WE GON’ BE ALRIGHT: Notes on Race and Resegregation

By Jeff Chang

Picador. 192 pp. $16.

The copious books confronting this moment in America’s racial politics — a mix of reporting and meditations on President Obama, on Black Lives Matter, on police violence and mass incarceration — can be roughly divided into two broad categories. There are the My Story works, deeply personal accounts in which the authors draw on their own lives to illuminate their arguments, often in self-conscious reference or emulation of notable activist voices of the past; and the Our Story versions, works of history and big-picture analysis, more academic in inspiration but no less ambitious in their ends.

Jeff Chang’s book on the culture wars and resegregation of America is different, though. There is history and analysis in these pages, and there is life and experience, too, but neither form of storytelling overpowers the other. Instead, what comes through most clearly is a versatile mind in the service of a painful and protracted story, an author who ranges widely before drawing tough conclusions and one who, despite the book’s optimistic title, appears deeply pessimistic about things getting any better, much less becoming all right. “We live in a time when merchants of division draw us away from mutuality and toward the undoing of democracy itself,” Chang writes, and by the end of his book you feel that, despite the author’s best efforts, the merchants are winning.

“We Gon’ Be Alright” is organized as a series of seven essays — the “notes” in the subtitle is a bit of an undersell but still pretty accurate — that could each be read on its own in the pages of some high-brow magazine. Two of them in particular stand out, most memorable for their ability to move easily between Chang’s story and a collective one. In “Is Diversity for White People?” Chang explains how the concept of diversity has been “exploited and rendered meaningless,” used as a corporate marketing tool as well as an evasive maneuver against more radical efforts at mitigating inequality. And in “The In-Betweens,” Chang gets personal about the Asian American experience, in all its possibility and artificiality and tension.

The impulse behind Chang’s essays is the steady reversal of desegregation efforts in recent decades. “If the western vistas of Manifest Destiny were made possible by genocide,” he laments, “the picket fences of the Affluent Society were made possible by segregation.” Chang writes that school segregation rates are “surging back” toward pre-Brown v. Board of Education levels, noting that 80 percent of Latino students and three-quarters of African American ones attend K-12 schools that are majority nonwhite, while the average white student attends a school that is 75 percent white. Chang points out that St. Louis is one of the most “hypersegregated” regions in the United States. In Ferguson, Mo., he writes, “Black resistance revealed the structure of what America has become.”

All this despite the canonization of “diversity” as a positive value in America’s civic religion. Chang traces the political origins of diversity to the 1978 Supreme Court decision in University of California v. Bakke, in which a 5-to-4 majority reversed a lower court’s decision and upheld an affirmative-action program in university admissions, but not on the grounds of redressing longtime racial exclusion; rather, according to Justice Lewis Powell Jr.’s opinion, on the grounds that student diversity enriches the educational experience for all. “With Powell’s decision, diversity displaced equity as the only viable defense of programs meant to address underrepresentation,” Chang writes. Affirmative action was no longer to lift up the marginalized but to enhance the experience for the dominant majority.

And what has diversity become in the years since? “Urban neighborhoods would be marketed for their ‘diversity,’ corporations and colleges would appoint chief diversity officers and increase their holding of assets directed at ‘diverse demographics,’ while pushing ads — sometimes also doctored — that featured happy, diverse consumers,” Chang writes. “The college-admissions industrial complex began using diversity in its rankings criteria, even as the courts continued to chip away at and voters dismantled the affirmative action programs that many whites disliked.” Chang denounces the degeneration of the concept into management-speak, or an easy marker of racial absolution and moral credibility. He cites the work on “racial capitalism” by University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong, who argues that “in a society preoccupied with diversity, nonwhiteness is a valued commodity.”

As an easily obtainable commodity, diversity is also easily cheapened. Diversity becomes a game of numbers and symbolism. In the world of the arts and popular culture, for instance — and Chang has written an award-winning history of hip-hop, directs the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, and focuses one of his chapters on Beyoncé’s racial and gender activism — we seem to be experiencing a “golden age” of representation, he writes, with so many prominent artists of all races and ethnic backgrounds. “So maybe it seems a bit rude, a bit vibe-killing to note that, despite all this, Hollywood remains overwhelmingly white,” he writes.

Chang emphasizes how activists and artists have long rallied for better representation for people of color, women, poor people and rural people in the arts and popular culture. And though he worries about who is represented in our cultural products, and how underrepresentation or misrepresentation reinforces inequality, “cultural equity is not just about representation,” he writes. “It is also about access and power.” He is far more interested in the latter challenges. “How can important cultural knowledge survive?” Chang asks. “Who has the power to shape culture?”

The limits of representation come alive in the author’s unforgettable discussion of the Asian American experience. A native Hawaiian of Chinese descent, Chang went to school at the University of California at Berkeley, where he assumed a new ethnic identity, with some misgivings. “You went to college on the continent and became Asian American,” he writes. “You tried it on like a suit and tie, or a suit of armor, and it fit OK. You got older and your body changed. It grew wings and calluses. The suit felt too tight. You left it in the closet and laced back up your Adidas.”

Chang knows how the identity is perceived by outsiders (“a tiger clan, a model f—ing minority, a blueprint for multicultural democracy”) but argues that, from within, it can be deployed as a shield, a way to solidify in-group advantages. “Asian Americans are the least segregated racial group. . . in the country,” he writes, “and there are some in the community who would use that power to make things worse for other communities of color.” What Chang seeks instead is “an identity that would be not just a weapon but a tool, something that would not just bludgeon but build, that would not only justify your pain — inherited and accumulated — but let you stay open to the world, let you connect and grow.”

Such connections feel all the more urgent today. Chang is painstakingly sympathetic — at times overly so — to the protests by college students clamoring for more inclusive university environments. “The language of microaggressions gave students of the ‘post-racial’ moment a way to talk about the gap between society’s regular celebrations of diversity and its continuing inequality,” he writes. And the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement articulates, in his view, a welcome “impatience with the politics of respectability.” No surprise that Chang dedicates this book to “the young people who would not bow down.”

The author places the current Republican nominee for president in a line of politicians who have stoked racial agitation. “From Wallace and Nixon to Palin and Trump,” Chang writes, “the energies of anxious whites have been diverted from class uprising toward racial division.” But he seems to believe that Donald Trump, the candidate of birtherism, of stop-and-frisk, of walls and religious tests, is just playing us all. “Democracy was just another hustle for Trump, one that he could play best in the scrum of the popular culture, where his skill with the levers of the media was unparalleled,” Chang writes. “Race would be his shortcut to attention and conversion, and he could figure out the details of the game later.”

In this book, Jeff Chang fills in the details.

Read more from Book Party, including: