Hollywood’s Post-Racial Mirage

The increase of colorblind casting in sci-fi television shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Sleepy Hollow” suggests that a “post-racial revolution” is being televised, according to a writer at CNN. John Blake especially celebrates shows like “Arrow,” which have a diverse racial cast and manage in many instances to avoid stereotypes. Certainly, I agree with Blake that television is slowly but surely diversifying in ways that it simply has not been diverse over the last decade. (ABC’s “Scandal” has a diverse cast, a black female lead, and is one of the most popular shows on television. It is certainly a personal favorite.)

But I’m not sure post-racialism is a thing to want, that it should be our goal.

Cosby Scandal images

(Image source)

First, although television seems to be changing, we should not forget that 20 years ago television was more diverse. When we tell ourselves these post-racial fantasies of progress, we act like more black people cast in roles that have traditionally gone to white people is progress. Second, we act as though this is the best definition of diversity. I came of age in the 1990s, where there were several black shows that populated the landscape of my adolescence – “The Cosby Show,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Martin,” “In Living Color,” “Living Single,” “Sister Sister,” “The Parent ‘Hood,” “The Wayans,” “Smart Guy,” “Hanging With Mr. Cooper,” and “Family Matters.” As a little kid, I watched “227″ and “Amen.” All of these shows were spread out over a combination of minor networks like UPN and the WB and the traditional major networks.

Slowly by the late 1990s all black shows were being outsourced to the minor networks. Then those networks consolidated, with UPN and the WB becoming the CW, and then the CW decided in the late 2000s to move from an “urban programming format.” The same thing is true of the movie industry. In the 1990s, there were black movies – black gangsta movies, black love movies, black family movies. “Boyz N the Hood,” “Love Jones” and “Soul Food” are representative classic black movies of the era. By the mid-2000s, the only person able to command an impressive box office showing was Tyler Perry.


Commitment to racial diversity on the big and small screens has always been fickle.

Now the tide is changing as black actors are being asked to do black versions of white movies like “About Last Night” or the thinly veiled mashup of “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids,” that will be “Think Like a Man, Too.” I have seen or plan to see these movies, because I like seeing people who look like me on the big screen. But I’m bothered by the idea that progress means black people’s lives can fit into traditional white narratives. Why are black stories particular, but white stories universal? Surely this is not the best definition of diversity.

And it certainly is not progress. It’s more like the gentrification of media, being marketed to us as progress. Under the logic of gentrification, both the physical kind and this new mediated kind, those of us who harken back to a prior moment when people of color could live and work and be represented on their own terms are seen as barriers to progress. Even though we are made to witness the systematic removal of people of color from posts and property that they have labored for generations to have access to, we are supposed to be impressed when these new social and geographical formations allow token participation by people of color, who are viewed as having crossover appeal. To be clear, crossing over means that despite your color, white people like you. It’s an ugly truth, but we should tell it. And given the racist audience backlash to the casting of “The Hunger Games” character Rue as  black and to the new version of Annie starring African-American Quvenzhané Wallis, I’m not sure we should actually believe this optimistic narrative of post-racial revolution.

In fact, the backlash toward these young black characters is more in line with a recent finding from  the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black characters. To this day, I keep a list of children’s stories that feature black girl protagonists, so that my friends with daughters can have culturally relevant books for their children.

African-American author Walter Dean Myers penned a response to the children’s book study in the New York Times. I didn’t even know people wrote children’s books about African-Americans until I stumbled upon a whole shelf of Mr. Myers’ books one lazy summer when my mother left me at the library all day. I eagerly brought home a copy of the teenage love story “Motown and Didi,” which remains a favorite to this day, alongside a stack of books that included stories about the Box Car Children and the Sweet Valley Twins. My personal favorite was Baby Sitters Club books, but those only came out once a month, and I usually had devoured them by the second day after purchase. And while the characters were mostly white, part of being a voracious-reading black kid in the ’90s meant you learned to relate to white children, and to identify with the “universality” of their narratives.

I also vividly remember my joy at seeing and eagerly purchasing a copy of Myers’ “The Mouse Rap” in 1992. Though I preferred stories with female protagonists, the chocolate black boy on the cover, who had dreams of being a rapper, appealed to me.

As a young black girl growing up in a predominantly white environment, race mattered. Despite my attempts to mimic the cultural habits and speaking styles of my white counterparts, a journey to racial self-awareness that got me mercilessly teased by my black counterparts, I was never going to be white and didn’t especially want to be. Like other children, I wanted to fit in and not be bullied. Reading children’s and young adult stories with black characters helped me to imagine other ways to be black besides the sometimes limiting representations that I saw in my immediate environment. Those black stories also affirmed my nerd self, letting me know that white children didn’t have a monopoly on smarts, and that I didn’t have to jettison blackness to embrace nerd-dom. Seeing ourselves represented, not as devoid of race but as shaped by and deeply influenced by race, matters. To have race not as a biological but as a social condition is not a bad thing. We all do.

And until all of us – white people included — grapple with what this means, until we can tell the truth honestly about it, our swift desire to get to a post-racial future will remain a gilded project, and one steeped in dishonesty.

That kind of dishonesty will have us doing as John Blake did, invoking the work of Octavia Butler, an African-American sci-fi author, to make the case for post-racialism. I think Butler would take deep issue with being read into a genealogy of post-racial cultural production. She thought that black life provided the ground upon which to explore questions of dystopic futures, life after armageddon, and other forms of relationship to the human body, to African-American history, and to the time-space continuum. Blackness is central, rather than incidental to her work.

