Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tim Wise: Colorblind

The full title of this book is "Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity." Basically, Tim Wise, an anti-racist intellectual, has written a treatise on the fatal flaws of the current "liberal" approach to race: i.e. to pretend it doesn't exist. (I put liberal approach in quotes, because I'm not sure how liberal the liberals that use this approach are. I guess qualifies as liberal now seems very central to me, and I feel progressive as opposed to radical? I don't know I guess that's not the point.) The theory is that talking about race can be perceived as racist, and worse, if we "liberals" acknowledge that it exists, and target policy towards it, the conservative elements are less likely to agree to go along with these policies. However, conservatives have already linked "hot" issues with race in the white mind: think immigration, schools, even something like swearing in music. The word "urban" has become a code word for talking about race. So pretending to be colorblind so that conservatives won't think liberals are trying to help people of color is ridiculous. They're already doing that.

Wise comes down hard on President Obama, who, he feels, has blown a chance to break open a chance to change the dialogue on race and improve the conditions of people of color. Instead, from the beginning of President Obama's rise to the top of political power, he has used the language of racial transcendence and racial neutrality to both explain his success and to push the success of others. Wise points to a speech then Senator-Obama gave in 2008 which simultaneously erased the United States' racist history and blamed black people for their second class status. Obama has specifically stated that he will not make programs that specifically aim to help black people; rather, he believes that universal aid "are most likely to be helped because they need the most help." Wise demonstrates that this is historically false: structural racism has denied black people for decades access to the very types of universal programs such as bank loans, job creation, etc. And his "when the tide lifts, all boats are lifted" metaphor smells very strongly to me of Reagan-era trickle down economics: don't worry, the folks will be helped after the whites get theirs.

When racism is institutionalised, and liberals pretend it doesn't exist, their solutions tend to negate the issue. For example, racism is institutionalized in health care: black people have substantially higher infant mortality rates and are dying of treatable and preventable diseases much more than the general (especially white) population. I wasn't surprised by this, but I was surprised about two of the main factors causing this. The first is literally stress on the body of fighting racism (institutionalized and other) day in and day out. It wears down the body and causes all kinds of issues such as hypertension and blood pressure problems in black people at very early ages. The second is that the quality of care that physicians give black men and women is definitively affected by the color of their skin. Doctors describe and perceive themselves as much less racist than they are. When it comes down to their treatment of patients, however, they're much more likely to give up on black patients, to recommend less treatment, etc. Universal health care won't fix this: just because it's cheaper doesn't mean physicians won't be racist, or that the generalized racism causing bodily stress will go away. But conservatives will have the upper hand: see? You got universal health care and black people are still sicker than everyone else. It must be something about them.

Wise cites many studies that show that talking about race and racism are much more effective than ignoring it and pretending that we're all the same or that economics are to blame for the mess that people of color are in. While being colorblind is a different issue than being "outwardly" racist (saying derogatory things, being outwardly discriminatory in hiring processes, etc), it's still detrimental to moving forward, and to entire (very large) groups of people, including white people. I would say detrimental to everyone. Colorblindness doesn't work, but it's how we do. Wise says we can start with the personal, as we should never wait for policies to catch up with much of anything. Teachers, parents, companies, schools, need to start acknowledging race, historical racism, institutionalised racism, and acting accordingly. Individuals can also realize that like it or not, we all see color, starting from as young as six months of age. Who we are affects how we interpret what we see. It's huge that we have a black President. But it's ridiculous to pretend that it doesn't matter.

Note: I have a few problems with Wise's book. First, it was extremely black and white. He throws in some stuff, mainly on Asian-Americans, and I felt he did little to negate the "model minority" stuff. There was almost nothing on Hispanics, or "brown" people in general except when Wise would say something to the effect of "black and brown people." Further, for someone very aware of his white privilege, Wise seems to have forgotten that he's a man. Gender is very much a part of colorblindness, and really any discussion of race- at one point I felt that Wise was alluding to tokenism- but didn't bother to mention the even trickier position women of color face (see the influential "This Bridge Called My Back.") I understand that "Colorblind" is a short book, almost a pamphlet, but these sins of omission are oft-repeated in the "liberal" discussions of race, and Wise should know better.