Race to the Bottom

How the post-racial revolution became a whitewash

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Anyone trying to take the politics of race seriously over the past decade of American political life could plausibly be diagnosed with an acute case of intellectual whiplash. A mere eight years ago, Barack Obama broke a historic barrier long taken to be impermeable and became our first African American president. Throughout our mainstream media and most centers of respectable opinion, a veritable orgy of self-congratulation ensued. The refrain went like this: After so many thankless years of stalemated racial progress, of a widening racial wealth gap, of welfare repeal and elite white retrenchment, of privileged white uprisings against the putatively illiberal forces of identity politics and “political correctness,” America had put its race problem decisively in the past. The newly enlightened American consensus had magnificently smote down the petty grievances of all the naysayers, from megacelebrities like Kanye West to the grassroots advocates of reparations for slavery to the ingrates like me in the critical race theory academy.

Yes, in the blink of an eye, the American republic had become “post-racial,” even as African Americans themselves begged to differ. The cultural revolution presaged by figures like Oprah Winfrey had been brought to outlandish, unexpected political fulfillment by Barack Obama, a world-class orator and impeccably credentialed son of the American meritocracy. From the canyons of Wall Street to the banks of the Potomac, a cry of rejoicing went forth. The painful, violent legacy of white supremacy had been repealed, in one miraculous fell swoop; the guilt-averse white majority and the grievance-prone Black minority could come together as one, in a blessed state of ur-American forgetfulness, and get down to business at last!

As it happened, the shelf life of post-racialism turned out to be far shorter than its cheerleaders supposed. A mere eight years later, white voters tossed the historic breakthrough of 2008 into the dustbin of history, alongside other half-digested political trendlets, like “the year of the woman” and “the peace dividend.” The symbolic breakthrough of Obama’s election has plainly given way to a terrifying new political order that is anything but post-racial. White voters overwhelmingly rallied to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, a leader whose racist worldview is emblazoned at the base of his career in the same way that his name is plastered across his global real estate empire. In naming white-nationalist propagandist Steve Bannon as his closest White House adviser and elevating Jefferson Beauregard Sessions—a son of Alabama’s white-supremacist political elite who was deemed too racially retrograde for a federal judgeship in the Reagan era—to the highest position of federal law enforcement, Trump has clearly rendered all talk of post-racialism a laughable dead letter.

Still, how does one account for this mind-bending shift in the prevailing terms of racial discourse? The temptation is great, when presented with such dramatically self-canceling evidence for both the obdurate survival of a racist power structure and the surface appearance of racial progress in the person of Obama, to declare one of these outcomes simply unreal. The genuine America, in this binary scheme, would be either the one that voted in Barack Hussein Obama or the one that voted in Donald John Trump, and the other would be a short-lived fever dream.

The truth, however, is more complicated. To borrow a turn of phrase that helped make Barack Obama famous, the country that elected both him and Trump is “one America.” And to complicate things still further, the very rhetoric of post-racialism that greeted Obama’s ascension to power has proved instrumental in the dumbfounding political rise of Donald Trump, the man who is in every way the photographic negative of Barack Obama. The feel-good presuppositions of post-racialism played directly into the evasive habits of the white supremacist heart, permitting Americans to congratulate themselves for achieving a historic breakthrough that had very little to do with our actual racial history. In I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s timely documentary on James Baldwin’s unaddressed legacy of racial advocacy, a telling moment occurs. U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy, keen to assuage civil-rights leaders impatient with the slow pace of progress in Washington, prophesizes that the strides being made toward racial equality are actually so dramatic that within forty years America might well see its first Black president. Kennedy’s timetable was off by a decade or so, but the relevant point here comes in Baldwin’s rejoinder. The African Americans he knew in Harlem, Baldwin says, were less than bowled over by the palliative promise of a president to call their very own:

That sounded like a very emancipated statement, I suppose, to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear (and possibly will never hear) the laughter and the bitterness and the scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barbershop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he’s already on his way to the presidency. We’ve been here for four hundred years and now he tells us that maybe in forty years, if you’re good, we may let you become president.

In other words, Welcome to history, Mr. Kennedy. And now that we’re at the other end of our landmark first African American presidency, we might well say by way of summation, Welcome to history, white America. The brutal fashion in which Trump’s rise repealed virtually every plank of post-racialist self-congratulation underlines how flimsy and premature the celebrations of Obama’s top-of-the-ticket symbolic breakthrough were. What’s more, the contrasting personas of the two presidents speak volumes about who gets to enjoy what kinds of power under what terms in our very much still-racialized political life. Where Obama solemnly obeyed every command that issued from America’s meritocratic superego, Trump has slithered directly into the Oval Office from the heart of our white business civilization’s political id. Where Obama extolled bipartisan reason, Trump stokes social-media resentments; where Obama pursued chimerical “grand bargains” with the GOP Congress and its private-sector retainers, Trump claims to embody the sharp-eyed “art of the deal”—i.e., the art of presiding over a gamed system in which he’s always assured to take the other contracting party for a ride.

