Saturday, May 07, 2011

Beyond Post-racialism

Article first published as Beyond Post-Racialism on Blogcritics.

I recently watched a video of Ruha Benjamin, a Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Boston University. In this video, Professor Benjamin is being interviewed about so-called "post-racialism". She frames post-racialism as a kind of story that Americans are telling themselves about where we are with race and identifies a liberal and a radical version of this story. The liberal story is one of transcending race, while the radical story is of class distinctions eclipsing race as the primary point of social conflict.

Listening to Professor Benjamin reminded me of a question that I've been thinking about for a long time now. The whole post-racialism debate tends to focus on either arguing that we have achieved a post-racial society or that we have not yet achieved a post-racial society. What I rarely hear asked is whether or not a post-racial society is in fact a desirable society at all. Is that the ultimate goal of our centuries long struggle with race and racism?

It depends on how post-racialism is defined. One way of defining it is abandoning race as a standard for judgment of our fellow human beings. If this is how you define post-racialism, as a Baha'i I can support that wholeheartedly. 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892-1921 put it this way:

"The spirit and intelligence of man is essential, and that is the manifestation of divine virtues, the merciful bestowals of God, the eternal life and baptism through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, be it known that color or race is of no importance...The standard of divine measure and judgment is his intelligence and spirit."

This kind of post-racialism has institutional and structural implications to the degree that it is translated into policies and practices that eliminate overt racial discrimination or unintentional racial inequities. However, there is a different form of post-racialism that is focused on a kind of radical assimilationism. This kind of post-racialism views racial, ethnic or cultural differences as inherently problematic and a threat to national unity which can only exist if the dominant (White) culture remains dominant. For example, people who hold this view tend to react negatively to expressions of racial or ethnic pride on the part of people of color. In fact, such expressions are often described as "racist" themselves.

This form of post-racialism, what Omi and Winant might refer to as a "racial project" is not something I can support as a Baha'i. It represents a misdiagnosis of the problem. What we have come to understand as racial differences are not the problem; racism is the problem. 'Abdu'l-Baha has suggested an alternative way of viewing racial differences: "This variety in forms and colorings which is manifest in all the kingdoms is according to creative wisdom and has a divine purpose.''

An alternative vision of America is one in which we are all striving to understand the "creative wisdom" and "divine purpose" of this "variety of forms and colorings". Such a society would be less "post-racial" than "multiracial". Demographic trends tell us that "multiracialism" is and will be the social reality of America. Our challenge is to make it a spiritual and moral reality in our personal lives and social policy.

1 comment:

  1. This is a powerful essay that points to a key distinction (and through the Baha'i writings no less) that must always remember to make between a post-racial and a post-racist society. You are potently critiquing the absurd notion that we might actually live in a post-racist society and are rightly arguing against the desirability of a post-racial society where people of color would be asked to give up their racial/ethnic identities to assimilate into the dominant (white) majority.

    To continue along this line, people of color throughout the world would certainly love to live in a post-racist society (which of course we currently do not). However, most people of color would not, and according to the Writings you cite should not, desire to live in a post-ethnic (or post-racial) society. I intentionally switch to ethnic here because I think it represents another key distinction which needs to be established between race, as an imaginary biological lie imposed by those with power in order to reinforce social inequality, and ethnicity which is both tied to, and yet at various points decoupled from, these notions of biological race. Ethnicity, as separate from, but sometimes related to race, is most often understood via the Hispanic example where people can be of any so-called race but understand themselves, and can be understood by others, as ethically 'Hispanic' (with Cuba and Brazil being the prime case studies). It also functions however within African American communities where white skinned African Americas such as myself may outwardly appear to be (mostly) white from a 'racial' standpoint, yet identify as, and are (sometimes) accepted in an ethnic/cultural sense, if not also a racial sense, as African Americans. Likewise Native Americans can also be of any 'visible' race, as history is riddled with examples of mostly/exclusively white Americans, African Americans, and 'Hispanics' all at various times in American history identifying with, and being considered part of, their particular tribal affiliation, thus making such institutions by definition 'multiracial' if not 'multicultural. In the end, my point is that race has been anything but unpacked entirely from an academic perspective as countless people are still trying to come to terms with what it is, how it functions, how it was built, and how we can understand its role in society today, much less as it has changed over space and time. Looking at issues of the body and its relationship to race, ethnicity, culture, and the inner-group boundaries of authenticity will, for me, be a key aspect to explore as we move into a more integrated global world where the firm boundaries between people that were imagined to exist in bygone eras will continue to blur and complicate how people understand themselves, identify themselves via social groups, and are marked by others for racial meaning.

    Guy Emerson Mount
    @GuyEmersonMount (Twitter)