Saturday, November 27, 2010

Between Barack and a Hard Place: A Review

I have a bias towards those who face injustice squarely and call it out without apology. This has long been my style which both friends and foes can attest. When I recently viewed a lecture by Tim Wise to prepare for a class that I teach, I experienced a kindred spirit indeed.

I was inspired to pick up two of his more recent books to read over the Thanksgiving holiday. The first is the subject of this Baha'i Thought book review. It's called Between Barack and a Hardplace: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama.

This short and highly accessible book is composed of two essays. The first is entitled Barack Obama, White Denial and the Reality of Racism. This essay provides a thoughtful reflection on what the rise of Senator and now President Obama does and does not mean about racism in the United States in the early 21st century.

One part I found illuminating is the discussion of what Wise refers to as "racism 2.0". He describes it as a "newer, slicker, enlightened exceptionalism, or Racism 2.0, which holds the larger black and brown communities of our nation in low regard but is willing to carve out exceptions for those who make some whites sufficiently comfortable" (pg. 24). While I found Wise's description of Racism 2.0 a worthy contribution to contemporary discourse on what some have described as the "new racism" I would disagree with the idea that this is a new phenomenon. The idea of exceptional Negroes has coexisted with rejection of black humanity since the beginning. However, the idea that it may be emerging as the more acceptable form of racism today makes sense to me.

Interestingly enough, Wise actually makes just such historical associations when driving home the point that the idea that racism isn't all that bad is not an idea that suddenly occurred to white Americans when they saw footage of Obama at the Democratic National Convention. This idea has been around for a long time. This section of the essay illustrates an overall strength of Wise's work, namely analysis matched with copious citations of empirical evidence to back up his claims.

Wise provides information from a variety of sources that will prove informative even for those who may already agree with much of what he has to say. Wise also "makes it plain" as Malcolm X might say and informs the reader without weighing down his prose with academic jargon. He deftly wields data and delivers a knock-out punch to the rhetoric of "post-racialism" (including that employed by Obama himself) on page after page.

The second essay is entitled The Audacity of Truth: A Call for White Responsibility. One of the things I loved about this essay was its exposure of the tendency of "personal responsibility" rhetoric to be one-sided. Wise points out that calls for blacks to assume personal responsibility for overcoming the legacy of racial discrimination (again, including those made by Obama) are rarely coupled with a call for whites to assume personal responsibility for that legacy. This essay acts as a corrective to that tendency by making just such a call to white Americans. It goes beyond admonishing whites to take personal responsibility for racism by offering specific suggestions for what that might look like. If you're white and have found yourself wondering what to "do" about racism, you might want to pick up this book and at least read the second essay.

In The Secret of Divine Civilization, 'Abdu'l-Baha wrote:

It is therefore urgent that beneficial articles and books be written, clearly and definitely establishing what the present-day requirements of the people are, and what will conduce to the happiness and advancement of society. (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 109)

Between Barack and a Hard Place is a highly "beneficial" book that I recommend for your edification and the edification of the nation. If you have already read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it. If you haven't and are inspired to by this review, I'd also love to hear from you!