Unreasonable Differences

To better understand how our country’s racial derangements have lurched into the foreground once more—like Michael Myers in a Halloween sequel—let’s examine just how vanishingly thin the original conceit of American post-racialism was, in that long-ago time known as 2009. And this, in turn, entails taking measure of how its signature enabling myth of colorblindness worked to reinforce the very structures of racial power that were supposedly in the process of being overcome. The legal and activist struggles of the first post-civil-rights generation of African Americans represent a key pivot point in this story by triggering the emergence of (on the one hand) critical race theory and (on the other) the embrace of the abstract ideal of colorblindness as an established historical fact.

The very rhetoric of post-racialism that greeted Obama’s ascension to power has proven instrumental in the political rise of Donald Trump.

The prevailing understanding of racial justice that had come to a head in the early 1980s premised racial liberation on the enlightened terms of rationality. Accordingly, racial power was seen as “discrimination,” a deviation from reason that was remediable through the operation of legal principles. Civil rights lawyers and liberal allies may have differed on the need for targeted interventions to help along the universalist repudiation of racial distinction. But they shared a baseline confidence that once the irrational distortions of bias were removed, the underlying legal and socioeconomic order would revert to a neutral, benign state of impersonally apportioned justice.

Yet by the 1980s and 1990s, this liberal equation of the rule of law with racial liberation was ripe for reconsideration, as Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and my other colleagues in the emergent legal movement of critical race theory insisted. The problem, from our vantage, was not simply the takeover of the judiciary by right-wing judges, but also the broader political and institutional limits of “reason” itself. And this epistemological critique was not simply a “philosophical” one—it was embodied in a new protest politics by critics who argued that no neutral concept of merit justified the lack of minority law professors at elite law schools, or that no neutral process of principled legal reasoning could justify the racialized distribution of power, prestige, and wealth in America.

Critics of white supremacy in the broader academy—working in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois and other trailblazing scholars of color—had demonstrated in various disciplinary settings just how notions of scholarly objectivity and other canons of academic professionalism served to rationalize the existing American racial order. Law’s apparent intimacy with that order, however, presented a unique site for an intellectual sit-in. And for those of us advancing critical race theory, the considerable blowback we encountered, from the legal academy to the liberal press, worked to confirm our own intuitions that the voices of mainstream civil rights advocates and liberal university administrators were effectively drowning out more urgent claims on behalf of racial justice and reparations. Without entirely meaning to, we happened upon a crack in the facade of the status quo that provided a fuller vision of a social order “caught in the act” of reforming.

What lessons might we draw from this intellectual odyssey? Chiefly, the precedent of the critical race movement’s broader public reception serves to remind the disenchanted race reformers of the post-Obama age that things have been ever thus. Consider the striking parallels between the alleged post-racial dispensation ushered in by Obama’s election and the impasse that civil rights activism met head-on in the 1980s. Barack Obama’s shattering of the glass ceiling resembles nothing so much in our civic culture as the removal of the “White Only” signs that came down in the 1970s in the last redoubts of the Jim Crow South. And like that undeniable symbolic victory, Obama’s moment of deliverance proved astonishingly short-lived. The continuing battle over racial power simply expanded to a new frontier.

In the same way that the triumph of formal equality did not signify the end of racism, President Obama’s victory did not symbolize its demise in 2008. Now that we’ve begun to live under the race-baiting rule of our first modern white-nationalist president, this point shouldn’t need belaboring. But the unfinished business represented by this sea change needs urgently to be acknowledged and addressed. The luxury of mistaking symbolic breakthroughs at the top of our political order for organized and sustained racial progress throughout is no longer on the table. Our challenge now, as it was in the 1980s, is to preclude efforts to repress the ongoing contestation over racial power.[1] We can’t permit the legacy of post-racialist error that has helped to create the conditions for the white-nationalist risorgimento under Trump to be more of the same faux-enlightened talk of racist barriers definitively overcome. Now is hardly the time to effectively banish all talk of racial injustice to the unincorporated nether reaches of political discourse.

Post-Racial Nonsense

Within the Obama-era bid to characterize America’s newly transformed social order as “post-racial,” a striking bit of legerdemain took hold. The term worked both to de-historicize race in American society and, perversely enough, to reframe the idea of racism as something that was very much the opposite of the lived experience of race in America. Under this inside-out account of our racial history, a post-racial America was, by definition, a racially egalitarian America, no longer measured by forward-looking assessments of how far we have come, but by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived.

