Urban Triage: Race and the Fictions of Multiculturalism

urban triageUrban Triage: Race and the Fictions of Multiculturalism

James Kyung-Jin Lee

In Urban Triage, James Kyung-Jin Lee uses urban spaces and literature set in them to examine the politics and narratives of racial panic in the age of multiculturalism. He argues that although multiculturalism’s response to racism was to cross the color line, “it is much easier to cross a meataphorical line than to break down real walls. It is easier to imagine a new fantasy than to dismantle the actual racial legacies that a previous fantasy permitted the United States to nurture” (xiv). He also asserts that nowhere was the failure of multiculturalism to create real, structural change more apparent than in the rise of poverty and segregation in U.S. cities during the Reagan Era (xiv). In his chapters he “place[s] literary study in the circuitry of urban and ethnic studies during the 1980s. For it is through the relation to, the respoct of, and the transgressions toward these different approaches that readers of the city, of race, and of literature can better understand this period and perhaps imagine social relations in ways even beyond those writers themselves or I can offer” (xx).

On, Bonfire of the Vanities: “Whiteness, Virile Masculinity, and Viral Satire”

  • space determines agency
  • Wolfe writes about whether or not the new wave of non-white immigration makes the city incomprehensible. He doesn’t think so.
  • “If contemporary multiculturalism has done anything, it has rendered visible the power of whiteness, for all to see and for some to enter, but it has not prevented or diminished the power upon which interrogations of whiteness rest: white supremacy” (148).
  • “even flexible whiteness begets anxiety; the history of white absorption of immigrant ethnics has been nothing but contentious” (148).
  • For Wolfe, the city is controlled by two groups of people: the Masters of the Universe (Wall St.) and The Power/ Gilbitrar (the Bronx Courthouse)
  • “Whiteness, early on in the novel, is equated with privilege, a privilege more imbued by the legacy of inheritance than by the member’s individual dilliigence” (151)
  • Gilbraltar is no longer a monument to public service but a fortress in which a small group of white people determine the destinies of the adjacent communities while protecting themselves against these communities.
  • Similarly, Sherman’s commute vs his father’s commute shows how white power had become increasingly insular and shut off from the rest of the city. Unlike his father, whose ethos harkens back to New Deal shared struggle, Sherman’s inherited power and wealth allows him to have a siege mentality.
  • “Sherman engages in work that facilitates and extends an economy of debt that masks the deep scarcity at the root of seeming monetary abundance” (156).
  • Whiteness as property (158)
  • “Thus the fear that Kramer and Sherman map onto public space is as much an index of a perceived crisis in their whiteness as it is a concomitant conferral of racial and criminal characteristics on the nonwhite bodies they envision. What generates their anxiety is precisely the sense that they have lost their property as white men” (159).
  • relationship between uneven urban development and racial panic
  • “And we might view Sherman and Maria’s hit-and-run crime against Henry Lamb and the ensuing investigation and trial as the satirical denouement of those wedded to an ideology of whiteness–individualist privilege enabled by state-sanctioned and subsidized private space–who are largely responsible for this dual city teetering on the brink of racial warfare” (170).

1992 L.A. Race Riots

The Culture Wars

Because I was born during Reagan’s second term and in public school you’re lucky to get as far as Jimmy Carter in U.S. history*, I had to research the Culture Wars. I knew what that phrase basically meant, but with zero specifics. Here’s some resources, 80’s kids:

Intro to the Culture Wars

Some contemporary perspective from The Nation

A spiffy PowerPoint from UTEP: Reagan, Culture Wars, and Recent American History

*I have been using my overly-highlighted AP US History textbook to brush up every now and then.

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