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Toward a More Perfect Union? (Part Two)

Largely because of hip-hop, American coolness is coded and commodified more than ever as American blackness. White kids all over the country believe, based on the signifiers flashing on their TV screens, that blackness equals flashy wealth, supreme masculinity, and … Read More

By / July 24, 2009


Largely because of hip-hop, American coolness is coded and commodified more than ever as American blackness. White kids all over the country believe, based on the signifiers flashing on their TV screens, that blackness equals flashy wealth, supreme masculinity, and ultra-sexualized femininity – interrupted occasionally by bursts of glamorous violence, and situated in a thrilling ghetto that is both dangerous and host to a constant party. They feel locked out of the possibility of attaining that lifestyle, because of the color of their skin. They don’t know where to find a workable identity, unless they embrace the "I’m a fucking redneck" ethos of Levi Johnston, Sarah Palin’s ex-future son-in-law. All this strikes them as oppressive, and their resentment is compounded by the fact that they possess no language with which to discuss it.

Were any of this utterable, one could present them with reams of evidence demonstrating that in all the important ways, white people in America are anything but marginal. Traditional markers of prosperity – the inheritance of wealth, the rates of home-ownership, the comparative levels of education and income and incarceration – reveal just how privileged whites remain relative to blacks. A recent study conducted at Princeton University revealed that a white felon stands an equal chance of being granted a job interview as a black applicant with no criminal record, and there are dozens of other studies that each speak volumes.

Nonetheless, confusion persists even among the kind of coast-dwelling, liberally-raised, relatively well-educated white kid I once was about the basic facts of racism today – to say nothing of everyone to their ideological right. They want to know if the playing field is level; they can’t tell, and they’ve got their fingers crossed that it is because if it’s not they’ve got to confront things no one has prepared them to face. Many of them would rather believe, and in fact suspect, that it is slanted in black people’s favor.

At the very least, they’re eager for a kind of moral compromise, one with an air of the fairness so appealing to young minds: racism cuts in both directions. Anyone can be its victim, just as anyone can refuse to perpetrate it.

This is what Barack Obama provided on March 20th in Philadelphia. After a succinct but powerful summary of institutional racism’s history and its practical and psychic effects on black people, he added that:

"A similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race… as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything…. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time… to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding."

Obama’s insights about white anger are salient, but to characterize ire at affirmative action and at the thought that others might think them prejudiced as ‘similar’ to the frustration felt by the victims of entrenched structural racism is disingenuous, and even irresponsible. I don’t dispute that white resentments should be addressed, if only because white people will refuse to grapple with race unless they are allowed to centralize themselves. But to begin such a discussion – the mythic National Dialogue on Race – without acknowledging that structural racism ­is a cancer metastasizing through every aspect of American life is impossible. Call it, to borrow a catchphrase from the foreign policy side of the election, a precondition.

Implicit in the resentment Obama identified is whites’ belief that they should be significantly advantaged because of their race. They are not angry because people think they’re advantaged when they aren’t, they’re angry because they don’t feel advantaged enough. The essence of white privilege is not knowing you have it; white people in America are bicyclists riding with the wind at their backs, never realizing that they owe part of their speed ­­- whatever speed that is – to forces beyond their control. By no means does this guarantee success. But few whites are conditioned to contemplate how much worse off they might be if they had to grapple with factors like police profiling and housing discrimination, in addition to the other travails of being an American in 2008.

To place the experiences of white and black Americans on an equal footing, Obama must abandon the empirical and speak the language of the emotional. Hence, the focus on how people ‘feel’ – privileged or not, racist or not – rather than on the objective realities of what they have and do and say.

The soft-focus abstraction of racial realities goes beyond Obama’s speech. It has been a hallmark of the entire presidential campaign, with its musings on whether Obama is too black, black enough, or ‘post-race.’ Naturally, one must be black to be ‘post-race,’ for the same reason that no one thought to ask whether Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney was too white or not white enough. The purpose of abstracting race is to obscure racism, to elide the fact that a black person is never so lacking in blackness ­­­- culturally, personally, politically, or by any other standard – to find himself exempt from discrimination.

The desire for personal post-race status is an impulse­­ I encounter frequently. Without fail, it comes from well-intentioned white people looking to be absolved of whiteness – not through their politics, but their biographies. They listen studiously to my take on race privilege, then raise their hands to identify themselves as white but gay, or white but Irish and thus part of an ethnicity that was once considered nonwhite, or white but from an all-Dominican neighborhood.

My response to such statements is always the same. I have no desire to belittle any aspect of your identity, I say, but either you walk through this world with white skin privilege or you don’t. There’s no such thing as being pulled over for Driving While Wanting To Be Black. Sometimes how you ‘self-identify’ is irrelevant. You could be a gay Irish dude from the heart of Washington Heights, with a Senegalese lover and a degree from Morehouse to boot. The cop and the judge and the loan officer and the potential employer are only going to check one mental box. And when they do, you’re going to benefit from the way they see you, like it or not.

‘Post-race’ suggests, not without an air of self-congratulation, that we are moving toward an acceptance of the multifaceted nature of identity – learning to assimilate, for instance, the idea that a human being can be both Kenyan and Kansan. This may be true. The problem is that post-race inevitably implies post-racism. To conflate the two ignores the very nature of oppression.

I witnessed this perspective recently at a talk I gave in Minneapolis. A woman in the audience stood up to explain that racism would soon be vanquished without any concerted effort on our part, and cited the infant on her hip as proof. She was Korean, she said, and her husband black and Italian. Their son was all three. Any machine that attempted to categorize him would explode.

The sad truth that this child will someday be forced to color in a single bubble on a Scantron form like everyone else speaks to the particular insidiousness of race. It is a construct, not a question of biology or self-image. It will not vanish in the face of multi-ethnicity, because it exists for a purpose, and that purpose is hierarchy.

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