In one sense, there’s nothing conceptually new about this. For two decades, an entire industry of lawyers, politicians, pundits, and foundations rallied around the banner of colorblindness in an effort to convince judges, policymakers, and voters that the project of racial reform was completed long ago.[2] Colorblindness fueled a host of right-wing projects throughout the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, including Ward Connerly’s assault on both affirmative action and the collection of racial data,[3] along with efforts by others to attack the Voting Rights Act and Title VII. With the rhetoric of colorblindness thus conscripted as a justification of first resort for rolling back the gains of the civil rights revolution, moderates and liberals—together with the traditional civil rights establishment—regarded it with a good deal of justified suspicion. In his 2000 presidential run, for example, Al Gore likened the colorblind rhetoric of the nineties GOP to a “duck blind” offering cover to the forces of racial reaction.

On the right, meanwhile, this faux-colorblind consensus found its bottom-feeding nadir in Dinesh D’Souza’s counter-empirical 1995 tract The End of Racism. According to D’Souza, race exists only as an opportunistic political “card” to be played in a never-specified game. The impression of enduring structural racism—self-evident to anyone spending more than twenty minutes or so studying actual American history—comes off in this right-wing fantasia as an unfounded moral panic spread by identity politicians.

Regrettably, a host of similarly ahistorical thinkers saw their moment after the election of Obama and sought to insert the colorblind politics of racial denial into nearly all mainstream discussion of race. To borrow a simile from the same era’s pop-culture discourse, colorblindness resembled a cult music act or arthouse movie hit that never quite broke through to a mainstream following. It was post-racialism that conferred rock-star status on the marketing stratagems of colorblindness, and rebranded the product with an internationally recognized symbol attached to its conservative rhetorical posture.

And so it was that when post-racialism rode to the center of American political discourse on Barack Obama’s coattails,[4] it carried along with it both a longstanding liberal project of associating colorblindness with racial enlightenment and a conservative denunciation of racial justice advocacy, reverse discrimination, and grievance politics. Obama’s widely heralded avoidance of so-called racial grievance not only opened the door to a new era of American politics[5]—it also opened up liberal and progressive civil rights constituencies to the strategic evasions of racial justice agendas forged among leading practitioners of retrenchment politics such as Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich.

Politically Corrected

Indeed, in retrospect, it’s astonishing just how quickly this project of ideological fusion was carried out. On the day of Obama’s election, CNN’s confident panel of experts declared that the biggest losers in Obama’s victory were Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and by extension, the entire civil rights leadership, who were presumably now the newly unemployed.[6] This same “Mission Accomplished” refrain caught on among a host of white liberal pundits who proclaimed that the great attraction of president Barack Obama was that he entered the sanctum of American executive leadership unburdened by any confrontational old-school civil rights baggage. In this moment, the human tragedies and acts of sheer courage that characterized the civil rights struggle were reduced to historical dead weight. As if on cue, an admiring chorus of observers took immediately to marveling at the new president’s unflappably cool demeanor and temperamental intolerance for “drama”—and most especially the racial kind. With palpable relief, the guardians of official discourse came together as one to announce that “with Obama now in the White House, we can put race behind us.”

Now that we are battling the Trump White House, we can see more clearly the many hidden costs of the premature stampede to “put race behind us.” Not only did Trump’s successful white-backlash candidacy for the Oval Office revive Nixonian tropes of Black lawlessness and depravity—complete with gruesome caricatures of life in Black-majority inner-city neighborhoods and calls for a return to white-authoritarian “law and order”—but it also relied on an overt platform of racist retrenchment that prior Republican presidents had voiced only in code.

Ronald Reagan famously launched his 1980 presidential run with a brash stump speech steeped in states’-rights rhetoric—the already amply coded discourse of choice for white supremacists—in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. But Trump’s strategy upstages the dog whistles of the Reagan years and rouses the walking-dead body of white redeemer politics circa 1876. In promulgating the false narrative of rampant voter fraud in southern states such as Florida, Trump directly summons the specter of Black “mob rule” that rationalized the institution of Jim Crow voting restrictions in the late nineteenth century. And in his notorious stump refrains about the dismal (and mostly fabricated) violent crime waves in our multiracial inner cities, Trump summons an image of Black and colored bodies strewn throughout America’s urban scene that harkens back to the murderous license of the lynching age. Lest anyone think this is mere rhetorical exaggeration, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tallied more than one thousand racial hate crimes since Trump’s inauguration—a dramatic increase over the baseline rate of such attacks, which would normally number around fifty nationwide in a ten-week period, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project.

More deranging still, the effacement of racial history propounded under the gentler banners of “colorblindness” and post-racialism has now become a pathological disorder in Trump’s Oval Office. As Black History Month commenced in February, Trump delivered a rambling statement asserting that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” This bizarre aside strongly suggested that Trump was under the impression that America’s most famous Black abolitionist, who died in 1895, was somehow alive and active today. This impression only gained currency when Trump White House spokesman Sean Spicer sought to clarify the president’s remarks and seemingly made the same error, saying, “The contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”

One might write this off as an unfortunate series of blunders in an administration’s chaotic transition days. But during attorney general Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearings, the new Republican racial amnesia took a decidedly more sinister turn. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who opposed the Sessions appointment, began to read a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King detailing the extraordinary measures that Sessions undertook as attorney general of Alabama to suppress the Black vote there—a series of intimidation tactics that left many Black people determined never to vote again. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell silenced Warren on the floor, citing an obscure provision of Senate etiquette forbidding members to directly criticize each other during floor speeches. That this absurdly genteel dictum didn’t apply to Sessions, who was in that moment engaged in the process of no longer being a senator, was of course beside the point, which was to silence anyone voicing a criticism of his record in the august legislative chamber.

