Book Review: 'Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity' by Tim Wise
Colorblind Book cover
In January of 1963, shortly after he had been elected to office, and in front of a cheering and supportive audience, Alabama Governor George Wallace offered an inaugural address in which he uttered the following phrase: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
I remember that day, and I remember those words. I recall the fear they evoked in me as they drove home the message that, even at very high levels of government, the nation I lived in appeared to be committed to remaining stratified by race. Not only in the South, but everywhere in the country, various degrees and various types of Jim Crow segregation were practiced by custom and were sanctioned by law.
From the beginning, we had been established as a White Supremacist nation, and people like George Wallace made it perfectly clear that they intended to keep it that way.
Back then, the face of bigotry was both well known and highly visible. It regularly appeared on TV and in the news in the form of spitting, snarling, name calling, violent white mobs who were determined to prevent the integration of public schools, the realization of voting rights, and the expansion of a host of public services.
. . . That was in 1963.
Today, no mainstream politician could succeed in delivering the type of blatant and overtly racist message contained in Wallace’s speech. Today, as a nation, we publicly condemn the horror of a time when racism was so personal and so obvious. Today, all over the country, we tell the story of how bad things used to be, and we collectively proclaim our triumph over Jim Crow.
All over the country, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have adopted this rhetoric of racial transcendence. After all, we have a black president, who, in the pages of his best-selling book The Audacity of Hope, has himself advocated for a “race neutral” public policy agenda.
But such proclamations rest uneasily alongside the massive mountain of clearly observable and persistent patterns of contemporary racial inequality. Any cursory examination of the facts reveals that, while it is true the Civil Rights Movement led to the end of America’s form of legal apartheid, it is not true that Americans can simply declare ourselves to be “color blind.” We cannot substitute our desire to transcend racism for the work we will need to do if we hope to rebuild a society so deeply structured on racial inequality.
In "Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity," author, lecturer, and anti-racism activist Tim Wise gives us a nudge in the right direction. Focusing on disparities in four key areas — employment, education, healthcare, and housing — and drawing upon a wide range of academic studies, Wise pulls back the veil from the face of contemporary “invisible” racism. He also, simultaneously, points out the ways that so-called “colorblind” social policies — those which are based on programs meant to “lift all boats” by raising the overall economic water level for working class and poor people — will actually worsen the problems of racial injustice. In Wise’s words:
“President Obama and other adherents to the post-racial liberal philosophy are flatly wrong. In fact, not only are they wrong about the ability of “universal” programs to reduce racial disparities in health, income or education; they are also wrong about the political value of race-neutral approaches. At the end of the day, avoiding conversations about race will not boost support for progressive social policy, and may in fact undermine it.”
With characteristic clarity and thoroughness, Wise explores the implications of the Obama victory on the country’s racial discourse. His disturbing conclusion is that the Obama administration’s embrace of “race neutral rhetoric” and “color-blind public policy” makes the challenging of ongoing racism more difficult. By avoiding the subject, Wise asserts, the Obama administration only succeeds in "taking antiracism off the table, while leaving racism — in both its institutional and interpersonal forms — dangerously in place.”
Wise explains why racial disparities cannot be addressed without giving specific attention to the element of race. He contends that the pervasiveness of racism does not present itself to everyone in the same way and that it is far too easy for whites to avoid recognizing its effects. He therefore advocates that the best way forward is to become more, not less, conscious of race and its impact on opportunity.
This is an important and timely book. In the main, America’s level of understanding and discussion of race and racism remain stuck in 1963 — limited to overt, easily identifiable acts of discrimination — most especially to acts and expressions of bigotry (the only form that garners commercial media coverage). In truth, Wise helps us to see, racism operates constantly, continuously, "beneath the radar," in myriad ways that never are examined, identified or even talked about.
The good news, Wise says, is that even though much racial animus persists, there is also a strong societal commitment to fairness, one that transcends racial distinctions. When the workings of racism are made explicit and convincingly supported by means of comprehensive evidence, racialized resentments become less likely.
Most Americans really do want to be fair. Given this, Wise asserts, it’s even more important — and pragmatic — to actually talk about racism and make its sources and manifestations an explicit target of public policy debates.
He ends the book by offering a constructive blueprint through which, by embracing a paradigm that he calls “Illuminated Individualism” — a form of color-consciousness that recognizes the individuality of each of us, but also how group-specific factors shape who we are — that we might (in his words): “rise to the better angels of our natures rather than remaining stuck in denial, silence, and political calculations that in the end aren’t even strategically wise [and] get back on track in the struggle for racial equity.”
La'Ron Williams is a nationally acclaimed, award-winning storyteller who has toured extensively presenting programs and workshops.
The Racial Justice Book Group of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice will begin a discussion of "Colorblind" on Monday, Sept. 26, 7-9 p.m., St. Aidan’s Episcopal/Northside Presbyterian, 1679 Broadway, Ann Arbor. Childcare available on request. Copies of the book are available at Nicola's Books, Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Common Language Bookstore. A limited number of copies are available for $13.50 (10 percent discount) from ICPJ. Details: www.icpj.net, 734-663-1870, firstname.lastname@example.org.