Tim Wise: Obama’s post-racial road to nowhere

By Alan Bean

Friends of Justice believes in dragging “subtle” racism out of the shadows.  Our narrative campaign in response to the Curtis Flowers case, for instance, asserts that everyone associated with the prosecution of this case grew up in a Jim Crow world where black people like Fannie Lou Hamer could be tortured by police officers with impunity.  When Mississippi state senator Lydia Chassaniol delivered a keynote address to the proudly racist Council of Conservative Citizens, the regional media gave her a pass.  Her views, we suggested, were too mainstream to be criticized.   

Our approach flies in the face of the prevailing liberal doctrine of colorblind universalism.  When discussing public policy issues related to criminal justice, for instance, colorblind universalists make two claims: racism isn’t nearly as bad in 2010 as it was in 1963; and, white racial resentment is so strong that the case for criminal justice reform must be presented in strictly race-neutral terms. 

The logical contradiction here should be obvious: if racism has diminished so much, why should be so concerned about white racial resentment?

The problem, as Michelle Alexander has so eloquently argued, is that racism hasn’t disappeared, it has merely changed shape.  We are now dealing with a New Jim Crow in which the doctrine of colorblindness hides a multitude of sins. 

A new book by Tim Wise, “Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity,” provides an excellent companion piece to Alexander’s “New Jim Crow”.  Wise argues that Barack Obama’s appeal to post-racial universalism has been an unmitigated disaster.  By refusing to address the tidal wave of racist rhetoric currently engulfing the Republic, Obama has multiplied its power. 

I urge you to run out and buy a copy of this important book (at 194 pages, it’s a quick read), but a section titled “Talking Class, Hearing Race: Why Post-Racial Liberalism Fails on its Own Terms,” gets to the crux of his argument.

According to Wise, post-racial liberals argue that “even if colorblind universalism is inadequate as a tool for eradicating racial injustice, and even if the rhetoric of racial transcendence is dishonest, political reality is such that most whites simply will not get behind any remotely progressive policy regarding jobs, education or health care without a race-neutral approach, and so long as they believe such efforts are really about achieving racial equity.”

Wise says this approach is doomed to failure because “the public, and particularly the white public, already views government spending on behalf of the have-nots or have-lessers, in racialized terms.  In other words, post-racial liberals like President Obama may say that they are advocating colorblind universal programs to help all in need, but most white Americans apparently hear something else altogether.  And once whites perceive that these universal efforts are really about racial redistribution, their opposition skyrockets.  While there are certainly non-racial reasons that individuals may oppose efforts aimed at benefiting those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy–be they specified as people of color or not–research has found that there is a significant correlation between anti-black prejudice and such opposition.”

Wise then cites research suggesting that white racial resentment is particularly strong when the issue of race is never broached.  According to UCLA law professor Gary Blasi, “Any reference to an urban issue, including such apparently neutral issues as parks or mass transit, will be affected by the underlying association of ‘urban’ to ‘minority.’  Indeed, research suggests that race may be doing the most work in those public policy arenas where it has not been explicitly mentioned.”

Wise concludes that “if the white public perceives any social program effort as racially coded anyway, better to raise the issues outright, rather than to be viewed as engaging in subterfuge to cover up some secretive racial redistribution scheme.”

“In fact,” Wise says, “research has found that white racial resentment is likely to be activated in policy discussions only when it is allowed remain sublimated and implicit.  Whites are primed to think in racialized terms–and negatively about blacks–only when the racial element of a policy consideration is subtle.  When it is made explicit, whites do not act on their racial resentments as often, because to do so would conflict with their self-professed and stated commitments to fairness.”

Wise then refers to University of Texas professor Ismail White’s treatment of a 2001 study by Tali Mendelberg.   “Mendelberg argues that racial priming works because the racial cues present in these messages make racial schema (in this case, whites’ attitudes about African Americans) more accessible in memory.  Those schema are then used automatically in subsequent evaluations of candidates or policy issues.  What makes Mendelberg’s theory of racial priming unique, however, is her contention that, to have any impact on opinion, racial priming must function at an implicit level.  At work . . . is a conflict for white Americans between their belief in the norm of equality on the one hand and their resentment toward blacks on the other.  Awareness of the racial nature of a message, she argues, will lead most whites to reject that message because they would not want to violate the equality norm.”

