Monday, September 8, 2008

How NOT to Read a Book

Let me take a minute to respond to a popular misreading of my new book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness. I should probably call it an under-reading, not a misreading, especially since I’ll be talking with my students just this very week about the extent to which readers always co-construct what they read.

Writers lose interpretive control of their cultural productions once those things start circulating, and most authorial attempts to sanction particular interpretations (while disqualifying others) represent the epitome of futility. Readers re-write books in (or against) their own ideological, emotional and political image. But that doesn’t mean that the author won’t have a stake in pushing back against certain glosses.

I just read a short review of my book in the magazine Color Lines. The reviewer, Julianne Ong Hing, tries to argue that I mistakenly privilege a psychological reading of racism over a structural one. However, she then goes on to claim that “by keeping it light” (a euphemism, I think, for not writing the book more polemically), I ignore “the deeper psychological impacts of a lifetime of racial micro-aggressions.” She claims that I emphasize “personal interactions as the crux of the racial impasse plaguing U.S. society in the 21st century.” This is the heart of her critique:

“The realm of personal relationships may be the most accessible for folks to begin to discuss race, but too often the conversation stops at the personal, as it does in this book. Jackson misses the point by equating the frustrations of people of color with those of whites. There are sharp differences between a group that’s imprisoned at disproportionately high rates and one that is not, between a group whose members own the vast majority of the country’s wealth and the groups with the highest poverty rates. Jackson does a disservice to his readers by limiting his analysis to the “he said-she said” between people of color and whites without delving into the structural roots of racism that permeate our daily interactions and our social, political and economic institutions. Even though Jackson acknowledges larger, structural racisms and recognizes the danger of his argument, he nevertheless persists.”

This is a reading of the book’s argument that Hing brought with her to its pages.

Of course, that’s part of why race and racism are such thorny issues. We are all already tangled up in some ideologically sticky webs of our own (and others’) spinning when it comes to this topic. We are on the defensive, overly sensitive to the potential of Trojan-horsed attacks -- or of the other side’s cold-blooded disinterest.

As reviews go, I think Hing's is nicely written (even funny in spots), but it is also predicated on only a partial understanding of what the book actually claims. And I do think that Hing actually took the time to read most of the book, which isn’t always the case. One of the first reviews of Racial Paranoia, published by Kirkus, was far more problematically misleading and inaccurate, and I honestly believe that its author didn’t even bother to read the book. They read the opening section, jumped to the concluding chapter and then jumped even farther to their own conclusions. It was (as I said then) a “wildly irresponsible” review. But I understood why it was even possible. People think they already know everything they need to know about what other people are going to say when it comes to race/racism, so why even bother listening?

As I said, I do believe that Hing read the book, but she had some typical blinders on:

I am not arguing for a “personal” reading of race and racism at the expense of a structural one. As explicit forms of racist rhetoric are suppressed in public discourse (and potentially repressed by certain whites who don’t want to be considered racists), our conversations across racial lines get less and less trustworthy. “De cardio racism,” which I define in the book, stands in for the idea that one of the ways in which African Americans (especially) try to square an egalitarian and explicitly inclusive public discussion about race with the perpetuation of just the kinds of structural inequalities that Hing lists is by mining everyday inter-racial exchanges for subtle expressions of hidden bias, for racial wolves trying to pass themselves off as color-blind sheep.

Hing says that I want to stop at these personal readings. That isn’t true. I just want to maintain that it is unproductive to simply dismiss these readings (between-the-lines of social life) as hypersensitive or ridiculously paranoid, which is how people responded to comedian Dave Chappelle and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (just tw examples from the book). I argue that McKinney and Chappelle are responding to structural transformations in America’s racial landscape, and that what detractors pooh-pooh as paranoia might represent an appropriate (if incomplete) response to how “plausibly deniable” and potentially euphemized commitments to racism function today.

