City Lights Books, 2010
Reviewed by Joseph Nevins
Tim Wise opens his compelling and formidable book with words from Barack Obama’s famous 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention: “There’s not a black America, and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
These words—and the larger speech—catapulted Obama to the national spotlight. And it is these words, and the accompanying worldview that the United States has largely transcended its racial divisions, that Wise strongly contests. “[W]e can’t all ‘just be Americans,’” he asserts, “because we never have been just that.”
In Colorblind, Wise explores the implications of the Obama victory on the country’s racial discourse. His disturbing, but quite convincing, conclusion is that the Obama administration’s embrace of what Wise calls “post-racial liberalism”—a combination of race-neutral rhetoric and public policy that avoid race-conscious remedies—makes the challenging of ongoing racism more difficult.
Wise’s book is intended for those individuals who think that “paying less attention to race and racial identity is the proper response to racial inequity,” and also for those who “passionately wish to see inequities eradicated, and are prepared to push forward an agenda to accomplish that.” As such, Wise does not aim to prove that racism exists to convince skeptical readers that it is something they should care about. Instead, he seeks to educate and sensitize the already anti-racist of its breadth and depth by drawing impressively on a wide variety of academic studies. In doing so, he powerfully illuminates the complexities and subtleties of overt and sub-conscious race-making—and its attendant inequalities and indignities.
Wise displays appreciation for the difficulties any political leader would face—no less the country’s first African-American president—trying to overturn white supremacy, and thus for the need to tread lightly vis-à-vis the sensibilities of the white electorate. And it is a tactic, Wise acknowledges, that most likely aided Obama’s presidential bid. But carried to its logical conclusion, he asserts, a post-racial politics will likely end up only taking “antiracism off the table, while leaving racism—in both its institutional and interpersonal forms—dangerously in place.” Worse yet, it can even exacerbate racial inequities as the experience of the period between the 1940s and mid-1960s illustrates. Then, too, the federal government pursued “universal” policies and largely ignored racism, one result being a widening of the income gap between blacks and whites.
While one could point to the fact that it was a time of Jim Crow and an era previous to the gains of the Civil Rights movement as a key difference with today, Wise forcibly demonstrates the strong persistence of racism by an in-depth look at how it plays out in four realms: jobs, housing, education, and healthcare. Here, Wise takes on those who argue that race has declining significance in the United States, and that attacking class-based inequities is a smarter route to facilitating the well-being of the racially marginalized.
Still, the question of politics—in terms of what remedial course of action is most viable—remains. In this regard, Wise rejects what is presented as “pragmatic”—the notion that the only way to win sufficient (white) support for progressive social policy is by embracing a colorblind universalism that rejects race-specific cures.
Instead, drawing on research, he contends that, while white racial animus persists in myriad ways, there is also a strong societal commitment to fairness, one that transcends racial distinctions. Such a chemistry leads whites to think negatively about racialized “others” “only when the racial element of a policy consideration is subtle.” When made explicit and convincingly justified on the basis of comprehensive evidence, racialized resentments become less likely precisely because of the embrace of fairness. Given this, Wise asserts, it’s all-the-more important—and pragmatic—to actually talk about racism and make its sources and manifestations an explicit target of public policy debates.
In the end, Wise calls for a paradigm of “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. It is only through such recognition and a concomitant politics, Wise suggests, that we can fully dismantle the many-headed monster that is racism.
It is a project that Tim Wise has greatly aided through Colorblind, a must-read for all who want to put an end to racial inequalities.
Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. Among his books are Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid, and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S. Mexico Boundary.