I love the balance in this argument.  White Americans really have embraced the doctrine of racial equality, AND they are deeply resentful of racial minorities.  White liberals have a hard time holding these seemingly contradictory truths in tension, but if they don’t, their analysis of the American scene will remain deeply flawed.

Tim Wise

Wise has some practical advice for the president.  “This means that the Obama administration and others who claim to support progressive social policy should not shrink from discussing race, racism and racial inequity.  If anything, they should talk about it more, and drag implicit racial biases that animate much opposition to those efforts into the light of day.  Only in this manner can the contradiction between professed ideals and implicit biases be made salient.  And only by exposing that contradiction can we hope to beat back reactionary priming of white racial resentment in public policy discussions.”

Wise then argues that Barack Obama, for all his heroic attempts to remain race-neutral, is widely perceived as a radical agent of racial redistribution.  Some truly disturbing quotes from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are used to make a point that, at this stage of a bizarre election campaign, should be pretty obvious.

I tend to agree.  My great fear is that Barack Obama couldn’t have been elected without a post-racial pitch, and can’t govern if he sticks with it.

  What are your thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Tim Wise: Obama’s post-racial road to nowhere

  1. Alan.

    I will take your suggestion and get the book as your last recommended book “The New Jim Crow” is an absolutely brilliant expression of a necessary thesis that no one else seems to have tackled. In addition I suggest people get the following books, documentary films and TV series:-

    “Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town” by Nate Blakeslee;

    The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” http://www.amazon.com/New-Jim-Crow-Incarceration-Colorblindness/dp/1595581030 by Michelle Alexander;

    Documentary films”>”Blue Eyes” http://www.google.com/search?q=%22Blue+Eyes%22+%22Jane+Elliott%22&hl=en&num=10&lr=&ft=i&cr=&safe=images and “A Class Divided” http://www.google.com/search?q=%22A+Class+Divided%22+%22Jane+Elliott%22&hl=en&num=10&lr=&ft=i&cr=&safe=images by anti-racism campaigner Jane Elliott;

    The HBO TV series The Wire” on policing underclass black neighborhoods in Baltimore http://www.hbo.com/the-wire/index.html.

    You might consider adding to this list and putting it up as a separate section of your site, recommended reading and viewing.

    The fact is that racists are not necessary evil and many can be made aware of their attitudes and can change them if approached in the right way. In essence this means doing something analogous to convincing someone who does not believe that feces smell bad by rubbing his/her nose in some of it. The methods of Jane Elliott do this by exposing people to the dynamics of oppression from both sides so they see it through the eyes of both oppressor and oppressed. Before Michelle Alexander’s book came out, Nate Blakeslee’s “Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town” was the best illustration that I had seen of how racist assumptions skew enforcement of the drug laws against Blacks so that the damage done is terrible while the collateral damage done to white persons of the respectable class is acceptably low. Every episode of “the wire” contains at least one example
    of how army of occupation policing in poor communities of coloured people results in discrimination.

  2. Alan.

    Looks as if wordpress has an absolute limit on the number of links it allows. If there are more than four links the comment disappears into a black hole, if there are more than some lesser number it goes into the moderation queue. There is one version of my post in the moderation queue, do not allow it, I will resubmit spreading the excessive number of links of several posts. If another version also goes into the moderation queue do not allow it as it will be just me trying to find the maximum number of links allowable without falling foul of the automatic moderation process.

  3. Sure racism isn’t as bad as it was in 1963, but when I read some of Rev. Wright’s sermons when lines were quoted in your Presidential election, my reaction was an humorous “gee, an angry black voice chastising America–what a shock”. In our progressive Christian denomination in Canada, I haven’t heard a preacher that prophetic and with the same poetic style, but our worship, learning, and work does include our country’s and our communities’ need to acknowledge racial and class issues, past and present, in order to relate better to each other and the world. As someone who benefits from some of the privileges that come from being a white woman in a western country, I think it’s essential to recognize racism that does exist, whether intentionally or as a functional reality today, in order to end the pain as immediately as possible.

    I intend to read the book, even though our racial demographics are different here in western Canada, and I wish you well with your new Representatives and Senators.

  4. Thanks for these thoughts, Sandra. Are you with the United Church of Canada, and what part of western Canada do you live in? Edmonton is my home town. Alan Bean

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