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.