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.


  1. Post racialism -- you're not off the hook yet, YT. We are breeding millions of mulattoes with your women, we got the White House, we got massive gov't jobs and corporate affirmative action jobs we're not qualified for -- but we're not done with you yet, YT. There's still some milk to be milked, or MLK'ed, from the White cow.

    Well, there's some White bulls who have a different idea.

  2. My Maternal Grandparents were immigrants from Sicily and my father's family arrived in the USA in the early 1800s' from Ireland. Since I was light-skinned with an Anglo-Saxon name, white people spoke openly around me about their prejudices. As a child, I lived in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant community and neighbors spoke derisively about the Italians, Catholics and Blacks. Since their stereotypes were offensive towards my beloved Grandparents, I developed a deep mistrust of their ideas and prejudices. I began to use my experience with anti-Italian prejudice as a measuring stick against any either/or thinking. There were always exceptions to any prejudice which automatically eliminated for me any preconceived idea about any 'group'.

    I remember the Civil Rights marches in the south and the dismissive remarks about it from my white neighbors. When they finally acknowledged that the blacks might have a small point, they were angered by affirmative action. By the time that I entered college in the 1970s' there was open discussion about racism and sexism in some of my classes and it was a lively and heated discussion. There were always students who hung on their prejudices on both sides and there were some students who started to listen to each other. There came a time where the majority of people on an intellectual level realized that racism and sexism were wrong, however, they did not feel it on an emotional or spiritual level. And, I saw it go underground where people didn't want to acknowledge to themselves that they were prejudiced. They knew that it was wrong but they continued to believe their deep-seated beliefs.

    I hear some white people make incredible prejudicial comments about blacks, asians, and latinos. They are more likely to assume that someone is illegal if they are Spanish-speaking and they jump to the conclusion that they were denied a job to give a job to a less qualified person of color. I have pointed out to people that if the college admission process in most selective colleges was based strictly on grades and SAT/ACT scores that few white men would be accepted. I've also pointed out to them that the majority of college professors are white men and that most positions of power in the private sector are white men. However, it is very difficult to counteract long-standing beliefs that have been passed down generations after generation. And, facts don't necessarily change hearts which is where prejudice truly lies. I do believe that more interactions and discussion in a safe environment will result in people have honest conversation. It won't come from our political leaders because they have vested interest in keeping us divided. It saddens me that race and religion has been used as a divisive tool by our political leaders and it will be a bottom-down movement to change people's hearts and minds.