In the preface to his new book, A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America, Calvin Baker argues that full racial integration is the most radical—and unrealized—idea in American politics.
Our current notion of race began on the dim edge of the Middle Ages, before the universe was heliocentric, before we knew gravity. At best, it was a primitive, tentative grasp toward understanding the physical world; at worst, it was a way of asserting the primacy of one tribe over another. When it was considered in earnest by science, it was initially rejected. James Cowles Prichard, a physician and opponent of slavery from Bristol who was the leading British scholar of race, wrote in an 1813 book entitled Researches into the Physical History of Man that “On the whole, it appears that we may with a high degree of probability draw the inference, that all the different races into which the human species is divided, originated from one family.”
Race’s true usefulness, however, was not to science but as a technology of war, of depopulating continents, seizing the wealth of others, erasing the beauty and wisdom of unknown cultures, enslaving people, and otherwise dividing humanity for imperial gain: all the material forces we talk about so often, which we now so clearly know threaten to destroy the world.
Just as crucially, beneath all this there is a racial ego that goes beyond reason and even material greed. This racial ego, which asserts the superiority of one person over another based on nothing except phenotype, has always informed both individual and group self-perception. It continues to perform this function in our own time, even as interconnectivity has increased, science has thoroughly debunked race, and most of us, if not always our presidents, kings, queens, and ministers, embrace the diversity of peoples and cultures as belonging to a universal humanity equally worthy of respect, even awe.
This isn’t a book about globalization, or colonialism, or even race, but about a concept I think of more vital importance to the world as it is and not as it was: integration. It is a deceptively simple term, one we think we understand based on our received ideas, be they positive or negative. However, as we’ll see, the idea of integration has always been too frightening, too threatening to the status quo to ever consider fully, so much so that 20 years into this century we have barely begun to consider what it means.
From the beginning of its construction, the notion of race was most useful not to science but as a technology of war.
Although there has been an increasing awareness of the force of the past on the present over the past 50 years, one of the things integration inevitably implies is using this knowledge to dismantle the bricks of slavery and colonialism. It is one of the few tools capable of doing so. The present discussion is about the United States, but it seems a short leap of the imagination to see that the implications of this experiment involve the future for everyone.
Yet even in a country so fond of congratulating itself for being the first modern democracy, the few moments when we have come close to relinquishing the colonial past have always produced a quick retreat from what is, properly understood, the most radical, transformative idea in U.S. politics. The reason we recoil, in language, in policy, in the lives we lead, is because the transformation that integration is capable of upsets not only abstract institutional systems of governance, economics, and culture but also our deep, private selves.
The collective institutions of society that perpetuate racism, and its role in identity formation, are also the same apparatus that creates each of us. Because of this, it is impossible to fully know their effects. We are too implicated. Because these systems are so unfathomably deep within us, the thought of doing away with them shakes us to the core. Instead of talking about integration—the solution to the problems we have inherited—we instead retreat, or are forced back, into the familiar, threadbare language of race, which in turns soothes us, prompts despair, lulls us into half-measures as we tell ourselves that this is all that can be done for now or that the problem is too complex.
The problem is complex. It is also imminently solvable, if only we reframe it in a way that lets us look without inching. Quite simply, our problem is not race—that tired, old algebra that keeps us forever circling the point and has carried us, arguably, as far as it is capable—it is the calculus of integration, dismantling the problems and structures that race actively creates.
For hundreds of years, integration has been the clear-eyed, logical goal of civil rights. For an equal length of time, it has been something Americans have sought to avoid. Fifty years after the last meaningful effort toward civil rights, the country remains overwhelmingly segregated and overwhelmingly unjust. Integration, which is nothing less than full equality, is a state that can exist only where the line of race is not eternally re-created.
Because the race line gives such comfort, integration is an idea that, shockingly, has been abolished from political discourse. Instead, we discuss piecemeal problems and piecemeal solutions. Because of the racial ego, on the individual and group level, integration remains something few can conceive. In a society without such a material and psychological race line, eternally re-created, it would be as plain as day. Instead, it is a radical proposal.