Warren was silenced, and censured for her trouble, but the chilling epilogue came once more from Sean Spicer’s briefing-room podium, where the combative press secretary suggested that King’s widow, were she alive today, might well support Sessions’s nomination, as though the state official who worked in the eighties to directly undermine the political legacy of her slain husband would be given a mulligan. The officially sanctioned posture that Trump officials urge on minority communities suffering from abject racism is, in short, forgive and forget—and anyone refusing that posture is immediately dismissed as a racial-grievance-monger.

Then again, that’s now the official Trump White House line on the entirety of our recent racial past: history doesn’t possess any controlling legal authority over the administration’s chosen narratives of power. After the first presidential election cycle taking place under the de facto reversal of the Voting Rights Act under the Roberts Court, the storyline in mainstream political discourse is not how voter suppression in southern districts formerly monitored under the Act’s provisions helped Trump win key southern swing states. No, the story is Trump’s Big Lie about southern voter fraud. Even when Trump’s critics and media outlets fact-check that transparently false claim, few have bothered to note that the reality is, in fact, the obverse—that far from being abetted by rampant fraud, the Black vote in America is now systematically suppressed under a softer-focus brand of resurgent Jim Crow tactics, empowered by a proudly colorblind set of Supreme Court decisions.

Such, in short, are the real-world wages of colorblind, post-racialist rhetoric: historical Black resistance leaders who bled and suffered for each incremental gain in racial justice are whitewashed into anodyne supporters of actively racist political leaders and agendas. And the core electoral grievances of the African American citizenry are simply erased from elite-led discussions of the Black franchise. Just as the civil rights movement was hailed at the time as America’s Second Reconstruction, it’s probably long past time to ask whether the Trump White House is presiding over a Second Redemption—the odious 1877 social compact that won Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency and established the Jim Crow regime across the postbellum South. One certainly doesn’t have to strain hard to hear the Redemptionist echoes of Trump’s campaign vow to “make America great again,” or of his many stump appeals to put “our country” back in the hands of his aggrieved white supporters.

Merit Badges

To review the career of Barack Obama, meanwhile, is to see the narrow strictures of expression and conduct that confront any Black candidate aspiring to be a national political leader. If Donald Trump routinely engages in a white rhetorical brand of “wilding”—an unlicensed wave of crime and vandalism attributed to Black youths in a libelous moral panic of the 1980s—Obama is a case study in closely scrutinized rhetorical self-control in matters of race.

The shelf life of post-racialism turned out to be far shorter than its cheerleaders supposed.

In the same way that elite institutions have congratulated themselves as sites where merit flourished, American society held up Barack Obama as conclusive evidence that power is indeed colorblind.[7] Yet Obama’s election proves very little about the triumph of colorblindness either as a tactic for gaining power or as a frame for how it is exercised. In fact, upon closer inspection, the election of Obama supports the opposite inference. Despite the common refrain that Obama made history as the nation’s first post-racial Black candidate, the Obama campaign reflected the ongoing salience of race-consciousness among the electorate, the pundits, and the candidates. Obama’s steadied posture of racial avoidance was actually one of highly selective racial engagement, showcasing the candidate’s talent for deftly navigating the complex terrain of race and emerging with a reassuring tale of individual uplift—a moral, as it happens, best illustrated by the candidate’s own life story. The public image of Obama’s so-called race neutrality masked an intensely race-conscious campaign to counter Obama’s racial deficit on the electoral map. In key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, whites were mobilized to talk about race with other whites to neutralize Obama’s racial disadvantage. Even the celebration of Obama as “race-neutral” was obviously not colorblind, but rather a reflection of the opposite impulse. Voters and pundits of all races engaged in a complex assessment of Obama’s racial performance to determine what kind of Black Obama was going to be.

This race-conscious “reading” of Obama was not the sole province of wary whites and suspicious African Americans. Many thinkers who might be styled as lay critical race theorists graded Obama’s performance as a racial leader on a generous curve, believing that he was precariously trying to propel himself—and the country—forward on the narrowest of tightropes. Understanding the ever delicate politics of racial performance, many critics of the dominant racial discourse gave Obama a pass when his widely applauded speech on race seemed to follow the classic script of “race relations” comity,[8] an approach that assiduously frames racial conflict as a basic misunderstanding between social equals. That speech, recall, was a pivotal bid on the part of the Obama campaign to distance the candidate from his former Hyde Park pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright—the figure who gave the title to Obama’s 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, but who had also been videotaped in a mid-sermon burst of rage apparently calling down damnation on white America.

