C-Span just sent me a DVD copy of my segment from BookTV last month on C-Span 2. (The link is on the upper right hand corner of this page.) I’m speaking way too quickly (and don’t even get to a few major themes from the book), but it does lay out the beginnings of my point about “de cardio racism” and its difference from earlier modes of racial reasoning in American history.
Speaking of racism’s newfangled permutations, I finally read through the second Village Voice piece on the Madonna Constantine case. Clearly, if she did hang a noose on her own office door as a tactic to preempt the public exposure of her plagiarism case, she would represent one of the most dramatic and disingenuous versions of playing the race card in academic history. It would be the epitome of “Bluffing About Race,” as the subtitle to Richard Thompson Ford’s new book phrases the issue. (Of course, some people would argue that any invocation of race/racism at all is the verbal equivalent of putting a noose on your own little door.)
In many ways, Ford and I start off with the same premise about how differently race and racism function today, but we use that idea to talk about two very different (though not mutually exclusive) things.
I argue that our politically corrected environment forces public expressions of racism to go underground. They get euphemized, which is a relatively new phenomenon in an American republic where as late as the 1960s politicians could run on explicitly racist/segregationist platforms with impunity. I use this point to say that we shouldn’t imagine sanitizing public discussions about racial differences as the endgame of our racial politics today. We actually need spaces where people can be honest about their investments in racial difference, not to the point where others are endangered or offended, but enough so that we can have “conversation on race” that are useful and productive — not public-relations stunts.
The flipside of this euphemization of racial animus is that people don’t think egalitarian racial language necessarily reflects a speaker’s hidden beliefs about race. In a context where getting labeled a racist is “bad for business,” most people avoid the theme entirely — at least in mixed company. This dynamic breeds a scenario where, for example, African Americans are skeptical about public expressions of racial inclusion and look for hidden signs of racist hearts (“de cardio racism”) beneath race-neutral (even progressive) exteriors.
Richard Thompson Ford’s The Race Card uses a similar starting point to argue that the legal justice system can’t treat these less explicit forms of racism the way it powerfully addressed earlier (more straightforward and self-evident) kinds. He’s right. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have the same luxury in our everyday lives. We’re not off the hook. Either we find a way to deal with these serious race-based skepticisms (the idea that Madonna Constantine put a noose on her own door to quiet critics represents an example of the same skepticism in reverse), or we create some strange Never Never Land of post-racial living by collective repression.
(First posted on the Chronicle's Brainstorm Blog)