Scrapping the Color Code

A post-racial America is inevitable.
Aspirations toward an American, civic-republican identity are not determined by race, and should not be limited by it (CNS photo/Andrew Kelly, Reuters).

Even as the murder of George Floyd unleashed a deluge of declamations about white supremacy, wokeness, critical race theory, and other American racial obsessions, a hard-won feeling of “been there, done that” kept me from jumping in. “It’s difficult to say anything about race that hasn’t been said before; difficult to say anything that isn’t at least half true; and still more difficult to mean whatever one does say amid the fog of half-truths and euphemisms enveloping the subject,” I told an interviewer for the Atlantic in 1997, the year I published Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream. The book’s title was partly an effort to cut through that fog and find a clearer, broader understanding of what I believe is our American destiny to transcend race as we know it. Liberal Racism is only partly an indictment of liberals. It’s also a protest against making racial identity a central organizing principle of our public life. The new U.S. Census strongly suggests that there’s no longer a civic-cultural norm in “whiteness” but also that no official racial color-coding can tell us who “we” are.

I developed that conviction after 1977, when I put a new Harvard doctorate in my back pocket and left Cambridge for five years in central Brooklyn, where I was the only white tenant in an eight-unit walk-up and wrote for inner-city weeklies, the Village Voice, and Dissent. Working and living with African Americans who held some power over my prospects boiled out a Cambridge lefty’s racial romanticism and left deeper interracial affinities and bonds, as I recount in The Closest of Strangers (1990). I explained why some well-intentioned “progressive” notions about race are wrong, if not indeed racist. I learned that my own aspirations to an American, civic-republican identity were shared pretty deeply by Black neighbors and co-workers who feel diminished by over-solicitous liberal (and ideological leftist) stereotyping almost as much as by the conservative racism that is the prime evil. Progressives who resist acknowledging this were surprised this year when many Black New York Democratic voters chose Eric Adams, a former police officer and centrist politician, over a more “woke” Black candidate as their party’s mayoral nominee, as New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall reported.

Liberal Racism’s provocative title came to me when the late Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens—a true apostle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith in “the content of our character” over skin color—told a small group of other leftist journalists and activists that “liberals are sometimes the worst racists.” His remark got me thinking about what I’d been witnessing in my activist-journalist rounds, and Liberal Racism became an indictment of “political correctness,” “cancel culture,” and “virtue signaling,” long before those terms were in vogue. A lot of what passes as racial identity politics, I wrote, “no longer curbs discrimination; it invites it. It does not expose racism. It recapitulates and, sometimes, reinvents it. Its tortured racial etiquette begets racial epithets, as surely as hypocrisy begets hostility.” Many Black reviewers of the book agreed.

Working as a journalist in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, long before cell-phone cameras caught white cops killing unarmed Black youth, I knew that it was happening, and also that Black youth were killing one another. Taking a cue from Owens, I worried that many self-avowedly “anti-racist” liberals and progressives were clinging so tightly to what we now call “multiculturalist” and “woke” protocols that they’d stopped envisioning a post-racial, civic-republican culture that would be thick and rich enough for anyone to thrive in, where “people of color” would be recognized by all as bearers of virtues and rights that aren’t “of color” at all. Diversity would be celebrated as a consequence of American, civic-republican fairness, not as its bureaucratic precondition. The name “Black Lives Matter” gestured in this humanist direction, almost plaintively at first, even when not all BLM supporters lived up to it. In an excerpt from Liberal Racism published by Harper’s, I insisted that Blackness in America has meaning and value mainly because it’s been nourished defensively against the abduction, enslavement, and ongoing murders and dispossession of Blacks by champions of a “whiteness” that seeks its own empty coherence by keeping others down.

When I was making this argument in 1997, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy was warning similarly against racializing public discourse and color-coding our public policies. I endorsed Kennedy’s rigorous opposition to making ethno-racial affinities a central organizing principle of American life, and I sparred in several venues with his sometime adversary and former law-school mentor Derrick Bell, a progenitor of critical race theory and a pessimist about racism whose thinking anticipated that of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Brooklyn taught me that precisely because racism is as subtly pervasive as it is brutal, it leaves both its victims and its perpetrators little margin for error in paroxysms of grievance such as those that erupted in the cases of Howard Beach, Tawana Brawley, and O. J. Simpson. No successful movement for racial and social justice can be built on lies, vilification of innocent parties, and intimidation of critics with legitimate differences of opinion.

 

This vicious circle amounts to a kind of shell game: justice is always somewhere else.

Yet racism’s ubiquity and sheer force in the daily personal experiences of Black Americans continues to drive such eruptions. The historian Jason Sokol’s All Eyes Are Upon Us is representative of other studies showing that whites’ often-sincere vows of racial fairness coexist with complicity in structural racism: Black parents who hope that a good education will bring their children closer to equality know that because public education is locally controlled, it matters where they live. But finding the right neighborhood requires getting past real-estate agents and landlords who associate the “wrong” skin color with low property values. Reassuring them requires having a good job and work habits, but that requires having a decent education. This vicious circle amounts to a kind of shell game: justice is always somewhere else. Whites on school boards or in real estate can claim to have clean hands, their actions being dictated by market necessities.