In order to decisively put Wright and his performance into the forgotten reaches of the racialized past, candidate Obama cannily positioned himself as a maestro of golden-mean-style moral equivalence in assessing the disparate harms wrought by American racism. In perhaps the most memorable passage of the address now simply known as “the race speech,” Obama drew out a parallelism between whites and African Americans that framed them as merely two sides of roughly equatable warring factions. In this account of past racial injury, both white and Black America shared in a pain that was at once equally legitimate and equally misunderstood by the other.

This formalist reading of race places the grievances that reflect centuries of slavery and segregation on par with white anger over affirmative action. And as a rhetorical campaign performance, it was widely hailed as a watershed moment that reset the basic terms of racial debate. Instead, though, it fatally scrambled the hard-fought basis of racial understanding in America, mixing realities with fantasies, injuries with remedies, and minority rights with majority power. In its deft circumvention of the structures and institutions reinforcing white dominance, Obama’s race speech has come to define a certain sensibility that, if not strictly “post-racial,” expresses a weary impatience with the familiar terms by which African Americans have voiced their grievances and pressed for justice. Indeed, the speech in general and Obama’s overall performance in office jointly came to define the post-racialist gloss on colorblindness.

The basic elements of this post-racial rhetoric stem from the conservative co-optation of colorblindness that gained currency in the 1980s and ’90s. And the deeply conservative thrust of this rhetoric, we can now clearly see in retrospect, is that the intergenerational residue of white supremacy in the United States consists mainly of fairly superficial wounds that are fast-obsolescing anachronisms. This view of racial power shares strong affinities, in turn, with the formalist conception of equality embraced by the post-civil-rights judiciary. In this fanciful view of our segregated republic, the Voting Rights Act has outlived its mandate, and material remedies of racist abuses of power are outstripped by feel-good shows of cultural tokenism.

From Colorblind to Simply Blind

It’s important to fasten onto this point clearly: colorblindness not only undermines law and social policy that rely on race-conscious analysis, but also soothes anxiety about the stubborn endurance of the structures of white dominance. In the giddy counter-historical account of racial progress, the entire messy, disheartening business of redressing the legacies of racial exclusion and exploitation can be written off as another outgrown vestige of a bygone era. The palpable relief of the white commentariat was as unmistakable as the sixties liberal establishment’s celebration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Both proved grossly premature, but both seemed to be punctuated with a culture-wide sigh reverberating through white America: At long last, that’s over with!

And it stands further to reason that if colorblindness marked race as a forgettable chapter in our history, then post-racialism ensured any as-yet unpersuaded stragglers and doubting Thomases that this mercifully retired saga of American racism no longer casts its shadow over contemporary affairs.

The officially sanctioned posture that Trump officials urge on minority communities is, in short, forgive and forget.

While the celebratory social amnesia of the “Obama phenomenon”[9] pulled countless people into its orbit, the rhetoric of denial at its core worked to strip critiques of racial power of both legitimacy and audience. In its wake, the material consequences of racial exploitation and violence—including the persistence of educational inequity,[10] the disproportionate racial patterns of criminalization and incarceration,[11] and the deepening patterns of economic stratification[12]—slid further into obscurity. Under the thrall of post-racialism, these stubborn conditions posed no serious challenge to the belief that the election of one leader could somehow signify the end of a trans-generational, intersectional, and structural system of racial dominance.

There is, of course no inherent reason why post-racialism would have to signal the insignificance of race. But by the same token, post-racialism didn’t need to be “post” at all. By the logic of its own sleight-of-temporal hand, post-racialism became tied to a rhetoric that stigmatizes all race-consciousness. From policy intervention to civil rights advocacy to basic acknowledgment of racial disparities, post-racialism potentially discredited all talk of racism as racial grievance. Thus, to be post-racial was to cease any engagement with, or acknowledgment of, racial injustice.

Race Against Justice

That some forms of race talk are punished while others are permitted was hard to miss when Obama spoke. Conservatives complained that he was playing the race card when he urged voters not to let his nontraditional image stand in the way of his becoming president,[13] but when he singled out Black fathers as irresponsible in a Father’s Day speech, it was warmly received. The white American mainstream’s longstanding and insatiable demand for the stern rhetoric of patriarchal self-discipline from Black American leaders stands out in especially stark relief now, when Black American men are routinely dealt a much more immediate and life-threatening form of discipline from law enforcement officers.

And speaking of racial disparities in law enforcement, hindsight now also greatly illuminates the acute “post-racial” curbs on justice discourse in an early race-themed contretemps in the Obama era: the piece of racial political theater that followed upon Harvard African American studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s arrest in Cambridge, MA, for the crime of breaking into his own house after he couldn’t unlock his door. Many commentators across the spectrum characterized Obama’s observation that the arresting officer “acted stupidly” as uncharitable at best, and at worst, racist.

