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When racism matters, but just not as much as everything else

Review of "The Racial Glass Ceiling: Subordination in American Law and Culture" by Roy L. Brooks.

Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP chief legal counsel, sits with students on the steps of the Supreme Court in August 1958 after filing an appeal in the integration case of Little Rock’s Central High School.  (Associated Press photo)

THE RACIAL GLASS CEILING: Subordination in American Law and Culture

By Roy. L. Brooks. Yale University Press. 256 pp. $38.

Some of the most acclaimed books on race in America published over the past year have emphasized ways that prejudice is even more ingrained — across time and within institutions — than readers might have imagined.

In “Stamped From the Beginning,” Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning chronicle of racist ideas, the author moves past racism and anti-racism to call out the “assimilationists” throughout the nation’s history, those who have sought to combat racial disparities but have found fault in both oppressors and oppressed. And Carol Anderson’s “White Rage,” which received the National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism, contends that, since emancipation, black breakthroughs have been followed by white backlashes, usually with the imprimatur of courts and legislatures.

I don’t foresee Roy L. Brooks’s “The Racial Glass Ceiling” receiving similar attention, nor should it; this is a less gripping or ambitious work, and its prose is often dense and meandering. But the book offers a provocative counterpoint to the country’s current debates over race. Yes, there is outright racism in America, both overt and subtle, conscious and unintentional, Brooks writes, but he is more focused on instances of “racial subordination,” which occurs “when an individual or institution consciously forgoes an opportunity to advance racial progress and does so for the sake of pursuing an important competing interest.”

Racial subordination happens, for example, when the Supreme Court privileges states’ prerogatives over African American voting rights, or when discrimination against African Americans is treated as less of a policy priority than, say, women’s rights or marriage equality. “How a culture prioritizes its limited resources of time, money, and moral outrage,” Brooks writes, “is a critically important determination.”

These are setbacks for black Americans, but Brooks does not treat them as instances of racism; they pose a lesser offense. “I do not argue that racial subordinators should be taken off the hook,” he writes. “I simply argue that they are on a different hook.”

That different hook can still rip things up. For instance, the principle of racial omission — that race “must be omitted from governmental rules and policies regarding education, employment, housing, and other areas of American life” — is an example of racial subordination. Under this rationale, race-conscious policies purportedly worsen the conditions they seek to alleviate. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has decried the “racial paternalism” of special treatment for minority groups, while Chief Justice John G. Roberts has put the matter quite forthrightly: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” he wrote in 2007, “is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Brooks does not call this racism, nor does he regard the justices as racist. He does suggest that both are engaging in racial subordination.

[The racism of good intentions: Review of “Stamped from the Beginning" by Ibram X. Kendi]

Much of “The Racial Glass Ceiling” is devoted to the history of the high court’s landmark cases on race, including the low points of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), as well as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which finally did away with Plessy’s “separate but equal” principle. Brooks sees the Brown decision as an instance of “juridical redemption,” in which the court sought to atone for past misdeeds.

America’s courts, Brooks argues, must be guided by “the spirit” of the Brown decision and support “sustained, unrelenting racial advancement.” He praises the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action in higher education, as the court’s most important decision on cultural diversity, but he argues that subordination can persist, even in a society committed to cultural diversity.

The discussions of culture here are suggestive, though not much more. Black values, in Brooks’s definition, include the belief that racism is omnipresent, that preferential treatment is not a handout but a legitimate means of fighting inequalities, and that eliminating racism from society “should be among the highest priorities of our government.” But because the white middle class acts as America’s “cultural gatekeeper,” he writes, white values end up trumping black ones.

So even in an age when black Americans have attained powerful positions and won access to exclusive institutions, Brooks writes, they must relinquish their distinctive, empowering voice. As president, for instance, Barack Obama could not be too black. (That was, as Columbia University political scientist Fredrick Harris has argued, the price of the ticket.) And in corporate settings, black executives cannot speak up too much about race, either. Difference might enhance their appeal in a business world enamored with diversity, Brooks writes, but sameness will keep them employed in it. “Cultural assimilation, in short, is cultural subordination in the worst way possible: it denies blacks the power to shape the racial conditions of the mainstream culture, leaving them stuck in the chasm of racial degradation,” Brooks writes. This is the glass ceiling of his title.

The more specific Brooks’s cultural observations become, however, the more random they feel. He simply informs readers, for example, that “I do not subscribe to the idea of cultural co-opting.” That’s relevant at a moment when discussions of cultural appropriation are rampant, but he doesn’t argue the point as much as state it. He also notifies us that “there is no redeeming value in gangsta rap, nothing therein that saves the individual from evil or error” — apropos of not much. And the author, who is in his late 60s, dismisses younger generations for being dumb about race. “Millennials have lots of racial information, thanks to Google, but a dearth of racial experience,” he writes. “They have little wisdom about their ethnically diverse experiences. The subject of race is much too complex for millennials to try to learn on their own.”

[The radical chic of Ta-Nehisi Coates]

Brooks also adds awkward prefatory remarks to his statements, such as, “That point will become clear as I unpack my argument.” (Spoiler: It often does not.)
Despite such shortcomings, Brooks’s perspectives on subordination complicate the discussion of race, and in a good way. Though he frequently emphasizes that subordination is less offensive than racism, it can be more difficult to root out than overt prejudice because it is often cloaked in the language of equality — not in a duplicitous way but rather because those invoking it truly believe it.

That “traditionalist” viewpoint — embodied by Roberts and Thomas, for instance — is but one of the schools of thought on race that Brooks says have grown influential in the decades since the civil rights movement. Traditionalism espouses the old “melting pot” approach of racial assimilation. The reformists promote racial integration and are eager to deploy affirmative action to bring black Americans into mainstream institutions, “wherein power and money reside.” Limited separatists, who uphold racial identity as the core value needed to achieve equality, prefer a “cultural pluralism” that features more than a single mainstream, “each dominated by a single set of ethnic values,” thus “eliminating cultural subordination.” And critical race theorists, who in Brooks’s formulation regard white hegemony as the obstacle to racial equality, favor “transculturalism,” a progressive blending of all American cultures.

[Is diversity for white people?]

These are more ideal types than immutable categories (at least outside the faculty lounge) and Brooks himself mixes and matches. In his mind, a combination of transculturalism and cultural pluralism provides the best way to minimize subordination of black America, though even he admits that “cultural pluralism may take some time to develop, if it develops at all.” He is adamant that racial equality is and must remain an overriding value of American democracy, but he knows it will not always win out, even in the most promising circumstances. “Even though important black values may not prevail in the marketplace of values, transculturalism gives blacks a fighting chance,” he writes.

I’d be curious to know which competing values Brooks thinks might keep racial equality in a subordinate position — and if any value could merit such status. If not, the difference between racism and subordination begins to appear more semantic than substantive.

This book did not have to be a book. A lengthy journal article would have been plenty, and certainly Brooks has explored these topics in other books and articles over the years. But there is something to be said for a work that is satisfied with offering a single idea that can tilt readers’ understanding just a few degrees. “The racial barrier must be properly named,” Brooks sums up in his epilogue. “Calling it racism or regarding it as racially innocent necessitates a very different type of discourse than what appears in the pages of this book. Racial subordination seems appropriately descriptive to me.”

Follow Carlos Lozada on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

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