I’m preparing for the racial justice class that I teach at a local university in Boston. This week we’ll be exploring the implications of race and its intersection with other identities for the development of professional identity. The more I prepare, the more I ponder, the more I get the sense that the post-racialists of America are right.

Exhibit “A” is the sure-to-become-viral message of comedian Chris Rock to white American voters. His thesis is as simple as it is brilliant. Barack Hussein Obama is a white guy. Once I stopped laughing and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized that Chris Rock, in addition to being hilarious, is a post-racialist.

To understand why, it would be helpful to distinguish between two kinds of post-racialists. The first kind could be referred to as political post-racialists. These are the folks for whom the election of America’s first Black President represented the END OF RACE/RACISM. People with this perspective believe that race no longer operates as a social determinant of American’s quality of life. This variant of post-racialism falls along a spectrum. On one end you have those who flatly deny that racism matters in America anymore. Some go so far as to say that if any exists, it is directed primarily at white Americans. An example of this kind of reasoning is a comment I received in response to a past column:

“White Americans like me are increasingly getting sick and tired of all these anti-white laws. 58% of white millennial (that’s my generation) think that racism against whites is worse then racism against non-whites. The anti-white rhetoric coming from bigots like you, Phillipe, is not going unnoticed! There is no white privilege. There is no systemic racism. If any systemic racism exists, its against white people.”

On the other end of the spectrum are those who, while acknowledging that racism exists, argue that there is not enough of it to hold back those willing to work hard. Black conservative John McWhorter once compared racism to a mosquito for example. In this analogy, racism is more of an annoyance than a serious obstacle to upward mobility. My response to this racism-isn’t-such a big deal talk is that a mosquito carrying malaria is a hell of a lot more than an annoyance. While not all mosquitoes do, would anyone argue that people should just live with the risk of disease or demand that we drain the swamp and pass the bug spray?

I categorically reject all forms of political post-racialism. Such a view simply does not square with the available evidence. Political post-racialism is at best naive and at worst dangerously delusional. It offers nothing of value to the project of achieving a multiracial, fully democratic America.

The second kind of post-racialists are what I call cultural post-racialists. Folks who hold this perspective reject discredited, nineteeth-century conceptualizations of race as monolithic, static and binary (you’re either white or black). Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now, represents a manifesto of this type of post-racialism. Early on, he states the mission of his book:

“I would like through this book, to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing Blackness. If there’s a right way then there must be a wrong way, and that kind of thinking cuts us off from exploring the full potential of Black humanity. I wish for every Black American to have the freedom to be Black however he or she chooses, and to banish from the collective mind the bankrupt, fraudulent concept of ‘authentic’ Blackness.”

Touré’s concept of post-Blackness articulates an aspiration held by many Americans. For them, post-racialism is not about denying racism but refusing to concede to its limitations. In the dynamic realm of culture they are questioning not only what it means to be Black but also what it means to be White, Asian, Native American, Middle Eastern, Latino. In literature, film, the performing and visual arts, music and new media all kinds of people, particularly young people, are transgressing the color-line with abandon and breaking the rules of race. In this context, Chris Rock identifying the President as White is more than mockery. It is a commentary on the new racial world that  many of us are trying to create. This is a world where Barack Obama can be both a “black” and a “white” President, at least in the cultural sense. This is the flavor of post-racialism that I can get down with.

Of course, cultural post-racialism like any ideology represents both promise and peril. If it is not balanced with a commitment to political analysis and activism it may fail to realize whatever potential it has. It is the struggle for a more  equitable and inclusive, multiracial democracy that has created the context in which cultural rebellion against white domination can flourish. It must also be recognized that culture is political and politics is cultural. Thus, Chris Rock cloaks his racial commentary in the guise of a political advertisement days before an election.

Where all this is headed remains to be seen. For every example of transgressive, post-racial, cultural expression there is a competing repetition of stereotypes and devotion to rigid racial orthodoxies.  Whether cultural or political, the struggle for an America without racism is far from over. It is nice to be able to laugh about all this though, at least for a minute or two. Thank you Chris Rock.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia. Author David Skankbone

What Kind of Country?

Posted: October 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 “Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day—thirty years, if I’m lucky—I can be President too. It never entered this boy’s mind, I suppose—it has not entered the country’s mind yet—that perhaps I would not want to be. And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro “first” will become the first Negro President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.”

James Baldwin, the most prophetic observer of American racial politics during the 20th century, made these remarks in 1961. As he so often did, he asked the kind of question that Bobby Kennedy, and by extension Americans generally, failed to ask. It’s a question worth pondering today.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic, provides a powerful example of taking on Baldwin’s question:

“The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government.”

Jodi Kantor of the New York Times also shines a light on racial politics and the Obama Presidency:

“In interviews with dozens of black advisers, friends, donors and allies, few said they had ever heard Mr. Obama muse on the experience of being the first black president of the United States, a role in which every day he renders what was once extraordinary almost ordinary.

But his seeming ease belies the anxiety and emotion that advisers say he brings to his historic position: pride in what he has accomplished, determination to acquit himself well and intense frustration. Mr. Obama is balancing two deeply held impulses: a belief in universal politics not based on race and an embrace of black life and its challenges.”

What surprises me is that anyone is surprised by the paradoxical experience of our first black head of state. What did we expect? Americans are a paradoxical people. Inconsistency between ideals and reality is coded into the very DNA of the American experience. A nation founded on the loftiest ideals of liberty was simultaneously built upon the enslavement of Africans, military conquest of indigenous peoples and Mexicans, the exploitation of Asian and poor White laborers and the subjugation of women.

Given American history, there is nothing unusual about the challenges Obama has faced. He is at once the most and least powerful black man in history because of the nature of the country he leads. All of us are striving in some way to remain sane in the face of a society that preaches equality but practices white supremacy. Why should the President be any different?

I’m not saying that the bewilderment, disappointment, heartache and rage some have experienced witnessing President Obama’s efforts to walk the tight rope of the color-line are invalid. I’ve had my moments as well, believe me. What I’m suggesting is that we need to take some responsibility for his predicament. He did not create it on his own. Is it fair to ask him to resolve it on his own? That hardly seems consistent with the spirit of government of, by, and for the people.

When I look at President Barack Hussein Obama, I see a black man trying to successfully navigate a white-dominated society. I see a man forced to endure existential absurdities, balance the needs of competing constituencies, and overcome obstacles most others are not even conscious of. I see a man at once exceptionally privileged and acutely vulnerable. I see myself. I see America. What do you see?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia. Originally appeared on Flickr. Author, Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA












After Affirmative Action

Posted: October 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

First published as The Perils and Possibilities of an America Without Affirmative Action on GOOD

How much diversity on campus is enough? When it comes to the use of race in college admission policies raised by the case Fisher v. University of Texas, that’s the question  Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wanted answered during the oral arguments recently presented to the Court. I have a different set of questions: How do those who support affirmative action—and race-conscious policies in general—prepare for an America without them? Secondly, would an America without them be so bad?

Some consider a post-affirmative action America a triumph of post-racialism, some view it as the prelude to a racial apocalypse, and still others fall somewhere in the middle. Whether you are for or against it, the future of affirmative action is questionable at best. While it’s true that certain sectors of our society such as business and higher education continue to support the practice, it’s less popular among the general public.

A February Rasmussen poll conducted when the Supreme Court took up the Fisher case found that only 24 percent of likely U.S. voters favor applying affirmative action policies to college admissions. Fifty-five percent oppose the use of such policies to determine who is admitted to colleges and universities. More recently, the Huffington Post reported that most people between the ages of 18-25 oppose affirmative action with 47 percent opposing programs that make special efforts to help minority students, compared to 38 percent favoring them.

While attitudes on this issue predictably split along racial lines, the degree of opposition among young people should be a wake-up call to racial equity activists. We are failing to persuade a significant segment of those representing the future of our nation that race-conscious approaches are a defensible and necessary feature of a society committed to achieving a multi-racial democracy. The presidency of our first black head of state is weakening such arguments even further. Affirmative action may prove to be a casualty of the so-called Obama Era.

Some have argued that even if the Supreme Court strikes down the use of race in college admissions policies, they cannot “kill” affirmative action. It will continue to operate off the books as a social value. That’s a persuasive argument, but what if things don’t work out that way?

As a parent of a 4-year-old, I cannot assume that policies I benefited from will still be there when my son reaches college age. I want him to be prepared for college, but I’ll have to make sure that he is super-prepared to compete for admission to the nation’s best colleges against those who have benefited from a lifetime of white privilege.

As an educator, I’ll have to prepare a pedagogy that addresses the reality of the hyper-whitening of my classroom demographics. As a citizen, I will need to prepare myself for the consolidation of a white-dominated democracy with an increasingly disenfranchised people of color majority. As an activist, I’ll need to gird myself for a multi-generational struggle against all of these emerging realities.

A post-affirmative action America may also strike some of us with fear. However, we should consider the possibility that this scenario might be an opportunity and not just a catastrophe. Over the past year, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, has sparked a much needed conversation about race and the criminal justice system. What has received less attention, however, is the provocative analysis of affirmative action in her book. Alexander does not just question the preoccupation of civil rights organizations with defending affirmative action while remaining silent on mass incarceration. She suggests that the reason for this is that affirmative action has functioned as a kind of payoff for the acquiescence of middle and upper-middle class black Americans.

If so, the extinction of affirmative action might serve as some tough, but ultimately healing medicine. Elite black folks like me would be forced to make common cause with poor and workingclass blacks. For the black underclass, or undercaste as Alexander puts it, debates about race in college admissions are essentially irrelevant.

It may also encourage greater interracial collaboration with poor and working class whites for whom affirmative action has functioned as a wedge between them and people of color. This wedge has been skillfully manipulated by moneyed-elites to keep the vast majority of Americans—the 99 percent—in our place. Since Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, multiracial, cross-class coalitions have always been stronger and more effective at challenging the hegemony of the 1 percent.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the Fischer case, affirmative action is under sustained assault. Those of us who believe in it should keep making the case that America is not ready to end it. At the same time, we need urgent and serious discussion of what to do if we fail to effectively make that case. We also need to question the idea that affirmative action’s demise can only represent a step backward. We must face both the perils and the possibilities of an America after affirmative action.

Class asking questions photo via Shutterstock

We Need to Talk

Posted: October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

“We need to talk.” Any couple can tell you that those four words can represent the prelude to a really good conversation or a really bad fight. For some couples they are famous last words. There is a parallel when it comes to conversations across the color-line. One school of thought is that such conversations are not happening enough. This was a key element of Attorney General Eric Holder’s “nation of cowards” commentary a few years ago. Others are sick-to-death of race and welcome any opportunity not to talk about it. My concern is less about the quantity of race talk going on in America than the quality of it. Much of the racial discourse I hear is overly therapeutic and simplistic.

As a professional social worker, my training and experience have taught me that human beings are geniuses at appearing to be accomplishing something while actually accomplishing nothing. In the context of talk therapy for example, people can be adept at engaging in psycho-speak that they have learned from a life-time of pop-psychology socialization. They know exactly what to say when talking with people like me.

However, the fact that someone spends hours talking about their childhood does not mean that any healing is really happening. In fact, some of the biggest talkers in therapy are actually using a flood of words to avoid dealing with the real problems in their lives.  This can be highly seductive to clinicians. It is sometimes only through the benefit of supervision that we come to recognize that nothing has been getting done. We may even be shocked to realize that we have actually been colluding with people in avoiding talking about what they really need to be talking about. There is a corollary in racial discourse. Simply that fact that we are talking about race does not mean that we are talking about it in a meaningful way. This is why I believe many of us leave such conversations with an intuitive sense that something was missing. Just like social workers and other helping professionals, we are all vulnerable to the delusion that talk alone is evidence of work getting done.

Another way in which racial discourse can be overly therapeutic is when the emphasis is on feeling good rather than doing good. The preoccupation with avoiding giving offense is one of example of this ethos. The rhetoric of “safe space” is another. Under ideal circumstances, such efforts genuinely support an atmosphere conducive to healing through dialogue. When taken beyond the bounds of moderation however, they can encourage hedonism and narcissism. Feeling good, particularly about oneself, becomes the touchstone of success. When we talk about race in this way, we walk away feeling better about a bad situation that has not actually changed. Of course in this scenario, just like in talk therapy gone wrong, change was never the agenda in the first place.

My point here is not to disparage focusing on racial healing through dialogue. Some people dismiss such efforts as “touchy-feely” and lacking substance. I am not one of those people. National treasures such as Dr. Joy DeGruy, Dr. William Smith, and Phyllis and Eugene Unterschuetz are doing amazing work in this area.What I’ve been learning is that healing cannot happen fully without real change in the balance and practice of power. This is true at the intra and interpersonal levels and at the level of society. Protesters often chant, “No justice, no peace.”  As far as racial dialogue goes, “No justice, no healing”. Abraham Joshua Heschel set the standard by which I now judge my efforts at racial dialogue:

“Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only publicly, but also privately; not only occasionally, but regularly” (emphasis in original).

A related challenge that often flows from and reinforces overly therapeutic conversations about race is the tendency towards over simplification. Issues are framed in literal and figurative black/white terms with little room for complexity, ambiguity or nuance. For example, much oxygen is burnt up and ink spilled arguing over whether or not someone is a racist. These highly unproductive arguments begin with the simplistic notion that a person is either racist or not, period. In my experience, racism is more a matter of degree, a continuum rather than a dichotomy. It doesn’t help that the media frames virtually every issue, including race, in terms of right/left, conservative/liberal, red state/blue state.

Another form of simplification is to engage in a-historical conversations. Sometimes, we talk about race as if history either didn’t happen, or is largely irrelevant to understanding the issues at hand. A close cousin of the a-historical conversation is the apolitical conversation. We sometimes talk about race as if everyone involved in the conversation had equal power. At other times, we talk about it as if the various intersections of race with other identities such as gender, class, sexuality, age and religion did not exist. We have never had equal power and race has never been just about race.

However sincere our intentions, inequities of power and multiple oppressions are always operating. We have to talk about those things. You could say that the same way modern life demands  we become multi-taskers, today’s racial realities demand that we become multi-talkers. We need to learn have several kinds of conversations at once, allowing for the full complexity of the issues involved.

America, we need to talk. I just hope we can do a better job when we do. I offer these observations not as an expert, but a student of the issue. My errors in attempting to talk about race have been epic, believe me. I’d like to hear what you think. What are the ingredients of a good conversation about race? Is such a thing even possible or should we just stop talking about it?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.com. Author LinguistAtLarge.

It’s Just a Cartoon. Right?

Posted: October 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

Listening to National Public Radio while you’re driving can be hazardous.  Once again I almost drove off the road. The reporter was talking about a fourteen year old girl in Pakistan, hunted down and shot by the Pakistani Taliban for the offense of going to school. I was enraged. In spite of myself, all manner of hostile thoughts filled my mind. Since then, I’ve been following the story and the remarkable courage being shown by girls, women, and men in Pakistan.

Then the cartoons started popping up on my Facebook page. I began to feel uncomfortable with what I was seeing. What they all had in common was the juxtaposition of a girl in hijab with some school-related objects and a Middle Eastern/Muslim man (sometimes explicitly Taliban and sometimes not) reacting to her in fear. There was a time when I would have found these cartoons poignant and witty. That time has passed. Let me explain why.

I’ve been on a kind of intellectual odyssey for some years now. Its started after the 9/11 attacks and has accelerated since the Arab Spring. I’ve been trying to better understand how religion, race, gender, sexuality, and economics are all mixed up in the East/West conflict. I knew in 2001 that those planes did not simply come out of nowhere, just like I know now that the recent killing of an American Ambassador in Libya didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve studied and studied, dialogued and debated, written and written. A pivotal moment in this journey was reading Michael B. Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present. Another, was reading Nadine Naber’s ground-breaking essay, Look, Muhammad the Terrorist is Coming: Cultural Based Racism, Nation Based Racism, and the Intersectionality of Oppressions after 9/11.”

Scholar-prophets like Naber have helped me understand that post-9/11 discourses have constructed a villainous caricature that is Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim and male. He is distinguished by cultural characteristics that are treated as “natural” and inherently hostile to “our way of life,” and markers of marginalization such as Arab-sounding names or physical appearance. In addition, he is often an immigrant from particular countries and assumed to be suspect or “criminal” by virtue of his nation of origin. The point of authors like Naber is not to deny that very bad things are being done by people who happen to Arab/Middle Eastern/male. As I understand it, they are arguing that the way we think and talk about such things is deeply connected, however unconsciously, to race and racism. When we fail to recognize this, we end up doing harm even if our intentions are “good”.

In my thinking, the Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim terrorist is part of a kind of domestic axis of evil in the American mind. The black criminal, the Latino illegal alien, the Asian economic and intellectual competitor, and the Native America land appropriator (via casinos) complete this racial rogues gallery. While each of these villains have differed in their perceived role in the American story, what they share is representing a potential threat, sometimes an existential threat,  to the dominant culture and the fulfillment of Americas “destiny” as a benign, global empire (euphemistically referred to as a “superpower”). James Baldwin challenges us to think deeply about why we create such villains and its implications:

“It is the American Republic—repeat, the American Republic—which created something which they call a ‘nigger’. They created it out of necessities of their own. The nature of the crisis is that I am not a ‘nigger’—I never was. I am a man. The question with which the country is confronted is this: Why do you need a nigger in the first place, and what are you going to do about him now that he’s moved out of his place? Because I am not what you said I was. And if my place, as it turns out, is not my place, then you are not who you said you were, and where’s your place?”

It is in this context that something as seemingly trivial as a cartoon becomes complicated. I look at some of these images and wonder if they do not perpetuate the Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim male caricature even as they appear to be supporting women and girls? Angela Davis in Abolition Democracy reminds us that claims of support for women suffering in the so-called Muslim world have a funny way of getting mixed up with military aggression.  I also can’t help but ponder the fact that claims of “defending” women have long been associated with dehumanization and violence directed at men of color. Remember lynching? The epithet “sand nigger” embodies the historical link between the racialization of Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim men and black American men. In light of these realities, I must face a potentially painful question. Was my emotional reaction to hearing about Malala Yousufzai’s shooting just about a desire for gender equity, or was something more going on? Could it have been that my rage emerged from subconscious biases towards Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim men based on a lifetime of racial conditioning? I haven’t made up my mind.

Is it possible to engage in advocacy on behalf of women and girls in the so-called Muslim world without falling into the trap of perpetuating racial/religious stereotypes? Can we engage in cross-cultural critique (violence against women is wrong regardless of culture or belief) while avoiding cultural imperialism (our approach to women is the “superior” way)? What might that look like? I could ask the same question regarding sexist attitudes and behaviors among men of color generally. We are haunted by our racial history. It bedevils every effort at contemporary discourse and dialogue regarding these thorny issues. As such, making mistakes does not require malice on the part of anyone. However, our ideas have real-world implications. Is it wrong to ask that we wrestle with those implications?

