“Post-Racial Society”?

(For a program honoring the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I was asked to briefly provide a written response to two questions: “What needs to happen in the next 50 years for equality to be fully realized in the U.S.?” and “Can America achieve a “post-racial” society? How?” The following was my response.)

Contrary to the optimistic ramblings of many a starry-eyed white American, a post-racial society has not yet been achieved. But it certainly can be.

When we are talking about race, we must remember that the idea of what exactly constitutes a particular race is largely culturally constructed. It is for this reason that, in the 19th century, Irish and Italian immigrants, among others, were not considered white. (Historian Noel Ignatiev addresses how “whiteness,” as a social category, changes to reflect hegemonic conceptions of race in his 2008 book How the Irish Became White.)

Race is a cultural construction. This does not mean that race is unimportant, by any means, and this does not mean that race does not exist. For those on the receiving end of racial oppression, race is very real. Rather, it simply means that race is not an objective, monolithic concept. It changes as the society that defines it changes.

In light of this understanding, therefore, we see that racism is by no means a “natural” phenomenon, but rather a socially constructed one—one that was socially constructed to serve power. The power it was constructed to serve was of course light-skinned Europeans. Racism then, when seen in this light, is much too often used as a code word for white supremacy. The struggle against racism is largely a struggle against white supremacist society—global white supremacist society.

How is white supremacy reinforced? Through a wide variety of mechanisms. Racism is much more than “individual acts of meanness” (as Peggy McIntosh articulates it, in her well-known article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“); it is a form of structural oppression. Addressing it, therefore, requires structural solutions.

One of the principal mechanisms through which white supremacy is reinforced is the global economic system. Economic inequality leads to further economic inequality. The more wealth you have, the easier it is to create more (this is perhaps the most critical point to take from Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

Countries and communities of color have been exploited, and straight out robbed, by white economic elites for centuries. When talking about the present reality of racism and white supremacy, we therefore cannot only talk about present forms of structural racism—of which there are many, including mass incarceration (what Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow“), gentrification, underfunded public schools, police violence, and more. We absolutely must also talk about the long-term effects of past forms of structural racism. Chattel slavery and Jim Crow might have ended politically, but their economic and social effects are still very much felt today.

For this reason, many people (especially white liberals, who have read little to no scholarship about race or critical race theory) insist education is the answer—the panacea! Alas,  reality is much, much more complex. In May 2014, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom published a piece in the Washington Post compellingly arguing that “college isn’t the answer. Reparations are.” In it, she notes that years of social science research demonstrates that, even for black Americans with degrees, our economic system only reflects, serves, and reifies the situated the global culture of white supremacy in which it is situated. Unemployment is significantly higher for black Americans (with or without college degrees), vis-à-vis equally skilled white Americans. A black man with no criminal record and a white former felon hold equal chances of getting a given job.

If anything, McMillan explains, “over five decades of social science research shows that education reproduces inequality. At every level of schooling, classrooms, schools, and districts reward wealth and privilege.” Education, therefore, clearly isn’t the answer. What is? McMillan replies: reparations.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has rekindled the public call for reparations. In his May 2014 opus “The Case for Reparations,” he has so adeptly and eloquently (but not exhaustively, given the unfortunate breadth of the issue) addressed vestiges of past forms of structural oppression. Establishing a program of reparations would be just one step on a long journey toward achieving racial justice.

The struggle for racial justice must move beyond reparations, however. It must challenge the hopelessly unjust (and illogical) economic system we all live under, in which not only do 85 individuals own half of the world’s wealth—and, we must remember, a large majority of the world’s population consists of people of color—but in which 99.99 percent of the world’s people must permanently rent themselves and their labor to the 0.01 percent.

At the end of the day, we must also remember that achieving a post-racial society alone is not enough. Race is not an isolated social factor; it is inextricably tied up with other forms of identity, and oppression. Women of color experience a reality in which racism and sexism, white supremacy and patriarchy, are not separate entities—they interact in complex (and horrific) ways. Just as race is a social construction, the same is true of gender. We must consequently also work to achieve a post-gender society. All forms of oppression are inter-related; the struggle against them must therefore be intersectional.

Some naysayers, nonetheless, claim that such goals are “unrealistic,” even “utopian.” In a 2011 lecture titled “Creating Conversations on Justice,” scholar Tricia Rose concedes that, of course, “there will always be some [inequality].” That is not the point, however. The point is that, as she continues, “systemic, reinforced inequality, we can fix that.” The problem is not that there is individual inequality. Individual inequality is not necessarily a problem. What is problem is when particular groups of individuals wield power over one another, that is to say, when there is structural inequality. It is this inequality that is reinforced through our economic system, one that grants economic privilege to light-skinned people.