That is a controversial claim, I know. And I don’t think that a lot of people want to hear it -- on the left or the right (though for different reasons). But it isn’t about arguing that these “personal” readings (these “paranoid” readings) are some kind of analytical endgame. They represent one starting point for cultivating a new language about race that captures its unprecedented contemporary manifestations. For most of America’s history, racists could be unabashed with their racial venom. Up until the 1960s, for instance, politicians ran on explicitly racist platforms. Championing, say, segregation could help get you elected. Today, any whiff of explicit racism can damage a politician’s career.

Moreover, I don’t just “equate the frustrations of people of color with white people.” I do claim that racial skepticism isn’t just “a black thang.” Whites can also be racially skeptical, racially paranoid, but I am far from arguing that white racial paranoia and black racial paranoia are the same -- or are even equally justifiable. I make those differences clear in the book.

3. Hing says that I develop my argument “without delving into the structural roots of racism that permeate our daily interactions and our social, political and economic institutions.” This is a patently false claim -- so much so that I don’t even know where to begin with a response. My entire book is a refutation of that position. I argue that “the structural roots of racism” are precisely what set the stage for our current post-Civil Rights dilemma. I spend several chapters trying to make that clear. From what Hing’s review emphasizes and omits, I can only imagine that she must have skimmed those chapters too quickly.

Indeed, one thing that I think helps to explain Hing’s reading (and one fair critique of the book that she doesn’t offer) has to do with the fact that it talks about contemporary America, a multiracial America, in decidedly bi-racial terms -- blacks and whites. It is surprising that Hing doesn’t mention that point in her review, but she opens with a discussion about how differently whites get treated in Chinatown restaurants, which seems to implicitly gesture toward that general vicinity. I think that this latter point is the reason why my definition of racism’s “structural roots” doesn’t mesh with hers. It seems that she really wants to ask me to open up the discussion of racism to include other racialized communities, which is a fair point. Race is structured differently in a browning America, in ways that are hardly reducible to the mostly bi-chromatic make-up the Old South. I under-played that hand in the book, but I did so because I wanted to talk about a different “structural” reconfiguration of race relations, a reconfiguration that starts with the profoundly formative history of chattel slavery in the United States and reads subsequent developments (histories of immigration and multiracialization) with that founding premise as starting point.

A reader can take issue with that emphasis. I’m not sure I think it is totally justified -- intellectually or politically. But Hing should have made THAT case—as opposed to criticizing me for not dealing with structural realities. The book is completely about the structural transformations of racism in America, and it mines the micro to explain how macro changes impact even seemingly innocuous interactions across class lines. (This is key, I think, because the mass-mediated stories we hear about race pivot, disproportionately, on how we dispute accusations of racism during exchanges that usually aren’t as explicit as what our collective past produced.)

Of course, I wrote an entire book that tried to explain all this, so these few extra (and hastily penned) paragraphs probably won’t help to clarify things for those who already think they know the two or three alternative tracks that every argument about racism must take. Even still, I couldn’t help myself.

(cross-posted at the Chronicle's Brainstorm blog)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Anthroman Makes Magazine Cover...

For the article, go to The Pennsylvania Gazette.

Anthroman is a character that I developed as part of my second book, Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

I might talk more about his origin story -- and his connection to other superheroic cultural critics (MadLaw Professor, Brother Story, Fierce Angel, and Professor V) -- in future blog posts.

For now, let me just say that the article connects Anthroman to a different set of academic characters. The piece features fascinating research from several of my colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania: bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, electrical and systems engineer Christopher Murray, criminologist Adrian Raine, medical anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, and molecular anthropologist Sarah Tishkoff.

Postdoc or Tenure-Track Job?

The semester has begun; I had my first course yesterday. And I am happy to say that I’ve started to reconnect with colleagues this week, including a few that I haven’t seen all summer.

We mostly had the usual conversations about respective summers (and about this unprecedented election season), but I also got into a longer (and more substantive) discussion with a faculty member (in a different field, an important variable) about the relative value of postdoctoral fellowships and tenure-track jobs for new Ph D ‘s.

He advises his students to focus on jobs, not postdocs. He’s skeptical of the entire postdoc thing for several reasons: the way it can be deployed by universities as an almost exploitative cost-cutting measure and at the expense of more secure tenure-track offerings (my fellow Brainstorm blogger, Marc Bousquet, could say more about that), and because it runs the risk of trapping some people out of the job market and into a secondary track of consecutive postdocs and adjunct positions.