If we wish to have a democracy of free and equal people, we must be willing to wage war with all tyrants, whether they announce their intention outright or call themselves friends.
The aim of these pages is not to be proscriptive. The way to abolish the race line is simply to abolish the race line. The policy measures necessary to do so may differ according to the area of society, but in a country that has deployed a New Deal and a Marshall Plan, they are neither mysterious nor particularly deep. What’s deep are the lies we tell and excuses we make to avoid tackling this problem, which, left to its own devices, will destroy the country, perhaps even wants to destroy it. The simple reason is that this problem is and has always been the tyrannical enemy of democracy. That should be apparent to all at this late juncture, as recent events have come to remind us.
There is another foe of action, besides the right-wing extremism that has recently been renormalized. It is the compromise institutional liberalism has long made with tyranny in the name of its own comfort, self-regard, and a desire for power and expediency that rationalize any shortcoming. This self-regard seeks to turn the conversation from integration whenever it is raised, to refocus narratives of culture and politics so that they appease narratives of race instead of democracy. It is a politics of negative capability, asserting what those in control of liberal institutions believe and what they deem realistic in order to maintain their own power, not what is necessary to complete U.S. democracy. This sort of liberalism is enmeshed with white supremacy and does its bidding, whatever it may claim its motivations to be.
This book is concerned with the true goals of civil rights and equal citizenship, going back to the revolutionary generation, which have been abandoned after a campaign of massive conservative resistance intended to muddy the waters and thwart the way. It is about what might have been and what might yet be: if the generations now alive are bold enough to relinquish the lies of the past, the lies many in power claim as immovable reality, and battle again for democracy.
Of course, the political class and the media class and all those whose livelihoods depend on things remaining as they currently are will argue that none of this is possible. That America is still not yet ready. What they mean in fact is they are not yet ready, even though this has always been a generations-long struggle. The transactional systems of governance and commerce suit such people just fine, and those who fancy themselves to be part of an American elite are happy to perpetuate the current state of affairs.
If we wish to have a democracy of free and equal people, we must be willing to wage war with all tyrants, whether they announce their intention outright or call themselves friends. Why shouldn’t we? They are already at war with democracy and human dignity.
Before introducing what will be for many people, some with the best intentions in the world, an unpopular idea, it may be useful to remember how a system of myths—made-up stories meant to explain something people didn’t have any better answer for long ago: some benign, some malign, many flamboyantly stupid—have shaped so much of history. How it defies belief to observe the ways the assumptions of race continue to shape events in a world where we tell ourselves we know better. We do, and we don’t.
It is one thing to know something. The real question—what to do with this knowledge—has proved paralyzing for just as long. And so we do as little as possible, to our continued detriment. Already in the early years of the country, thinkers from Jefferson to de Tocqueville understood the emergent system of racial tyranny as the greatest threat to American democracy.
Yet Americans have always, every generation, found a way to live with this tyranny or else to do some of the work and tell themselves that this is all that might be done, that the country is not ready and the rest is a question for the future. We are now in that future. As long predicted, race has torn the country apart again and again.
The work required to change this once and for all is still too threatening to fully engage, even for the liberal-minded. Americans tolerate this tyranny out of a sense of apathy in the face of accumulated “facts on the ground,” sure, but also because those old myths serve the majority across the political spectrum. Re-writing them affects not simply the legal system or education system but also the ways our cities and towns are organized, how we do business, the stories that fill our screens. Ultimately, however, it represents an ego threat to who we understand ourselves to be.
Excerpted from A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America by Calvin Baker. Copyright © 2020. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Calvin Baker is the author of four novels, including Dominion, which was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Award. He teaches in Columbia University's Graduate School of the Arts, and has also taught in the English Department at Yale University, the University of Leipzig, Long Island University Graduate Department of English, Bard College, and Middlebury College. He lives in New York City.