In this revealing “post-racial” set piece, it was somehow beyond the pale to suggest that Henry Louis Gates might have been the victim of racism; it was almost axiomatic to many of Obama’s detractors that the officer was. Such are the slippery and contradictory politics of post-racialism. And one needn’t look very far to see the human costs of reflexive victim-blaming in botched police encounters. Many Black suspects much less influential than Gates have lost their lives in such episodes, with the police shooters continuing to enjoy the lavish presumption of innocence, facing prosecution in only the most extreme and incontrovertible cases of unprovoked brutality, and even then usually evading formal charges in grand-jury proceedings. There is, in short, a continuum of police impunity stretching from the “Gates-gate” contretemps to the citizen killings that have sparked the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

It’s exceedingly difficult, though, to discern and drive home such connections against the background glare of Black political celebrity. The triumph of a competent Black man in the White House offered an undeniable sense of hope to the long-demoralized advocates of racial justice. Yet in an only-in-America political epilogue, Obama’s presidency lent powerful argument-clinching cover to a premature censure of racial discourse.

The Race Card, Trumped

More than that, though, the country’s lurch into a profoundly unearned consensus of colorblind self-congratulation has enabled the elevation of a racist and unapologetically authoritarian anti-Obama figure to the position of maximum federal power. Donald Trump famously thrust himself onto the national political stage with a battery of lies about Obama’s allegedly disqualifying Kenyan birth. (Just as significant, the “birther” crusade on the racist American right branded Obama as irredeemably foreign and decidedly unpost-racial, since nothing more forcefully conveys otherness in the white racist mind than the image of African origins—an ugly intellectual legacy shared by overt white supremacists of the South and respectable eugenics-addled Progressives of the early twentieth century alike.)

In reality, though, Trump’s racist bona fides harkened back to the dawn of his business career, when he settled a federal lawsuit charging that he steered prospective Black tenants away from Trump family properties. He also gave respectable voice to racist fantasies of mass lynching at the height of the prosecution of the Central Park Five, by purchasing a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty to be reinstated only for the sake of killing the railroaded Black and Hispanic suspects in the case. (Even though the convicted Central Park Five have since been exonerated by DNA evidence and the identification of the crime’s actual perpetrator, Trump insists on their guilt to this day, on no evident basis beyond their status as non-white people who happened to be near the park when the brutal rape occurred.)

Surely if the reverie of a post-racial America had any meaning or analytical power, it would have decisively ruled out the prospect that an overtly racist successor to Obama could move into the White House so soon after the country had symbolically transcended the last vestiges of its racist past. No genuinely post-racial America could have called forth the spectacle of Steve Bannon, the Breitbart mogul who’s made a fortune and a political career of preparing racist conspiracy theories for mass consumption, serving as a White House adviser—to say nothing of Richard Spencer’s college protégé Stephen Miller or bona fide European fascist Sebastian Gorka. Nor would a mature, racially neutral American polity have harbored the ugly vision of David Duke renewing his political career in open emulation of Trump’s success.

The Diversity Dodge

This ugly new corps of white-nationalist reaction has exploited an intellectual vacuum opened up, in significant part, by the scattered and incomplete legacies of the civil-rights-era crusade for racial justice. The decreased potency of civil rights advocacy is, of course, nothing new. At least one feature of the moribund discourse of civil rights in particular, and antiracism more broadly, involves the disintegration of the basic framework that helped conceptualize and prosecute past claims of racial injustice. In a still-painful irony, the reforms that sought to rectify the yawning gap between American ideals and racial realities at the same time diminished the galvanizing power of this injustice frame.

Just eight years after the ballyhooed dawn of a post-racial social order, racial grievance has returned to the center of American politics—only this time it’s white.

But the lapsed project of remedying racial injustice also stems from contradictions within the rhetorical posture of race liberals that eventually imploded. Many race liberals grew squeamish about demands for racial justice seeking to give power to historically marginalized and underserved racialized communities. Community empowerment conflicted with seeing the race problem as a problem of seeing race. For liberals, the eventual solution was to transcend race altogether. Yet they were caught between their fantasy of the future—a world in which race doesn’t map onto to anything—and a real world in which it mapped onto everything. Diversity provided a livable compromise—a way of acknowledging “difference” between racial groups while ignoring the power relations between them.

The embrace of diversity in the affirmative action debate was a synecdoche of sorts for a broader concession normalizing an equivocal—at best—set of remedies for longstanding racial social deficits throughout American life. The broad-ranging diversity consensus erased the particular dimensions of racial subordination in education—and especially downplayed the institutional and structural synergies that carry injustice beyond these formative educational settings. And the widespread promotion of diversity as the stand-in for race reform helped to keep racial injustice from being seen as a pressing contemporary issue.

