Saturday, April 10, 2010

Michael Steele's Race Card?

The RNC's Michael Steele has recently made national headlines for "playing the race card" by agreeing with the claim that African-Americans like himself, in positions of power, have "a slimmer margin of error" in America. Steele included President Obama in that calculation, which was met by a swift dismissal from the White House press secretary.

Critics always find it ironic (even pathetic) when proponents of purported color blindness frame their own problems in terms of "racial victimization." The "Left" is assumed to traffic in such sophistries. The "Right," however, is supposed to know better. Clarence Thomas calling his confirmation hearing a "high-tech lynching" stands as the quintessential example of such racial irony. Even the people who claim obliviousness to racial reasoning seem susceptible to its rhetorical seductiveness.

But who really doesn't see race? When is it ever invisible? Immaterial? Irrelevant?

I just talked to a small group in Philadelphia about my most recent book, Racial Paranoia, and one of the listeners, an elderly white man, responded with a plea for the insignificance of race and racism as rubrics for understanding everyday life, especially his everyday life. He claimed that race had no impact on his daily activities. He wasn't a racist, he said. And he simply didn't see race. He had spent that very day teaching students, judging a science fair, and debating a group of university scholars. Race and racism, he assured me, had nothing to do with any of these experiences. And he made his case without anger, in clear and confident tones.

I responded by basically telling him that he was wrong, which wasn't the best route to take. I admitted to him that I am always a tad suspicious of people who claim not to see race at all. Indeed, I think that the very aspiration of postracialism (in most of its guises) is misplaced and romantic, repression passing itself off as transcendence. He listened to my response and then restated his point, very matter-of-factly. Several audience members tried to push back against his claim, arguing that even when race isn't explicitly thematized in, say, a classroom setting (one of the locations that the man had invoked), it might still be a valuable analytical lens, a real social fact. It might still be there, even if we don't see it. Not because it is biologically real, but because culture is most powerful when we can't clearly see it.

According to some theories on the matter, the only real racists left in America are the people unwilling to stop obsessing about race and racism, the folks who seem to see race behind every corner. If they just let race go, racism would wither and die away. The invocations of race and racism are incantations that keep bringing this beast back to life.

But Steele is just the most recent example of how easily self-serving calls for color blindness can morph into equally self-serving color cognizance. And it might not be useful to imagine that we only have two options: fetishizing race or ignoring it altogether.