I was arguing that a postdoctoral fellowship can actually increase one’s value on the market in subsequent years (which he grudgingly conceded, a little), and that two- or three-year postdocs give people a kind of head-start in the tenure-track rat-race. My dissertation adviser was a proponent of the postdoc (at least as a potentially viable option), and she’s made me one, too.

I was fortunate enough to have a three-year postdoc that allowed me to turn my dissertation into a book, start research on a second project, and even dabble in some orthogonal intellectual interests — and all that before I had to serve on my first thesis committee, teach a single course, or attend monthly faculty meetings.

Even the right one-year post doc (without unreasonable teaching expectations) can get that dissertation housed at a publisher and a little more ready for prime-time.

I thought I’d made a compelling case, but this colleague still walked away skeptical, which made me wonder. Am I overstaing my case? Might it work differently for different fields in the humanities and the social sciences? For different kinds of academics? Are there other factors at play?

(Cross-posted with The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Do politicans and pundits think we're stupid?

I’m tired of seeing pundits support their particular political party the way rabid fans root for sports franchises -- or even worse, the way players themselves sometimes engage in such sporting events, with a kind of ruthless amorality. Truth and falsehood don’t matter. Only the bottom line. The win.

This is a mentality that seems to plague many of our athletes, even if the stakes are much lower. Think of those scrappy basketball players who inadvertently knock loose balls out of bounds and instinctively -- misleadingly -- blame nearby opponents for the infraction. Anything to get the ball back. Anything for the victory.

The Democratic and Republican talking points exemplify this same sensibility: victory at all costs, even if the price is the truth, or when it comes at the expense of an even-handed reading of contemporary political debates.

These folks must think we’re stupid.

To hear the Republicans tell it, Sarah Palin has all the “experience” she needs to be vice president, more “executive experience” than Barack Obama, and it is simply partisan politicking to question her readiness -- even in an age defined by global challenges that demand a rigorous handle on world affairs. Does circling the red wagons around a wild-card pick from Alaska (so that your party can "energize the base" and go after disaffected Clinton backers) really mean “Country First”?

According to Democrats, Obama represents “change,” and an African-American president would embody a massive change for America. No doubt. But just because he gives good speech, which is pretty clearly the case, doesn’t mean that Obama’s potential election will necessarily change the way politics work in Washington. If there was anything really damning in that New Yorker issue with the controversial drawing of Michelle and Barack on the cover, it was the article inside, an article that painted Obama as a fairly straightforward political operator who does little more than master the rules of the game so as to play his hand better than everyone else. An Obama presidency is change, especially symbolically, which is important in and of itself, but it probably will translate into far less than the transformational sea change that the Democrats are overconfidently selling.

Of course, deciding the next iteration of the Supreme Court is incredibly serious business. And the two candidates deploy radically different litmus tests for prospective judges. But does the end game of stocking the jury with “liberal” or “conservative” judges justify ramping up partisan spin-doctoring on all the issues of the day? Do we have to insult people’s intelligence with blatant double standards on how we read our candidates plusses and minuses vs. the other party’s ticket: the one with soft shoes, the other with steel-toed boots?

Haven't we had enough of the political double standards that allow us to read our own party's plights generously while treating the other party with ruthlessly self-interested stinginess?

We've turned American society into a collegiate forensics society where we all argue for the side of the debate we've been deputized to offer -- regardless of what truth and fairness might actually entail.

Does the political end justify the rhetorical means, even if the latter include too-easily institutionalized attempts to trick voters into giving your team the electoral ball even when you know you’ve done something -- maybe inadvertently -- that you would never allow your opponents to get away with? Is there any possible way to reverse our longstanding ability to trap our Constitution into the straightjacket of hyperpartisan politics? This is a fervent partisanship that our founding document isn’t necessarily equipped to mitigate -- or even address.

(Cross-posted with the Chonicle of Higher Education"s Brainstorm Blog)