Outfitted with the dominance-flattening rhetoric of diversity, the media proceeded, in turn, to airbrush the basic dynamics of racial power out of its portraits of racial disparities and conflict. In this reactionary mode, the media has helped frame racism as a thing of the past—and the continued insistence on its contemporary relevance as a dangerous illusion. Examples of this practice abound, from the libelous Breitbart-branded misportrayal of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod’s nuanced race-conscious discussions of past discrimination to the sickening eagerness of cable news crews covering recent protests over the police slayings of unarmed Black men to depict all Black protest as destructive. “Riot Erupts in Baltimore,” one CNN scare-chyron blared in the wake of the 2015 police killing of Freddie Gray, amid onscreen images of a construction-site fire unrelated to the protests.

This disjuncture comes across most sharply in a foundational conceptual contrast—namely, between discourses on racial deficits of people of color, which are largely permissible, and discourses on racism, which are stigmatized, sharply proscribed, and almost always accompanied by some commentary to cast doubt on the offending expression of grievance. The self-cancelling vise-grip of this containment strategy entrapped even the former president of the United States, who was forced to backtrack on relatively tepid comments that glancingly acknowledged the persistence of racism.

In a corresponding set of strategic erasures, white post-racial propaganda grievously distorts our understanding of contemporary social problems, often by banishing the racial histories pertaining to these problems to the land of unspeakables. The widely heralded 2010 school-choice documentary Waiting for “Superman” is a particularly compelling example. The very idea of our deteriorating public school system conjures up images of racial isolation, and yet the film manages to tell a story about the tragedy of a largely abandoned project of public education without any reference to the racial history that shaped public education today. Neither the massive white flight touched off by Brown v. Board of Education nor the tracking and magnet schools that arose in its aftermath are presented within the narrative context of reversing basic racial injustice. Indeed, this whitewashed account of the contemporary school wars never acknowledges the central role of racial power in the story—even though the savage inequalities of racial power are shown in almost every frame.

Waiting for “Superman” is like a silent film, one in which the viewers can see the action unspooling before their eyes, but can hear nothing that speaks about it. But Waiting for “Superman” is more than a silent movie about race in America. It marks a triumph of the post-racial paradigm. Its ability to engage, move, and inspire millions of Americans, many of whom are destined to live within the racialized contours of opportunity that it fails to name, makes it perhaps the most significant accomplishment of post-racialism to date. And one can readily measure its impact on the real-world delimiting of education policy with five chilling words: Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Organization of Hatreds

And in this way, we come full circle, back into the heart of our present dismal racial impasse. Donald Trump is not merely the crudest, most destructive possible rebuke to Barack Obama’s beguiling dream of a post-racial, purely meritocratic social order. He’s also a bitter reminder that the playbook of white supremacy has not altered in any fundamental way since the height of the civil rights insurgency in the 1960s.

Politics is the organization of hatreds, GOP strategist Kevin Phillips reminded us back when he crafted Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy of laser-focused white resentment in 1968. And indeed, observers who have long been tutored in white-backlash rhetoric could not help but notice that Trump’s major campaign themes all echoed Nixon’s scurrilous coded appeals to “law and order” in an American racial order held—then as now—to be teetering on the brink of license and anarchy. Like Nixon, Trump managed to stir the demagogic specter of racial confrontation into being amid remarkably stable economic conditions (even though both the Trump and Nixon white panics did unfold amid conditions of growing class and racial inequality). But unlike Nixon, Trump has openly fomented violence within his white following. Just eight years after the ballyhooed dawn of a post-racial social order, racial grievance has returned to the center of American politics—only this time it’s white. Indeed, the largest margins of victory for Trump in a popular vote he resoundingly lost came among white voters.

More than any affinity white voters felt for Trump as a celebrity, a billionaire, or an unlikely tribune of populist working-class revolt, they recognized in their leader a dramatic and seemingly unanswerable vindication of the social wages of whiteness. Trump is an unreflective beneficiary of every sort of white privilege on offer, from his inherited fortune to his mass-media celebrity to his ability to lie with utter impunity about his career, his finances, and his easily documented record of public statements. If Barack Obama had committed but one of the transgressions Trump reveled in during his 2016 presidential run—deriding John McCain’s war record, to take a comparatively minor instance—he would have suffered a torrent of righteous white moralizing that would have been unprecedented even in a country renowned for its righteous white moralizing. And if he’d been caught on tape bragging about a celebrity-enabled history of sexual assault—well, suffice it to say that it would have been a high-tech lynching on a scale that Clarence Thomas could scarcely begin to imagine.

More than a simple double standard is at play here—even though, of course, it is a racial double standard of truly cosmic proportions. But it’s not merely that Trump is escaping punishment for utterances and behaviors that would have been surefire career killers in Obama’s case; he is, rather, being rewarded for them. By saying what, in polite adult political company, has been deemed unsayable, and by mocking and marginalizing the orthodoxies of “political correctness,” Trump has acquired among his white-nationalist supporters the image of a bold truth-teller, of a movement leader who will never apologize for past trespasses and crimes.

A trickster god of the right-wing faith, Trump has casually authored a series of presidential breakthroughs of his own—all of which fall under the aegis of what neocon culture warrior Charles Krauthammer liked to call, by way of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the penchant for “defining deviancy down.” From his refusal to address any substantive conflicts of interest stemming from his business holdings to his refusal, for a host of transparently untrue and self-contradictory reasons, to release his tax returns to his dumbfounding claim to have cleared up the noncontroversy over Obama’s citizenship status that largely existed only because of Trump’s own lies and innuendos, there’s no longer much of anything he could do to further shock or outrage the American voting public. A significant segment of Trump’s base evidently expects him to derogate basic principles of constitutional order—and indeed, that hard core of Trump supporters seems inclined to think more of him for it. But that’s the thing about symbolic breakthroughs: nobody said they had to serve the cause of progress.

 

[1] The tension between symbolic and material transformation is also merely an extension from the earlier period in which segregation formally fell. As I argued in “Race, Reform and Retrenchment” (Harvard Law Review, 1988) racial oppression is constituted by both symbolic and material dimensions; however, symbolic change is often taken as indicative of the whole. See also my ”Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking Back to Move Forward” (Connecticut Law Review, 2011), from which parts of this salvo are adapted.

[2] Buying a Movement: Right Wing Foundations and American Politics (People for the American Way, 1996) details how right-wing foundations worked to foster a climate of hostility to affirmative action, for example, and then launched legal and legislative assaults.

[3] In “It Is Time to End Race-Based ‘Affirmative Action’” (2007), Connerly argued that “affirmative action” is no longer necessary and that it represents a “betrayal of one of our nation’s basic civic values, namely a nation in which all of its citizens are of equal value in the eyes of the government.”

[4] The opinion pages were especially sanguine. “Mr. Obama is in the vanguard of a new brand of multi-racial politics. He is asking voters to move with him beyond race and beyond the civil rights movement to a politics of shared values,” Juan Williams wrote in the New York Times in November 2007. And two days after Obama’s election, Phillip Morris pronounced in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “America has done its part. Without a blink of an eye, we have just boldly ushered in a new, post-racial era. Once again, we have proven ourselves a nation of leaders: A representative democracy in its truest sense.”

[5] Carol Costello had this to say on CNN’s Situation Room: “Let’s face it, Obama has been genius at transcending not race but racial issues. He’s very careful to deliver a message that’s not exclusionary. In other words, he’s a member of the black community, but he doesn’t vocalize racial grievances. So far, so good” (Jan. 11, 2008). In the Los Angeles Times, Shelby Steele argued that Obama’s post-racial idealism sounded to whites like what they most wanted to hear—that racism was no longer an issue (Nov. 5, 2008).

[6] “If Barack Obama wins the presidency, what happens to the people who went before him, people like Jesse Jackson, people like Al Sharpton?” John Roberts wondered on CNN’s American Morning on election day in 2008. In Texas, a Fort Wayne News-Sentinel columnist, searching for the cause of Jesse Jackson’s election-night tears, arrived at this conclusion: “Maybe it was simply the realization that Barack Obama’s victory signaled the long-overdue demise of the type of divisive racial politics Jackson, Al Sharpton and others have perfected over the past several decades—the kind built on the premise that America is a hopelessly racist country that refuses to give minorities a chance to succeed.”

[7] In the Chicago Tribune, Clarence Page wrote, “America is a better country . . . not because so many of us voted for Obama but because many more of us have made a place where Obama’s victory is possible” (Nov. 9, 2008).

[8] For a critical history of the race relations school of sociology, see Stephen Steinberg, Race Relations: A Critique (2007). Steinberg argues that the race relations school represented by the Chicago School of Sociology suppressed structural accounts of racial power to create a relatively benign portrait of race relations.

[9] See Robert Justin Lipkin’s article of that name, “The Obama Phenomenon: Deliberative Conversationalism and the Pursuit of Community Through Presidential Politics” (University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change, 2008).

[10] In Racism Without Racists (2003), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that the refusal to acknowledge race perpetuates disparities in the quality of education that blacks and whites receive.

[11] In “Post-Racial Racism: Racial Stratification and Mass Incarceration in the Age of Obama” (California Law Review, 2010), Ian F. Haney López argues that the lack of racial discourse helped to persuade voters to replace civil rights and social welfare with crime control.

[12] In “Laying Down the Law: Post-Racialism and the De-Racination Project” (Albany Law Review, 2009), Peter Halewood argues that colorblindness and post-racialism contributed to this decade’s rapid and pronounced expansion of economic inequality.

[13] As Michael Cooper and Michael Powell reported in the New York Times on Aug. 1, 2008, John McCain’s campaign characterized Obama’s mention of his race as “divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School. She is the cofounder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a gender and racial justice legal thinktank, and the founder and executive director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School.

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