I invite you to wrestle along with me regarding these cartoons. We may reach different conclusions but I can live with that. What I can no longer live with is not questioning such things.

“Shut up you fake white boy!” said the “real” black kid. The comment came out of nowhere. One minute a group of white and black adolescents were hanging out and laughing. The next minute I got a rhetorical bullet in the chest. I couldn’t help but notice that the white kids seemed to be laughing the hardest about this comment. I wondered why but didn’t ask. Accusations of acting white can be costly as discussed in a must-read study by Roland G. Fryer of Harvard.

In my experience, the phenomenon of people claiming that “nerdy” kids of color are acting white is discussed in a few ways. Those who have been on the receiving end of the charge deny it with passion. Others theorize that the prevalence of the phenomenon is either exaggerated or has little real impact on kids of color. Another school of thought is that the accusation is accurate and its targets suffer from self-hatred. What I’ve heard less of is the possibility that not only are those accused of acting white actually doing so, but that there is nothing wrong with their doing so.

I am going to take those who deny they are acting white at their word. What I will say is that I am one of the people who does act white, knows that he is doing so and is actually quite good at it. I recently joked at a faculty brown bag on race that I’ve earned an honorary doctorate in white people through a lifetime of study. You could call it a kind of anthropology by necessity. In order to successfully navigate white dominated spaces, I have had to learn to understand white people, white  psychology and white society. Not only that, but I’ve had to learn how to perform a certain kind of blackness, a whitened-blackness if you will, depending upon the context. It took me a long time to recognize this ability as an asset rather than an indication of racial betrayal or mark of ethnic inferiority relative to other black folks. Acting white does not have to represent some form of pathology, but can actually be an expression of what is generally referred to as “cultural” competence. I agree that acquiring such competence can degenerate into a quest for white acceptance to achieve some degree of white privilege and power. However, it can also be a path to opportunities to challenge and change the racial hierarchy from the inside out. This is the kind of acting white that I engage in. I believe it is a necessary and valuable contribution to black liberation, however paradoxical it may appear.

I intellectually and politically respect those who reject what I’m proposing here. Black people have been debating how best to resist white domination for a long time. We have never had complete agreement or even consensus on this question. My goal is to challenge the notion that there is only one right answer.

One of the problems with the pathologizing of acting white, is that it is based on essentialist notions of a “real” blackness in opposition to a “fake” whiteness. In other words, some of us are “acting” while others are “keeping it real”. The reality is that all racial identity is acting, it represents a performance rather than some kind of self-evident, immutable reality. As Markus and Moya put it, race is something that we do, not something that we are. Thus everyone is “acting white” or “acting black”. What gets some folks upset is the perception that others are somehow not “acting” according to the standards of self-appointed racial authenticity police. This happens on both sides of the color-line, with some whites accused of “acting black” or not being “white enough”.

Another problem is that accusations of acting white or acting black assume there are these distinct, pure, cultures of whiteness and blackness that people are somehow trying to imitate. Such a view denies the long history of cross-cultural assimilation, acculturation, and appropriation between Europeans and Africans in the New World. How could people who have interacted for centuries not deeply influence each others’ cultural formations? Where does so-called white culture end and black culture begin?  You could say that all whites are sometimes “acting black” and all blacks are sometimes “acting white”. If so, what is the basis for passing judgment on any of us?

I think that it is time to have a broader and deeper conversation about “acting white”. We don’t have to agree but we can at least consider different possibilities for thinking about what it means. I’ve come to realize that those who have accused me of acting white were right all along, though not in the way they imagined. Today I can say it loud, I act white and I’m proud.

Queen Latifah talks about her new all-black version of Steel Magnolias. What do you think about the idea of racially recasting films, plays, or musicals that originally featured all-white or predominantly white casts? Which ones would you want to see racially recast and why? My vote would be an all-black Les Miserables set in pre-revolutionary Haiti.