Even in self-avowedly liberal environments such as Yale, where I taught undergraduates for twenty-one years, I learned that Black students feel intense pressure not only from the outsized hopes of their families that they’ll set “a good example,” but also from well-meaning whites’ “model minority” expectations. At the same time, however, on campuses and workplaces near high-crime areas, whites’ association of Blackness with violent crime makes Black students fear not only crime itself but also the stigma of suspicion. A Black male undergraduate entering a gated college quad just behind a white female fellow student, especially after dark, must brace himself for the indignity of her quickened pace and sharp, over-the-shoulder glance. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to understand why nineteen-year-old Black and Hispanic students call out for someone or something to help them feel safe and welcome in a campus community that promised them safety and belonging.

Structural racism only reinforces the pressure: a Yale student from Tehran, where laborers and service workers don’t look different from the rest of the population, told me how strange he found it to see an overwhelmingly Black workforce serving an overwhelmingly non-Black population at Yale. At least 70 percent of the university’s custodial and cafeteria workers are Black, although fewer than 8 percent of its faculty are

Black people also observe incomprehension on the blank faces of white people who seem to regard them, sympathetically or accusingly, as survivors and residual carriers of damage about which white people may feel uneasy, or even guilty. Because the United States abducted and plunged into its midst millions of Black people even while professing “self-evident” truths about human dignity and rights, it gave them the highest imaginable stakes in getting the country to live up to its stated creed. That has made some Black people the creed’s most eloquent exponents and others its sharpest critics. “In every situation you enter, your race comes with definitions and expectations you didn’t expect,” a Black student once told me. “It’s draining. You constantly have to push through these instances of people’s stupidity.”

Such intrusions into every Black person’s mental space would strain the moral imagination of even the rare white person who’s lived or worked in an overwhelmingly Black environment, as too few white people who write about Black protests have done. Distance has also driven some white liberals and leftists into a politics of self-definition through moralistic posturing. A local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America canceled a scheduled lecture by the Black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. because he intended to emphasize class injustices over racial ones. Leftist “anti-racist” sectarianism does nothing to strengthen a democratic civic culture and often ends up compounding racism itself.

 

Yet even my own doubts about anti-racist histrionics don’t explain fully my feeling of “déjà vu all over again” amid the recent protests and the new protocols. America’s republic and civil society have been shaken profoundly by rising global economic, technological, cultural, demographic, and biomedical riptides that can’t be blamed on racism, even when racism maldistributes their damages and rewards. We can only hope that these shocks will spur new generations of Americans to shed myopic racialist assumptions, not because racism doesn’t still have its own terrifying momentum but because the other powerful forces I’ve just mentioned are scrambling racial distinctions as fatefully as they’re scrambling sexual ones. Why don’t people who tout gender and sexual fluidity question their own acceptance of sharply drawn racial identities, even as millions of biracial children change American demographics and self-understandings? The global disruptions of old racial and sexual patterns are generating yearnings for new kinds of social belonging that won’t be satisfied by ethno-racial and sexual story lines that have lost their credibility.

We need new narratives—call them myths or constitutive fictions—because we remain story-telling animals, moving together through time and struggling to render our movements as “history.” Young people especially need what anthropologists call “rites of passage” to adulthood—daunting tests, ratified by elders, of their prowess and dedication to intergenerational communities in their formative years. Such coming-of-age experiences induct them into full, responsible membership in society. “Contracts between us are not enforced by laws or economic incentives,” explains the sociologist Alan Wolfe; “people adhere to social contracts when they feel that behind them lies a credible story of who they are and why their fates are linked to those of others.” Without a credible collective story, a pluralist society loses antibodies against challenges from beyond and bureaucratized or ideological color-coding from within.

In 1920 the philosopher George Santayana noted that Americans “have all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty. To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career.” Precisely because the United States has become racially, ethnically, and religiously more complex than institutional color-coding can comprehend, we should be working overtime on narratives, principles, habits, and bonds that transcend racial groupism. While Santayana was imagining America’s whirling vortex a century ago, the republic was generating a civic-republican ethos—albeit mostly for whites—that the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.” That balancing of ethical and pragmatic calculations has been advanced, with a bit of fakery and faith, by people as different as the novelist Ralph Ellison and the actor Jack Nicholson. Americans embody the ethos sketched by Aaron when, for example, members of a jury suspend their varied ethno-racial preconceptions to work together at judging defendants and victims according to transracial standards of fact and law.

Recently, though, new disruptions have unsettled this ethos. When talking about racial identity, conservatives and progressives have switched sides. Before World War II united Americans against fascist racism, conservative elites sought order and stability by keeping every ethno-racial group in its place, with a label on its face: Anglo-Saxon leaders treated even other whites as members of subordinate races—Slavic, Celtic, Hebrew, Italian, and so on. People of color were kept separate and suppressed. Liberals and leftists struggled to strengthen individuals’ freedom from such preconceptions and defensive group reactions. At the peak of this liberal civic vision in the early 1970s, the Smothers Brothers crooned “The Lord Is Colorblind” to what CBS producers must have assumed was a reasonably receptive American audience.

