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The Postracial Delusion

Yasmin Nair is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and activist who writes widely on issues of race, gender, and sexuality.
David Theo Goldberg, Are We All Postracial Yet? (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2015), 200 pages, $12.95, paperback.
Linda Martín Alcoff, The Future of Whiteness (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2015), 224 pages, $19.95, paperback.

If we based our understanding of race relations in the United States on the events of the last year alone, it might seem like a racial Armageddon was upon us. Hardly a day seems to pass without a report of yet another black victim of a police shooting. Independent estimates confirm that the prevalence of such incidents has been rising over the past several years.1 But it is also important to remember that the presence of more public forms of recording and surveillance makes it easier to document such incidents. What we are witnessing, then, is a volatile combination of a rise in violence alongside the increasing visibility of that violence.

But despite so much evidence that black Americans and other people of color are under attack, nearly half of respondents to a recent Pew survey thought that race was “not a factor at all” in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the same number agreed that the United States has already “made [the] necessary changes” to achieve racial equality.2 In other words, the vision of a “postracial” society remains alive and well. The term “postracial” means broadly that the presence of more people of color, particularly black people, in most areas of public life shows that we have reached a racial harmony or equilibrium. For many, Barack Obama’s 2008 election was the clearest signal of this postraciality, and an indication that measures such as affirmative action are now obsolete.

Or, as David Theo Goldberg puts it in his book Are We All Postracial Yet?, “Postraciality is the illusion that the dream of the nonracial has already been realized” (180). In a postracial world, any signs of racial tension—such as police violence towards black people—are dismissed as isolated symptoms of other, racially “neutral,” problems, such as personal vendettas or professional incompetence. Goldberg unpacks the history of the postracial, locating its origins firmly in 2008 when, he writes, “postraciality went public, pronouncing itself the prevailing state of being, at least aspirationally. This quickly opened up a frenzied media discussion about whether America, in particular, and other once racially predicated societies globally, had become postracial” (1).

So the postracial—or the belief in it—is now global. And yet, of course, everywhere there is more evidence than ever that race and its cousin, ethnicity, still define the simple matter of who gets to live or die. Whether in the global refugee crisis, the aftermath of the Paris bombings, or the quotidian ways in which people of color in the United States face the denigration of both casual and institutional racism, one thing is clear: race survives.

In this context, it becomes more critical to think through the implications of a “postracial” world, even as we deconstruct the notion of race itself. Goldberg’s book is published by a scholarly press, Polity, but provides a history and analysis that will resonate with a wide audience. Goldberg argues forcefully that postraciality is a problematic concept and not a utopian one, wielded by those who would deny the harm done by the racial in the first place.

Also from Polity comes Linda Martín Alcoff’s The Future of Whiteness, an expansive consideration of a daunting subject: whiteness itself. Taken together, both books provide a history of racial identity and race relations rarely treated at any length in mainstream publications. While there has been more general discussion of race as a social construct, much less has been written in such venues on the mutability of whiteness.

Given the renewed attention to race in the public sphere in the past few years alone, these books offer careful, insightful analyses of concepts that otherwise get thrown around without much specificity. For instance, among Alcoff’s points is that whiteness is “a historical and social construct that has persistently undergone change. It is not a singular idea, but a fluid amalgam of sometimes contesting interpretations and practices” (15). This is not an unfamiliar idea in itself, but what comes next might pique the interest of many anti-racist activists:

White supremacy is itself incoherent, and can manifest itself quite differently depending on historical periods and social groups: From Klan violence to law-backed disenfranchisement to paternal scolding that blames victims for their “culture of poverty” to entitled gentrifications of neighborhoods that force the nonwhite poor out of cities with an indifferent shrug. (15)

It is this “incoherence” of white supremacy that sometimes escapes notice in anti-racist circles, which have a tendency to position it as an unchanging entity. The temptation is also to indiscriminately attach the label of “white supremacy” to every instance of racial violence or hostility, which only serves to make the real nature of its power all the more unrecognizable. At the same time, of course, everyday racism is so often—some would argue always—the result of centuries of white supremacy. The trouble, though, is that in our struggles against white supremacy, it can be hard to discern how best to recognize its history and how that history manifests itself in everyday situations.

