Monday, November 8, 2010

Guest Blog: Racism and White Denial in “Post-Racial” America

¡Hola! Everybody...
I was struggling (a bit) with a simple essay on the works and life of Arturo Schomburg, when I came across this little gem of a book review. it’s by someone I consider a friend, Karen. Reading Karen is often like reaching a safe harbor in a sea of roiling with tumult. I love the way she puts her thoughts together, her grasp of logic and her ideas. But most of all, I love her passion and she always reminds me that there is true hope. Clearly, this is the mind of a critical thinker at work. Here, she offers an excellent book review of Time Wise’s Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama. Enjoy...

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-=[ Racism and White Denial in “Post-Racial” America ]=-

Wise’s book is small, but its 149 pages are densely packed with information and ideas. I strongly recommend it, and I believe that absolutely everyone should read it, but I am going to admit something up front: It is a hard read.

That’s not because it’s difficult going in terms of language, structure, or even complexity of ideas. It’s because it contains so much information, so many plain facts, that are crazy-making. Repeatedly, I found that I had to put it down, to walk away for a while and process what I had just read and, honestly, calm the hell down -- because I was too angry to focus on what I was reading. I would read one section, or even part of a section, and find that I was reading words without taking them in because my mind was awash with rage. Rage and sadness both, actually. Be prepared, if you read it, no matter what your beliefs about race and racism are, to find yourself confronted by facts that, whether they are reminders, totally new to you, confirmation or contradiction of your beliefs, are, in the sheer aggregate weight of their accumulated horror, likely to evoke a strong emotional response.

I am torn as to how much of the information that made me so angry to include as examples, because I don’t want to weaken the book’s impact on anyone who might read it. I think I will make three assertions that derive from sets of specific facts in the book, so that whether people are inclined to agree or disagree, they will find the specifics in the book.

We have not risen above the kind of racism that leads some white people to shoot black people, for “safety” or for “sport” -- without facing any punishment -- when circumstances become difficult.

While our society condemns people of color for not having pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Housing discrimination alone deprives families of color of nearly $4 billion of actual wealth each year. Not over time, each year.

Children of color are all too often “tracked” to fail or even to land in jail beginning at young ages, and classroom teachers are not just complicit in, but essential to, this pressure that pushes lives in tragic directions.

The assertions and facts I’ve listed are general, and because they are, they lack both the impact and the credibility of Wise’s book. My goal is not to rival Wise in his impact or to persuade you that he is right; it is to arouse enough curiosity, enough belief or disbelief, enough interest, enough expectation of finding what I say confirmed or of being able to dispute it effectively after looking at the facts, enough anything at all -- to move people to read 149 small pages. Believe me, the hard facts are there; the 149 pages of ordinary print are followed by ten pages of tiny-print citations of sources from all over the political spectrum; Wise does not rely on people who confirm his beliefs for information.

This solid grounding in specific fact from sources that range from the ACLU to people who have committed violent hate crimes and are proud of having done so, from Michael Eric Dyson to the Red Cross to The American Journal of Cardiology that gives it such credibility. It is the facts that make it nearly impossible to ignore the ideas, that provide a foundation of solid support which cannot be lightly dismissed. There will always be people who are too emotionally invested in their beliefs to be swayed by facts; for the rest of us, Wise has provided a collection of facts which, without any commentary or interpretation, provide powerful evidence that the U.S. is not even close to being a “post-racial” society.

And yet, the facts are not the point. They are the support for Wise’s assertions, the raw material from which he draws his conclusions, the warrant for and the cause of the ideas he puts forth, so they are integral. More important than the facts, though, are his ideas, his thoughts on the meaning of the facts, his ideas about where we need to go from here and the dangers we face if we choose to go somewhere else.

[Note: In trying to explain Wise’s ideas, I have stated them as I understand them, explaining them in my own words and in my own way, and I make no apology for having done so, because I can only understand another’s ideas as myself. Please be aware, though, that the quotes from Dr. King and even some of the facts used in explanation were contributed by me, not Wise. Wise wrote his book; I am writing this review. The book is much better than the review; if you’re only going to read one or the other, read the book.]

Wise agrees that, #1 above notwithstanding, virulent, overt, white-supremacist bigotry is no longer what it once was in this country, and he conceded that, were not the case, Barack Obama could not have been elected. He cautions, though, that the narrative about the election of the country’s first black president is a dangerous one, because it is a false narrative of the death of racism.

In fact, he suggests, Obama’s election may be evidence of a shift in the form of racism. We did not elect Obama because he is black, as some assert, or even without caring about his skin color, but because, as we all have heard so many times, Barack Obama “transcends race.” In other words, the election of Barack Obama was possible because he is a black man who does not “seem” black.

Like the fictional Cliff Huxtable, Barack Obama is a black man who “seems like one of us” to many white people. He can be viewed as comfortably “non-racial” by the majority of white people, who tend to think that whiteness is a null category and nothing white is “racial.” Some people, Wise asserts, like Barack Obama precisely because he seems to embody the “post-racial” and “colorblind” ideal that we are all judged by “the content of [our] characters” and the “color of [our] skin” does not matter. In fact, what that idea says is that the color of our skin matters very much, because we do not, as a society, point to a white man and say that we like, support, or vote for him because we don’t care about what color he is.

In other words, white America is ready to accept any person of color, as long as that person of color is sufficiently “non-racial” -- that is, sufficiently like the white idea of “normal,” which is white. Such people are acceptable because they have “transcended” race.

The unavoidable implication, the ugly doppelganger, of that idea is that any person of color who is not accepted, not deemed acceptable, has failed to “transcend” race; in other words, such people are insufficiently similar to white people.

