Racial Spectacles: Promoting a Colorblind Agenda through Direct Democracy

Date30 June 2011
Publication Date30 June 2011
AuthorAngelique M. Davis,Rose Ernst
Angelique M. Davis and Rose Ernst
Direct democracy by citizen initiatives is often heralded as the avenue for
the true will of the people to be heard. While scholars have debated
whether this leads to a form of Madison’s ‘‘tyranny of the majority,’’ the
debate over the concrete impact of such initiatives on racially margin-
alized groups remains unsettled. We examine a different question about
racially marginalized groups’ interests in this process: the symbolic
assertion of white supremacy expressed through this mechanism of
majority will. We develop the concept of ‘‘racial spectacles’’ to describe
the narrative vehicles that serve to symbolically reassert and reinforce real
existing racial hierarchies and inequalities. We explore the creation of
these spectacles through the initiative process because it is a state-
sanctioned vehicle that enables white dominance. Paradoxically, these
campaigns that purport to be colorblind depend on the enactment of these
racial spectacles. Through an analysis of five statewide anti-affirmative
action initiative campaigns from 1996 to 2008, we explore both macro and
micro political dynamics: public displays of these campaigns as well as
individual, private agency expressed in the public and private act of
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 55, 133–171
Copyright r2011 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1108/S1059-4337(2011)0000055009
voting; court decisions in initiative litigation as well as individual and
interest group participation in these cases. Ultimately, we argue that this
form of racial spectacle further inculcates the public in the postracial
ideology of colorblindness.
spec ta cle (spe
ˇkut -k l) n. a. Something that can be seen or viewed, especially something
of a remarkable or impressive nature.
b. A public performance or display, especially one on a large or lavish scale.
c. A regrettable public display, as of bad behavior: drank too much and made a spectacle of
himself (Spectacle, 2006).
Spectacles are ubiquitous in our politics. From OJ to ‘‘Palin Power,’’ we
are drawn to the fantastic, grandiose, bizarre, and grotesque. Race,
sometimes obvious and sometimes oblique, is often at the core of these
spectacles that captivate the media and public imagination. Far from being
tangential to our understanding of politics, we suggest that these racial
spectacles are a key mechanism of the symbolic reinforcement of white
sociopolitical dominance. Although racial spectacles are generated in a
variety of historical and political contexts, we explore how they are created
through a critical institutionalized and state-sanctioned venue: the initiative
Racial spectacles are displays of racial dominance that publically reassert
and reinforce racial hierarchies. These spectacles rely on public representa-
tions that invoke private fears of domination by racial others. Though these
spectacles are inherently public displays, they are socially constructed
through public and private acts that operate at macro- and micro-levels of
political discourse: they exist due to the synergistic public–private
interaction of collective and individual agency.
Building on work in political science, critical race theory, and sociology,
we offer a new perspective on how racial ideologies, such as colorblind
racism, are propagated through the creation of the particular spectacles we
explore. Our concept of racial spectacles builds on Omi and Winant’s (1994)
theory of racial formation
and Murray Edelman’s (1998) account of
‘‘political spectacles,’’ explored later in the chapter. As part of the broader
process of racial formation, these spectacles are the narrative vehicles for the
promulgation of Omi and Winant’s racial projects. And, because we utilize a
critical race theory framework, we argue that white supremacy structures all
politics – including spectacles – in the United States. Moreover, because
temporality is central to the creation of racial spectacles, the contemporary
dominance of the racial ideology of ‘‘color-blind’’ racism (Bonilla-Silva,
assumes heightened importance that warrants closer examination.
We do not suggest that these public displays are more grotesque or
exaggerated than they were in the past, but rather that their symbolic
meaning is contingent upon their historical moment. We use the anti-
affirmative action initiatives to explain our concept of racial spectacles
because, from signature gathering to constitutional challenges, it is a state-
sanctioned mechanism that provides fertile ground for the expression of
simultaneous private and public assertions of white racial superiority. Thus
direct democracy – here in the form of anti-affirmative action initiatives –
serves as an excellent example of the generation of racial spectacles in an
allegedly ‘‘post-racial’’ (Barnes, Chemerinsky, & Jones, 2010) country where
race, paradoxically, plays a central role in politics.
This chapter is divided into five sections: the first section explains how the
initiative process allows for the creation of racial spectacles; the second
section chronicles the rise of anti-affirmative action initiatives in the 1990s;
the third section sets forth our argument about how colorblind racism is
used in anti-affirmative action campaigns to create the racial content of
racial spectacles; the fourth section sets forth our argument regarding the
spectacle component of our concept, including campaign and litigation
tactics; and the fifth section concludes with a discussion regarding the future
of this phenomenon.
Fears of a ‘‘tyranny of the majority,’’ most famously articulated by James
Madison (1787) in Federalist 10 concerned a moneyed elite, which are not
the same racial minorities we focus on in this chapter. The relatively fixed
nature of both a moneyed elite and racial minorities, however, make
Madison’s cautions relevant in the case of direct democracy. Since
Madison’s warnings, many scholars have debated the absence of safeguards
for minority groups in the initiative process. While our focus in this chapter
is not on the substantive policy impact of these initiatives on racialized
Promoting a Colorblind Agenda Through Direct Democracy 135

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