“Colorblindness,” indifferent to context, reinforces racial inequities more than it mitigates them.

Sometime in the 1980s, conservatives, too, proclaimed themselves colorblind, often unctuously and hypocritically, insisting that the only color that really mattered to them was dollar green. Many liberals, by contrast, began to bow to the older conservative racialist assumption—rendered in 1978 by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the Bakke affirmative-action case—that a particular skin color or surname marks its bearer as a carrier of a particular culture, justifying that individual’s admission to a university not on racially reparative or remedial grounds but in order to “diversify” everyone’s educational and cultural experience.

That only puts persons and groups back in their ethno-racial “places,” with labels on their faces. Against this misstep, Chief Justice John Roberts wielded the new conservative pretensions to colorblindness in a 2007 Seattle school district case, writing that “the way to stop discrimination by race is to stop discriminating by race.” But Roberts’s quasi-Cartesian rejection of the supposed racial privilege in affirmative-action programs only strengthened class privilege for students who were well-funded and well-prepared. Such “colorblindness,” indifferent to context, reinforces racial inequities more than it mitigates them. Today, operating under the twin rubrics of “meritocracy” and “diversity,” elite universities have become career-networking centers and cultural galleria for a more “colorful” elite managerial class.

Those grim, continuing inequities were anticipated well enough by Justice Harry A. Blackmun in the same Bakke case in which Justice Powell had introduced the “diversity” rationale for affirmative action. Blackmun offered a different rationale for a racially reparative, remedial policy: “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.” In Liberal Racism, I credited Blackmun’s opinion but suggested that he might better have written “sometimes” or “temporarily” instead of urging us to “first” take account of race. If we really do want to “get beyond racism,” let’s not put racial remedies into a cultural harness, as do “diversity” protocols and even some racially remedial initiatives—for example, racial election districting and blocking transracial adoptions (supposedly to ensure each infant a “culturally consistent” environment).

Randall Kennedy’s forthcoming book Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History, and Culture warns similarly that diversity’s racially coded, “looks like America” façade only “normalizes practices that inevitably subordinate claims of individual merit to claims of racial group pluralism.” We’ll never get beyond racism if we keep indulging the presumption that people of a particular color think alike, along color-coded lines. Instead, we need to envision racial differences receding in importance until they signify little more than differences in white people’s hair and eye colors, which no longer support assumptions about their bearers’ abilities or beliefs, let alone their moral worth.

Unfortunately, clinging to color and racial physiognomy is still so overdetermined a response to inequality in our economically unjust society that a post-racial America seems impossible even to many of us who wish for it. We tend to excuse ethno-racial flag-wavers and censorious monitors of other people’s presumed racism as the canaries in a coal mine, merely registering tremors of a civic implosion they didn’t cause. Unlike the tweeting of canaries, however, the demands of the flag-wavers and the monitors must be assessed and judged, lest they distort transracial narratives of common belonging and obligation that serve a larger public good. Public adhesives must be strong enough to offset racial and sexual identities that proclaim “I am excluded, therefore I am” and that diminish individuals’ chances of “finding themselves” in serving a larger common good. Writing in Dissent, the novelist and editor Brian Morton rightly faults ethno-racial monitors who admonish people from “other” (usually white) backgrounds to “stay in your lane” instead of appropriating other communities’ cultural resources. Staying in one’s lane in deference to cancel culture only makes American pluralism more brittle. It induces many whites to expect Blacks to enter the public sphere making either vengeful accusations and extortionate demands that racism supposedly justifies or, more constructively, offering the searing moral force and democratic vision of a W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, or Martin Luther King Jr.

 

Of white people’s high and low expectations, Black people have borne more than enough. The L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers sounded almost plaintive about it as he tearfully recounted watching last year’s Republican National Convention: “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear…. [But] we’re the ones getting killed…. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad…. If you watch that video [of George Floyd’s killing], you don’t need to be Black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged.”

The struggle for acknowledgment of Black Americans’ full belonging is one of the most powerful epics of unrequited love in the history of the world. Even if every broken heart could be mended and every theft of opportunity redressed, ethno-racial communities would and should continue to honor the endurance, resilience, and resistance that have sustained their members under conditions that even the worst-off whites can barely imagine. Ultimately, though, Santayana, King, and Owens were right: if the United States is to survive as a liberal-democratic republic, it will have to transcend racialism in its shared public life.

To see more Black Americans running military machines, multinational corporations, media organizations, money markets, and governments will be to see the angels of Blackness withdraw along with the demons. White Americans will have to give up both penitential, racialist condescension and racist contempt and hypocrisy. And we will all have to acknowledge that this country’s redemption won’t come through making ethno-racial identity anything more than a temporary expedient on the way to a post-racial political and civic life. Global economic and demographic riptides are carrying us—especially millions of young biracial Americans—irreversibly beyond whiteness or Blackness as vessels of hope. We’re not beyond them yet, but there’s no turning back.

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Jim Sleeper, a writer on American civic culture and a former columnist for the New York Daily News, taught political science at Yale from 1999 to 2021.

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