I was reminded forcefully of Wise’s ideas at a recent small-group ministry event in which the white man sitting next to me began a long dissertation on everything he dislikes about the president with the words, “I don’t hold anyone’s skin color against them, but... ” We all know what any statement that begins “I’m not a racist, but... ” really means. But there is more to what my fellow congregant said than that. Yes, he clearly does hold people’s skin colors against them, or he would discuss the president’s policies without reference to his “race” -- and not during an evening when the topic was, in fact, race.

But more, he is implicitly acknowledging that “holding... skin color against” a person is, in fact, a common practice. Skin color, he admits without realizing it, is something that can and might and often is “held against” people.

And he is trumpeting the fact that he (believes he) does not hold people’s skin colors against them as a virtue, without ever seeing that that is akin to claiming proudly, “I don’t poison my dinner guests” or “I don’t beat up other people’s children when no one can see me” or “I don’t cut the beaks off of birds so they can’t eat.” In his mind, not holding someone’s skin color against is not something that meets the barest standards of human decency; it is an actual virtue. Sadly, his mind is a pretty good reflection of society, which is why his comment made me think of Wise’s book.

Wise also discusses the way in which Obama’s success is used to deny the existence of racism. “How,” we seem to hear constantly, “can racism exist in a society which has elected a black man to lead it?” As Wise points out, that is like asking how anyone could say that sexism might exist in Pakistan because Benazir Bhutto was elected there. He also points out that there have always been successful people of color in this country, and white America has always pointed to them as evidence that all is well when it comes to race and ask questions like “what more do they want?” That question should sound familiar to people living in the U.S. in 2010, because it is the question asked all the time by people who assert that the real racism in this country is anti-white and that any other racism is only kept alive by the “complaining” of people of color and white liberals, who “complain” in defiance of the clear “fact” that, now that we have elected a black president, racism is dead.

That argument, that question, the idea they embody are not new, simply resurgent. To share two specific facts that Wise provides, in 1963, roughly two-thirds of white people surveyed in a Gallup poll said that black people were treated equally in white communities; and in 1962, nearly 90% of white people polled said that black children were treated equally in terms of educational opportunity. For the ahistorical, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. The years in which white people indicated, via those polls, their view that racism was dead and everything was rosy -- were Jim Crow years. If we believed the polls, we would have to view Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a lot of inexplicable whining about non-existent problems.

Wise suggests that the openly expressed, virulent bigotry based in feelings of personal hatred which he calls Racism 1.0, is in decline, and that the election of Barack Obama does confirm that it is. He asserts, however, that Obama's election may signal the ascendancy of Racism 2.0, in which people of color are accepted only if they “transcend” race. Worse, Racism 2.0 says that people of color who do not “transcend” race can reasonably be blamed for their own problems, which are attributed to “black culture” or “Mexican culture” -- in short, to any culture not “normal,” by which is meant “not white enough” -- or two character deficits such as laziness, lack of personal responsibility, a preference for welfare over work, and so on.

Wise's ideas were easier for me to read than his facts. That may be because they are not so very far from my own ideas; in fact, I used the example of Cliff Huxtable in almost exactly the same way Wise does a few days before reading the book. Some people may find the ideas to be more challenging. I was more troubled by the facts -- not because those kinds of facts are new to me, but because every new instance of such facts is a reminder of why I am angry as well as a reason to be just a little angrier.

This book will be something different for each person who reads it. For me, it was a brilliant articulation of the issues on every level, a bringing together of facts and ideas in a way that makes it almost impossible to deny the problem -- and a collection of numerous facts each of which, on its own, would be rage-provoking and which, presented all at once, often had the effect of making me too angry to focus or even think.

I am largely in agreement with Wise, but there is one area in which the book falls short. Probably because it covers the campaign and election of Barack Obama but not his presidency, it does not look at the way Racism 1.0 has found new (if sometimes more subtle) expression and a new foothold as a reaction to the election of our country’s first black president. We’re a country running two versions of the racism virus at once, and unfortunately, they do not weaken each other.

I do not mean to end on a note of pessimism or fatalism, and Wise does not do so, either. In addition to making the problems clear beyond doubt, he talks about what we can do to address them. He talks about what white people can do to fight racism, and he makes it clear that white people need to be involved in the struggle, that denying or ignoring the problem is a form of complicity -- but fighting the problem is an option for everyone. We are not, he argues, doomed to remaining racist as a society if we can admit that change means more than ceasing to be racists as individuals. Since racism hurts people of all colors, he demonstrates that fighting it is in the best interests of white people as well as people of color. And the fight against racism can be won, although that victory is anything but a foregone conclusion.

I couldn't agree more. And part of the hope I see is that people like Wise are leading the way. This book is an invaluable weapon for use in fighting racism, precisely because it is filled with, grounded in, and supported by facts, and its ideas are the result of an examination of facts.

Karen K's writes her own blog (click here)


  1. Oh, Eddie, thank you so much for your kinds words. You have no idea what they mean to me, coming from you.

  2. By the way, I don't really blog here, though I keep intending to. Probably is a better link for now.

  3. LOL! It was a subtle nudge to push to blog on a larger scale. :-P

  4. I think you must have missed my post on all the people who live inside me...

    "Hagen is clumsy. He means well and says the wrong thing at every opportunity. He is not at all able to cope with nuance or subtlety of any kind. He is often baffled and he feels left out when hints are dropped. He is, alas, in charge of incoming communication which involves subtlety, and he frequently makes a fool of us all. We have tried, especially Edmund and Lucretia, to educate him, but in the end, people who have anything to say to any of us should probably just be direct. When forced to guess, Hagen always guesses wrong."


What say you?


[un]Common Sense