But our economic system, a system in which the means of production are privately owned, a system in which decisions are based not upon collective human need but upon maximization of return on investment (i.e., profit), a system in which capital increasingly is centralized in fewer and fewer hands—all of this referring to capitalism, of course—does not preferentially treat all light-skinned people, but only those who fit into the social category of “whiteness.” Historian Theodore W. Allen devoted much of his life to understanding exactly how this social category was constructed in his two-volume 1997 masterpiece The Invention of the White Race. In the work, he questions “the unquestioning, indeed unthinking acceptance of the ‘white’ identity of European-Americans of all classes as a natural attribute rather than a social construct.”

Allen explains that conceptions of whiteness were in fact created by rich, propertied, light-skinned European ruling classes as a way to divide the poor, propertyless working classes. “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there,” he writes. Nor, “according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.” Whiteness was created as a way to unite economic exploiters and exploited against black slaves. At this time, most light-skinned European immigrants, many of whom were indentured servants, suffered horrendous treatment. Let’s be clear, they did not suffer as badly as African chattel slaves, but the two obviously shared common class interests. And these common interests manifested themselves in the groups mutual interaction.

In the wake of uprisings like the 1676-7 Bacon’s Rebellion, the white economic elite—the owners of capital, the capitalists—bestowed privileges upon those who shared similar cultural and/or phenotypical origins. This isn’t to say Western Europeans weren’t racist. They certainly were. This racism, however, was what was wielded in order to create whiteness. Before this time, “white people,” as a concept, didn’t exist. Many nation-states, as we conceive of them today, didn’t even exist. The notion that all light-skinned Western Europeans were the same racial and/or ethnic category was completely, well, foreign.

When people say “racism divides us,” therefore, they are not just saying it because it sounds nice; it is an historical fact (as correspondence among the early colonial gentry evinces) that race was, historically—and still often is today—deliberately used to divide us. Some of us were given the privilege of being considered white, and thereby bestowed with white privilege. Many (most) of us were not granted such privileges.

It is for this reason that groups of Western Europeans, such as Italians or Jews (anthropologist and women’s studies scholar Karen Brodkin describes How Jews Became White Folks and what that Says about Race in America in her 1998 book), who are in fact often darker-skinned than, for instance, many Chinese, Argentine, or Arab individuals, are considered “white” while the latter groups are not.

If we are to create a “post-racial society,” consequently, we must grapple with the idea of whiteness—and with the idea of its arbitrary and fundamentally hegemonic nature.

In a June 2014 article in the Washington Post, Ta-Nehisi Coates responded to this question. “We should have a post-racist society,” he said. “But people are scared of what that might mean.” What might that mean? It means the abolishment of whiteness as a social category. He of course does not mean abolishing people with light skin. He merely means the abolishment of a social category that associates skin color with power. “The idea of whiteness is tied to power,” he explains.

Many white people balk at such a notion. Abolishing whiteness? Historian Robin D.G. Kelley, in a May 1997 talk titled “The Abolition of Whiteness and Black Freedom Movement,” argues that the “abolition of whiteness is fundamental to the liberation of humankind, including (and especially) the liberation of black people.” He notes that the idea is by no means new. “DuBois made it in Black Reconstruction, and, in a way, his famous statement that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line was about white supremacy.” He notes that the idea did not die with DuBois. “As James Baldwin and others put it over and over again, the “Negro problem” is a white problem.”

This talk was later published in the journal Race Traitor: Journal of the New Abolitionism, a journal co-founded and co-edited by the aforementioned Noel Ignatiev. Its slogan is “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” The journal maintains that

whiteness is not a matter of skin color but of social status. We are against conferring social privileges on people because of their color. We believe that to eliminate the privileges of whiteness is to abolish the white race, and that is what we want to do. To offer a parallel, we are against monarchy, but that does not mean we want to kill the king or queen. It simply means we want to get rid of inherited titles and the rest of the trappings of royalty.

If we wish to live in a post-racial society, if we wish to achieve racial equality, the first step is of course create a society in which systemic inequality does not exist—or, in other words, to create a society without economic classes. As Malcolm X famously insisted: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”

Beyond this, nonetheless, we must also (simultaneously) deal with the issue, move beyond the conception, of “whiteness.” Whiteness was deliberately created in order to divide us; we cannot expect to ever be united without deconstructing such a categorical division.

Fortunately, because the capitalist mode of production was socially constructed, it can too be socially destructed. Fortunately, because whiteness was socially constructed, it can too be socially destructed.

We must abolish class, and we must abolish whiteness. While either of these two still exists, society can neither be equitable nor post-racial.