Who’s Afraid of Post-Racist?

I called your attention to the following post at orgtheory.net a few weeks ago. At the time I took issue with the construction of Fabio’s argument and used the opportunity to call, again, for some critical interrogation of race in organizational theory. Fabio has returned to defend his original post and so I’ve decided to revisit his argument which follows:

You’ll often hear people describe America as a “post-racial” society. That irks a lot people, myself included. The term “post-racial” implies that we are somehow “beyond race.” Of course, that’s not true. Also, people use the term “post-racial” when they are trying to evade difficult discussions of race. Or as a way of avoiding blame for their own tasteless actions.

That doesn’t mean that America hasn’t changed. Contemporary America needs a name because the post-Civil Rights world is much, much different than what came before. Overall, America is a much more humane place for many its residents, though we still treat immigrants poorly. So what do we these days? I’d venture the following:

  • Racial discrimination is no longer legitimate.
  • Most people don’t sit around and just hate people from other groups.
  • People, though, still enjoy racial advantages.
  • Race is still a big factor in our social lives. E.g., people overwhelming marry in group.
  • It’s ok to talk about race. We can even poke fun at others.
  • Some people are still “classically racist” in that they actually do sit around and hate others, but this, for the most part, has to be done underground.

I suggest the term post-racist because while race still exists, we don’t build racism into our laws and culture. We definitely past a time where a law can simply say “Blacks can’t do X.” But race is still around and it’s all over the place. At least we can talk about.

The argument is: America is post-racist.

  1. A society is racist if, and only if, it builds racism into its laws and culture.
  2. A U.S. law cannot say that “blacks can’t do X”, therefore racism is not built into laws.
  3. It is OK to talk about race so racism is not built into our culture.
  4. Therefore, the U.S. is not racist.

That is the logical construction of Fabio Rojas’ argument for the U.S. as a post-racist society as best as I can delineate it from his text.

Today he responds to another blogger, Eric Anthony Grollman, who took issue with his claims that the U.S. is post-racist. I took similar issue. Here, I will try to avoid being labeled as an “outraged” black woman by sticking as closely as possible to the logical argument Fabio as put forth.

I suggest the term post-racist because while race still exists, we don’t build racism into our laws and culture.

First, he defines racist as the absence of racism (not race) being built into laws and culture. To that I would offer several arguments.  First, the absence of the word “black” from a law does not preclude the law from being racialized or racist. For example, in the 2000 presidential election 3.9 million Americans were denied the right to vote due to felony convictions. Of those, 13 percent were black males. That is more than one-third of all similarly disenfranchised potential voters. What could account for this disproportionate number of black men being legally prevented from exercising their constitutional right to vote?

As Michelle Alexander shows in “The New Jim Crow”, a complex web of racialized differences in the formation and enforcement of local, state, and federal laws account for why so many black men are involved in the criminal justice system. The differences in sentencing guidelines between crack and powder cocaine is one such example. While the law does not say “blacks with crack will do more time than whites with cocaine” the net effect of the law is the same as if it did say that.

If racial apartheid legal codes are the only acceptable iteration of racist laws then we must ignore reams of social science research and history in our understanding of social movement, racial projects, immigration, and political processes. That is a very odd position for a sociologist to take. Not wrong, but odd.

It’s ok to talk about race. We can even poke fun at others.

The next pillar of this argument rests on the idea of racism being built into culture. Fabio offers as the main point of evidence the notion that we can “talk about race”. To accept this argument one has to equate talking about race with the absence of racism. To that I would offer several counter points of evidence. First, I would not agree that we can “talk about race” now or that we could not talk about race in the past, as Fabio contends. Indeed, I would argue similarly to Edwardo Bonilla Silva (and many others) that we talk about race less now than we have historically. As a culture we certainly talk about reverse racism and post-race but that is not the same as talking about race. Not even the first black president of the United States has been able to talk about race directly and explicitly but for a few rare occasions.

