This is not so much a review as an appreciation of Tim Wise’s latest polemic on the perpetual conundrum of race in America — Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity. My good friend Roy Eaton presented me with a copy of the book as a birthday gift just over two months ago and I have been unable to put it down ever since. It’s not a big book, mind you: at just over 200 pages (including endnotes), it does not require heavy lifting; I was able to complete my initial reading within a week. But the arguments are meticulously crafted and tightly wound, drawing on an impressive compendium of popular as well as scholarly research and references to elucidate the highly fractious history and enduring legacy of racial inequity in America. This volume demands repeated visits and I have found it to be immensely useful as a quick and handy reference guide.
Readers of his previous works will recognize some familiar terrain as Wise illuminates our nation’s long and sordid history of “race-based injury, inherited disadvantage and ongoing discrimination.” But this is a necessary revisiting of the past in order properly to understand and contextualize the present. As he explains:
“Though they do not deny the weight of past oppression, [the proponents of color-blind liberalism] tend to minimize the extent to which past injustice determines the current status of blacks and other people of color in the United States. Rather, they claim to find the source of much inequity in race-neutral macro-economic developments, such as the decline of manufacturing employment and a shift to service-sector jobs. Yet a careful examination of both the weight of past racial injustice and current evidence of ongoing racial bias and discrimination calls into question the veracity of the post-racial narrative. As such, the rhetoric of racial transcendence is dishonest, in that it obscures the power of racism and its impact on present-day communities of color…”
Wise credits for his use of the term “color-blind racism” the work of sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, for whom the phrase signifies “the dominant white racial ideology of the modern era, in which whites, under the guise of being color-blind, refuse to acknowledge the reality of racism and reject any consideration of how their own racial identity provides them with privileges vis-à-vis people of color.” The ostensibly color-blind public policy that flows conveniently from this perspective is then combined with a form of race-neutral rhetoric to comprise a brand of left-of-center politics that Wise calls the ideology of post-racial liberalism.
He points to the election of President Barack Obama as “the ultimate triumph” of this post-racial liberalism, “dependent as it was on a rhetoric of racial transcendence and a public policy agenda of color-blind universalism.” But he warns that it is this very avoidance of race issues that now leaves the president hamstrung in his ability to push back against ongoing racial bias and opposition to his agenda, “even when that opposition is framed in blatantly racist ways.” (See, for example, my April 19 blog post on Tea Party Politics and Racial Disparity).
This is Wise’s second book since Obama’s election to the White House. In his earlier work, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, he introduced us to the concept of Racism 2.0 or, as he further explained,
a type of “enlightened exceptionalism — a form that allows for and even celebrates the achievements of individual persons of color, but only because those individuals generally are seen as different from a less appealing, even pathological black or brown rule. If whites come to like, respect and even vote for persons of color like Barack Obama but only because they see them as having ‘transcended’ their blackness in some way, to claim that the success of such candidates proves the demise of racism makes no sense at all.”
In this latest work, Wise now advances a theory of Illuminated Individualism: A Paradigm for Progressive Color-Consciousness. It is a somewhat more cumbersome concept than the more user-friendly Racism 2.0, and one that is unlikely to become a household term. But the underlying rationale that animates this theory is fairly straightforward:
“It means that we must resolve to consider race and the impact of racial identity on the lives of others and on ourselves,” he writes. “We must weave into our personal thinking and our institutional settings practices, procedures and policies that take account of race and its meaning, and in recognition of that meaning, resolve to do everything possible to minimize the likelihood of discriminatory treatment. Only by having open and honest conversations about race and racism, and our own internalized preconceptions, can we hope to keep implicit biases at bay and create real equity of opportunity.”
As a white, male anti-racist writer and activist, Tim Wise stands in the forefront of a lonely vanguard that dares to challenge publicly the foundations of white privilege and the systemic disfranchisement of our nation’s black, brown and other communities of color. With Colorblind, he builds upon a body of work that remains indispensable to our understanding of America’s complex past and potential future as a profoundly racialized society.