After the end of race

How Race Survived U.S. History: From the American Revolution to the Present
David R. Roediger

Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male
Tim Wise
Soft Skull Press

The historical election of our first African-American president doesn’t mean race has become irrelevant. We are, after all, still a nation that enshrined slavery into its Constitution, waged a civil war to amend that abomination, then spent another 150 years struggling toward some semblance of racial equality.

To understand exactly what race means to the American experience, David R. Roediger has written a distilled and necessary thumbnail sketch. Roediger is a renowned scholar of race and labor issues, and How Race Survived U.S. History is a condensed narrative of the ways that perceived “color” and working status have intertwined throughout U.S. history. From the racialization of slavery, splitting indentured servants and non-African slaves from their “black” brethren, to the legalization of inherited race through one’s mother, Roediger traces the birth of white supremacy in direct and accessible prose.

He spares no group from his piercing analysis, devoting an entire chapter to the ways in which race persists as the defining element of American society. Perhaps most damning is his indictment of the use of “code words” to affirm American racism in supposedly nonracist language: “welfare mothers,” “affirmative action,” and “quotas” are among the terms that have been successfully used to target people of color, when in fact these systems have all been to the advantage of white people.

Roediger devotes his final chapter to the Barack Obama “phenomenon,” and although it was written prior to the election, it raises issues worth an ongoing discussion, including Roediger’s observation of the media’s coverage: “Crude race-profiling of voters jostled for space with extravagant claims regarding the transcendence of race.” It would be interesting to read Roediger’s take on the self-congratulation by white pundits and reporters that followed Obama’s election.

Tim Wise, a nationally known anti-racist writer and lecturer, also refers to the Obama campaign as a classic example of white denial of racism. Wise’s new collection of essays, Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male, spends a great deal of energy addressing the penchant of one of the most privileged groups ever to exist—American whites—to deny that racism is a problem.

One of the most frightening (and slightly funny) points that Wise makes is that white people consistently and historically underestimate how much discrimination exists. For example, Wise points to surveys taken in the late 1950s and early 1960s in which white Americans generally claimed that black Americans faced little in the way of discrimination. Mind you, not only was this prior to fair employment, fair housing and voting-rights laws, it was also a time when registering to vote in many Southern states could get a black person killed. But white Americans didn’t believe it was that bad.

This is the crux of “white denial,” and Wise points out in his essays that it remains at the heart of racial inequality in America. Members of the privileged group—in this case, whites—seem both unwilling and unable to acknowledge the unearned privilege their race bestows on them, and as a result continue to underestimate the cost—the “skin tax,” if you will—exacted from people of color.

Wise is smart, funny and to the point, which makes these essays both good reading and thought-provoking. And, like Roediger, he doesn’t see racial inequality as something that will magically disappear because the next president of the United States is biracial. One exceptional man can’t possibly heal the wound at the center of the American experience, although he can certainly move us in the right direction. Reading these books might help white people become willing and able to lend assistance as well.