In this, Alcoff’s own story, which she details here, is a helpful tool. The child of a Panamanian father and a white American mother, Alcoff, along with her mother and older sister, lived for a time with her maternal grandparents after her parents’ divorce. Her grandparents were dirt-poor Irish-Americans with hardly any education, South Carolina sharecroppers who worked alongside poor Southern blacks but still felt themselves far superior to them. Years later, Alcoff would work as an organizer among very similar people, but this time doing anti-racist work. The link between her grandparents and the people she worked with as an activist, she writes, are partly what motivated Alcoff to write this work on whiteness, as much as her own intellectual background as a philosopher.

At one point, Alcoff asks if “whiteness is irretrievably tied to racism,” since racism is so clearly a “constitutive feature of our realities” (90). Her answer is less a simple yes or no than a further complication of how anti-racism might or should work. There are easy and uncomplicated ways of thinking how racism might end: “Many believe that racism is an outdated ideology that will gradually lessen of its own accord until it finally disappears, like beliefs in witches or the practice of sun worshippers” (124). As Alcoff points out, the idea that racism will simply wither away is analogous to the idea that homophobia will simply decline as more and more people begin to accept gay people. But such evolutionary models fail to take into account the structural factors—like economic oppression and exploitation—that help perpetuate racist or homophobic ideologies.

Alcoff and Goldberg are both serious and earnest in their attempts to unravel what seem like self-explanatory concepts, postraciality and whiteness. Taken together, their books contain relevant and timely histories, including personal ones, that will enliven future discussions of both subjects. But because both authors come from analytic, academic backgrounds, they sometimes lose sight of some of the material realities of how race works. Goldberg, for instance, writes that “postraciality is invisibly squeezing to death poorer black folk in a sea of social debt” (131), but in fact this squeezing to death has been going on for as long as black people have been trying to live as non-slaves; the ideology of the postracial may be a contributing factor, but hardly a pivotal one.

While both Alcoff and Goldberg expertly dismantle how racism functions on the right, they are less adept at locating it within the left. Alcoff provides illuminating stories of white anti-racists like Bill Zellner, but there is little mention of how white anti-racists too often tend to take over movements and shut down non-white organizing work. Her particular blindness in this regard might explain her praise for someone like Tim Wise, whom Adolph Reed has described accurately as a “professional anti-racist.” And, as Reed goes on to argue, the bigger problem with such figures is that they focus on race to the exclusion of capitalism—which explains why Wise, for instance, eschews radical politics in favor of a kinder, gentler capitalism, voicing his support for Teach for America and the charter school phenomenon.3

This brings us back to a larger question not really touched upon by either book: What defines the racial besides race? How do we conceive of anti-racist work that does not simply serve to render race an almost ahistorical category, but instead considers how it functions within capitalism, and how capitalism can flow unimpeded within anti-racist struggles that turn a blind eye to it? Goldberg and Alcoff expose both whiteness and postraciality as historically contingent formations, fragile and, in Alcoff’s words, “incoherent.” Ultimately, the only way to consider the end of race might be to envision the end of capitalism itself—though even this will be only a necessary condition, not a total solution.

Notes

  1. Mapping Police Violence, “Number of People Killed by Police, January 2013 – December 2015,” http://mappingpoliceviolence.org.
  2. Pew Research Center, “Sharp Racial Divisions in Reactions to Brown, Garner Decisions,” December 8, 2014; “Across Racial Lines, More Say Nation Needs to Make Changes to Achieve Racial Equality,” August 5, 2015; both reports available at http://pewresearch.org.
  3. Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Limits of Anti-Racism,”LeftBusinessObserver 121 (2009).
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