—and apply it in virtually any setting, global, regional, or local, and the results will be the same: the worldwide correlation of wealth and well-being with white skin and European descent, and of poverty and immiseration with dark skin and “otherness.” Sure, there are exceptions: there are plenty of exploited white workers, plenty of white welfare mothers both urban and rural, plenty of poor whites throughout the world’s North; and there are a smattering of wealth-holders “of color” around the world too. But these are outliers in the planetary correlation of darkness and poverty.
In analyzing patterns of inequality, of stratification, it is impossible fully to distinguish the effects of race and class. These factors interact both locally and globally; they have shaped each other over historical time and continue to do so
in the present. For instance, is the black worker at General Motors’ plant in
Ohio, or at Volkswagen’s plant in the ABC region of São Paulo for that matter, so much worse off than the white worker beside him (or her) on the assembly line? Not so much. The real local discrepancies are between those who have fairly reliable, even unionized jobs, and those relegated to poverty and the informal economy.1 And then there are the global discrepancies: auto workers’ wages in the ABC, heartland of the highly developed Brazilian manufacturing economy, home base of the Confederação Unificado dos Trabalhadores (CUT—the militant Brazilian trade union confederation), and site of some of the most desirable jobs in the national economy, average about 10 percent of U.S. wages for the same work.2
Nor do we have to look at stratification to recognize the continuing significance of race. When we turn to the world political system, to the social structure of domination and subjugation, to the allocation of voice and voicelessness, the point is confirmed again. A worldwide political class exercises power from corporate boardrooms and government ministries alike: how multiracial, how committed to racial equality, is this select group? Of course at the commencement of the twenty-first century, after the end of colonialism and the conclusion of the Cold War, political rule can claim to be democratic almost everywhere. But democracy now means little more than that the citizenry “periodically enjoys the right to withhold their acclaim,” as Jürgen Habermas remarked (Habermas
1997; see also Habermas 1996).3
In such a system the racial gradations of power and powerlessness can sometimes be confusing, but long-standing patterns of