Further, when individuals do talk about race its effect on racist beliefs is not at all settled in the positive direction. In an experiment designed expressly to measure whether we are comfortable talking about race Trawalter and Richeson (2008) found white folks were anxious talking to black participants whether the subject was race or not. Inversely, black participants were less anxious when the subject matter involved race. It would seem that it’s not talking about race that makes whites feel more comfortable with race, a presumed consequence of being post-racist. Instead, it is only the absence of black people that makes whites feel more comfortable with race. I am not clear that this is evidence of post-racist.

Perhaps one of the most well-known sociological studies of walking the walk as opposed to talking the talk where race is concerned is one by Pager and Quillian (2005). When employers are asked whether they would hire a black candidate with a criminal record many more express a willingness to do so than do employers who actually do hire blacks with criminal records. That could contextualize a finding from Pager as to the hiring rates among blacks and whites with and without criminal records:

“Among those with no criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a callback relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background.”

Employers don’t have a problem talking about race. Indeed, they have learned exactly how to talk about race through two decades of public campaigns in political correctness and post-racial discourse in “diversity training” and the like. However, talking the talk about race does not translate into concrete non-racist behaviors. Talking about race strikes me as an odd, and unfounded, metric for the measurement of racial progress in the culture.

In his follow-up post Fabio clarifies some of his points by saying, in part, that we must reward racial progress by not denying that things are better now then they were then. When we deny racial progress, we discredit the value of the Civil Rights Movement and deincentivize good behavior from whites. Why do right if coloreds are going to be mad no matter what you do?

First, I have tackled this idea of rewarding “racial progress” before. It is an appeal to the distress of the privileged. I said then and I say again that the burden of managing the emotions of the privileged is not the responsibility of the unprivileged (hat toss to Darrick Hamilton for that great term that repositions privilege in discussions of disparities). I do not like to play personal identity politics but sometimes it is relevant. Perhaps Fabio has accepted some responsibility for managing the emotions of the privileged based on his perception of his own relative position to that privilege. Or, it could be a general sense of a collective responsibility. The problem is that, of course, it is not collectively shared, this implied responsibility. If a privileged group was aware enough of its privilege to feel persistently disquieted by it then it would manage its own emotions about that situation. The fact that the unprivileged are asked to participate in this emotion management is a consequence of the privileged group not persistently feeling disquieted but feeling disquieted episodically as they become situationally aware of some vague notion that they are benefit unfairly from systemic discrimination. I reject responsibility for the  management of the episodic distress of the privileged, as I am already disproportionately preoccupied with persistent issues of actual racialized discrimination. But, that is a function of my own perception of my relationship to privilege.

Second, to Fabio’s insistence that to deny racial progress – something I have already argued that I do not think is an accurate conclusion from Fabio’s premises – is to somehow insult the Civil Rights Movement I would say that respect for the CRM demands rigorous inquiry and not benevolent platitudes.

Next, I would argue that precisely because race has been talked about so much and for so long yet empirical, observable racialized differences in access to resources, representation and rewards persist, those of us with the tools to talk about race in nuanced, learned ways have a responsibility to do so. Sociologists should be aware that race, racism, racist, culture, and law have socially-contingent – and often loaded – connotations. When we use these words without paying attention to their historical, cultural, empirical, and political ramifications then we do our discipline and ourselves a disservice.

We, sociologists, actually do talk about race and when we do we should talk about it more precisely than I think Fabio talks about it in his posts on our “post-racist” society.

Was that rational enough for me to not be the angry black woman today? Eh.

7 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of Post-Racist?

  1. “Instead, it is only the absence of black people that makes whites feel more comfortable with race.”

    To see confirmation of this sad fact, one need only look at the faculty of the supposedly progressive and antiracist Berkeley Anthropology department, where racial discussions can be had so long as they are not coming from black anthropology professors (the department has none) or black graduate students (who will be labeled “loud/argumentative” “frightening” “very dark-skinned South African”) willing to directly confront issues like colorism and global white supremacy. It is in this ‘post-racist’ environment in which a racist gorilla poster which implied that dark-skinned Africans, like gorillas living in the same geographic space as them, need to be ‘spoken for’. And it was precisely because of the discomfort with having discussions of race with actual black people that the department to this day has never publicly acknowledged the incident and continues to cover it up–all while insisting it has no race problems.

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