Saturday, November 27, 2010

Color-Blind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat From Racial Equity: A Review


I've been having a quite a great reading experience this Thanksgiving. Not only did I get to read Tim Wise's Between Barack and a Hard Place, but I also had the pleasure of reading his more recent book. This book is called, Color-Blind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity. Here's the deal. As far as I'm concerned, Tim Wise is a 21st century William Lloyd Garrison.

In his newest book, Wise does something really interesting. Rather than focusing on the rather easy target of conservatives regarding race and racism, this book is about liberals. Specifically, Wise offers a critique of what he calls, "Post-racial Liberalism" and describes it as a combination of "race-neutral rhetoric and color blind public policy" (pg. 16).

He challenges the fundamental assumptions underlying this ideology/political strategy: 1. that racism is declining as a factor influencing the quality of life of people of color in the U.S. and 2. that even if point "1" is untrue, post-racial liberalism is an effective way to deal with white hostility to using race conscious policies to address racial inequities.

To demolish the first assumption, Wise provides mountains of evidence from a variety of social science disciplines including sociology and psychology. Having so much data available in one book is extremely helpful when preparing to challenge the post-racialism narrative. He also makes a point that I did not appreciate (perhaps due to my age), namely that the idea of the declining significance of racism has been around since the 70's. Post-racialism is not some kind of Obama phenomenon but has been declared over and over for decades. Speaking of Obama, Wise does an excellent job of using Obama's own words to locate him squarely within this intellectual/political worldview. However, this is a well reasoned critique and should not be confused with Obama-bashing.

As for the second assumption, Wise again demonstrates through data that avoiding race in discussing public policy does not actually decrease white hostility, but may actually increase it in some cases. He also demonstrates that race-neutral public policy is inadequate to address problems which are the product of racism, whether historical or contemporary. He also argues that color blindness can make racism worse by obscuring the systemic nature of the problem and leaving the alleged defects of racial minorities as an available explanation of their predicament.

As an alternative to post-racial liberalism, Wise offers the concept of "illuminated individualism". He describes it in these terms: "Illuminated individualism tries to recognize this truth: that we are made up of many identities, and that these matter. Although it is a paradigm for thought and action that absolutely recognizes the value of the individual and seeks to treat each person as the unique being they are, it also rests on a recognition that a person's position in various groups will have affected their experiences, and thus their perceptions of life. In order to treat them as the unique person they truly are, as opposed to an abstraction, our institutions, our public policies and all of us on a personal level must resolve to take account of those factors that shape others, and ourselves" (pg. 157).

This section of the book provides several examples of how to operationalize the concept of illuminated individualism. While I tend to balk at any discourse that presents individualism as a virtue, I understand why Wise is using the term given the significance it holds for many Americans.

Baha'ullah has written, "The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye" (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 156)

I believe that in his new book, Tim Wise has applied "searching eyes" to a way of thinking about and approaching race and racism that appears to be in the ascendant, particularly in the current historical and social context. The book argues strongly and convincingly that color blindness is not the answer to racism and post-racialism is at best an aspiration and certainly not current reality.

If you have already read this book, I'd love to hear what you thought of it. If you haven't and are inspired by this review to do so, I'd also love to hear from you.