Thursday, May 26, 2011


If, and I am only saying if, we ever had that much celebrated post-race moment on a certain evening in November 2008, then the evidence keeps mounting that we have been living in a post-post-race moment ever since:

Last week, readers responded swiftly to evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa's piece, "Why are black women less physically attractive than other women," which had been posted on a blog at Psychology Today - then removed amidst the (justified) outrage. The anthropology blog Savage Minds posted a response, "Why are evolutionary psychologists less intelligent than other mammals." For me, this incident serves as a reminder (again) that it is not just about speaking out against racism, but explaining exactly how racism is "at work" - in this case, it is important and necessary to discuss the particulars of the research and the assumptions embedded in it.

My other favorite columnist at The Nation (in other words, not Katha Pollitt) is Gary Younge, who in the June 6th issue penned a piece called "The Paradox of Hope," which comments on an inconvenient truth of the Obama presidency: "But for all the ways black America has felt better about itself and looked better to others, it has not actually fared better. In fact, it has been doing worse. The economic gap between black and white has grown since Obama took power." Yet, Younge notes, black Americans generally continue to support Obama. Why? #1. Look no further than the spectacle of the Birthers: "In the face of such brazenly racist attacks, defending Obama's right to the office becomes easily blurred with defending his record." #2. "Racial advancement is increasingly understood not as a process of social change but of individual promotion," Younge observes, "the elevation of black faces to high places."

This might account for how and why the recent coverage in The New York Times' "Room for Debate" blog given to a study of racism in the United States turns out to be so wrong. Living Anthropologically picks apart the problems with the study, which the authors claim as evidence of anti-white bias on the rise from the 1950s to the 2000s. Except that "they don’t have historical data–the chart is deceptive":

What they have is a survey from today, asking people “to indicate the extent to which they felt both Blacks and Whites were the target of discrimination in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s” (Norton and Sommers 2011:216). And, of course, whites today say anti-black bias was a problem in the 1950s but drops steadily, whereas anti-white bias is steadily on the rise. Blacks today say the same thing, although not to the same extent. But that does not actually say anything about what people in each decade actually thought! All it does is support the dominant U.S. mythology: the idea that racism was a problem back in the 1950s but it’s going away or gone now.

In other words, the study might tell us something about the perceptions of white and black Americans concerning the experience of race in the United States, but it is not what the authors themselves purport their research tells us.

Finally, I just started to read Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School, an ethnography written by sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan, who had attended, then later taught at St. Paul's. I was drawn to this book for a number of reasons, including what I admit to be a personal fascination with privilege. It never has been the wealth that dazzled me, but the confidence and ease with which the elite operate in the world: They can be some of the most charming, informed, and interesting people you ever met in your life - and I know this because I attended college with them. Khan articulates perfectly the question that has nagged at me:

One of the curiosities in recent years is how our social institutions have opened to those they previously excluded, yet at the same time inequality has increased. We live in a world of democratic inequality, by which I mean that our nation embraces the democratic principle of openness and access, yet as that embrace has increased so too have our levels of inequality. We often think of openness and equality as going hand in hand. And yet if we look at our experiences over the last fifty years we can see that that is simply not the case. This is most notable in elite colleges, where student bodies are increasingly racially diverse but simultaneously richer.

The headline in The New York Times on May 24th reads: "Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite."


  1. I'm about halfway through Black Ice -- have you read it?