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Can We Get Past Race?
Books challenge the claim that Obama has ushered in a post-racial era.

Review by Adam Bradley
Sunday, March 29, 2009

BETWEEN BARACK AND A HARD PLACE

Racism and White Denial in The Age of Obama

By Tim Wise | City Lights. 159 pp. Paperback, $13.95

MORE THAN JUST RACE

Being Black and Poor in the Inner City

By William Julius Wilson | Norton. 190 pp. $24.95

Among the many words that accompanied Barack Obama on his long road to the White House -- "hope," "change," "Clinton" -- none has proved more provocative than "post-racial." The idea is as seductive as it is simplistic: that in electing a black president we have settled our national debt to people of color. The notion that America is now a post-racial society embodies both idealism and cynicism: a hope that the nation has overcome its racist past, and a desire to avoid the unfinished work of achieving true equality.

Among the skeptics of post-racialism is Tim Wise, a critic of "white privilege" (his own included) who looks on Obama's election with trepidation. He fears a blossoming of what he calls Racism 2.0, which allows whites to celebrate the achievements of an individual such as Obama while harboring deep prejudice toward minorities as a whole.

The punning title of his book, "Between Barack and a Hard Place," belies the sobering material within. Wise paints a stark picture of racial inequality in the United States today. He cites the disproportionate number of black men in prison, the increasing divide between rich and poor and a host of other disparities of opportunity, including those described in a study that found that white males with a criminal record were more likely than black males without one to be called back for job interviews, even when their credentials, experience, dress and style of communication were the same.

Rather than interpreting Obama's election as a sign of the diminishing importance of race, Wise sees it as a potential distraction. "The meaning of Obama remains to be seen," he writes, "but we can and must expect those with an interest in papering over racism and changing the subject to use him for precisely those purposes."

Wise's short book reads like an old-school polemic: Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" for the 21st century. His argument draws its strength more from the force of his conviction than from the rigor of his analysis.

William Julius Wilson's "More Than Just Race" is just the reverse: an attempt to avoid polarizing language and find practical ways forward. Wilson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, sees some truth both in liberal explanations of racism as a structural force (entrenched bias accounts for disparities of income and opportunity) and in conservative understandings of racial inequity as a cultural malady (the "culture of poverty" and dependency), although he believes that in the end "structure trumps culture."

Wilson shares with Wise a passionate belief that racial inequality is very much alive. Yet the two authors differ fundamentally in approach. Wise wants a call to account; he insists that the "race problem as the pundits have long called it -- is a white problem." Wilson wants "candid and critical" discussions that set blame aside in favor of an open exchange in "frank and hopeful terms."

Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in their wildly divergent assessments of the major speech on race that Obama delivered in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Wise hears a certain calculation in Obama's "need to pander to the perceived needs of the national white electorate." For his part, Wilson hears "exactly the type of framing that can result in broad support to address the problems of race and poverty."

Though its title might suggest otherwise, "More Than Just Race" marks a decisive turn by one of our leading intellectuals. Several of Wilson's previous books, most notably "The Declining Significance of Race" and "The Bridge Over the Racial Divide," called for a colorblind political agenda. Wilson now says that he has changed his thinking and that "in framing public policy we should not shy away from an explicit discussion of the specific issues of race and poverty; on the contrary, we should highlight them."

A post-racial United States is an imagined country. Both Wilson and Wise describe a nation where race remains a controlling factor in the fates of individuals and communities. Despite their differences, both authors implore Americans to turn again to race -- not just as a way to look upon past abuses, but as the only way forward for a nation still in search of a more perfect union.

Adam Bradley is the author of "Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop."

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