For the young black time-raveling teens in Kiese Laymon’s “Long Division,” their Mississippi-inflected, crooked-letter blackness is central to who they understand themselves to be. These characters, and African-Americans more generally, to disagree with Harlem Renaissance thinker George Schuyler, are not simply “lampedblack Anglo-Saxons,” dropped into the middle of an Ebony version of “A Wrinkle in Time.”   

Butler, Myers and Laymon show us black possibility through their fearless engagement with what it means to be both human and black. The stories they tell, the movies and shows that could be made from those stories, are far better models for diversity than our current infatuation with colorblind casting.

Post-racism, not post-racialism, should be our goal. To be American means we are deeply shaped by narratives of race, culture, and power. And celebrating our multiculturalism is not a bad thing. But multiculturalism and post-racialism are not the same. In their most ideal states, one recognizes the power, possibility and gifts of our differences and uses those truths to connect us. The other – the latter — erases the salience of those differences and attempts to use the lie of sameness to connect us. As ever, the question for us remains, what kind of nation do we want to be?

~ This post was written by Brittney Cooper who is a contributing writer at Salon and a Professor at Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.  The original post appeared at Salon and you can read it here.

Not So Post-Racial After All

So, while white liberals like Chris Matthews blather on about how post-racial we all are now with a black president, other folks are not so post-racial after all.  Allen McDuffee sent me this disturbing image circulating via a Facebook group dedicated to denigrating Haitians and the earthquake relief effort.  While it appears that Facebook has pulled the group once already for violating the Terms of Service (TOS), the group is back and loudly proclaiming its alleged protection under the First Amendment and threatening to contact the ACLU to defend it.

There is no constitutionally protecting right to have a racist group on Facebook.   And, given the threat to the president implied by the image linked above, I’m surprised that those who are generating such an image are not under investigation by the Secret Service.

As I’ve said here before, it’s certainly possible to disagree with the policies of President Obama and not be a racist, there is something about linking the threat to Obama with the vitriolic hatred of Haitian people which suggests not only a criticism of Obama’s presidency, or lack of empathy for earthquake victims but a deep well of racist antipathy as well.  I guess we’re not so post-racial after all.

Are We a Post-Racial Society? Steele’s View at the Wall Street Journal

The ruling elite’s propaganda machine is running at top speed these days in trying to cover up the systemic racism at the heart of this society. A leading mouthpiece of the right-wing of that elite (The Wall Street Journal) has found some good “leg men,” as C. Wright Mills called them, to carry out the elite’s PR work. Witness this rather weak, undocumented discussion of racial matters by Shelby Steele, a leading black conservative and member of the right-wing Hoover Institution in California. His piece is titled, without irony I assume, “Obama and Our Post-Modern Race Problem.”

He begins with this rather unsubstantiated contention:

America still has a race problem, though not the one that conventional wisdom would suggest: the racism of whites toward blacks. Old fashioned white racism has lost its legitimacy in the world and become an almost universal disgrace.

It is interesting how many public commentators pay no attention to the social science research literature on current racial hostility and discrimination. For example, Leslie Picca and I asked 626 white students at more than two dozen colleges and universities to keep brief (6-10 week) diaries of racial events they saw. Even in these rather brief diaries they report about 9000 racial events, about 7500 of them blatantly racist events. Such events as white students boldly telling multiple racist jokes (“nigger jokes” being favorites). Multiply that out by the millions of white college students (or 200 million whites) in this society, and it might conceivably mean that whites do billions of “old fashioned white-racist” performances annually. Many of these are in backstage settings where only whites, such as friends and relatives, are present, but many blatantly racist actions are also still done in public, as much social science research also demonstrates. Or, indeed, many major news sources periodically report blatant racist incidents. Our research study is just one among many (this book has a long discussion and bibliography of 100s of research studies) demonstrating high levels of old-fashioned white racism, as well as newer subtle and covert racism, that obviously has not lost its legitimacy or become a universal disgrace in the white majority. Why do folks like Steele routinely ignore the research literature?

Steele continues with his notion that the “race problem” is quite different from the old white racism:

Barack Obama, elegant and professorially articulate, was an invitation to sophistication that America simply could not bring itself to turn down.

Well, actually a substantial majority of whites turned him down in November 2008. According to exit polls only about 43 percent of white voters voted for this first major black candidate, including less than a majority of whites in 32 of the 50 states. It was the two thirds or more of various groups of voters of color, and that minority of whites, who put him into office. Without all those voters of color, McCain would easily have won the presidency. Does Steele mean in this comment that the white majority is quite unsophisticated? He continues:

Our new race problem—the sophistication of seeing what isn’t there rather than what is—has surprised us with a president who hides his lack of economic understanding behind a drama of scale. Hundreds of billions moving into trillions. . . . How is vast government spending simultaneously a kind of prudence that will not “add to the deficit?” How can such spending not trigger smothering levels of taxation?

He offers this somewhat puzzling discussion about seeing “what isn’t there,” which he clearly means to apply to Obama’s “masked” self-presentation. Yet here he switches away from racial issues to a view of the U.S. economy in the right-wing of the ruling elite. Actually, the center of that elite broke with its right-wing (which had created much of the economic problem) and decided to move in the direction of bailing the economy out of what is a second great depression for many Americans. Obama is largely acting for that center, as most of his very educated and experienced economic advisors are from that centrist wing of the elite.

After unfavorably comparing a “principled” and “non-conformist” Ronald Reagan to an “empty” Obama, Steele adds that Obama

aspires to be “post-ideological,” “post-racial” and “post-partisan,” which is to say that he defines himself by a series of “nots”—thus implying that being nothing is better than being something. . . . . He always wore the bargainer’s mask—winning the loyalty and gratitude of whites by flattering them with his racial trust: I will presume that you are not a racist if you will not hold my race against me. . . . But this mask comes at a high price. . . . think of Bill Cosby, who in recent years has challenged the politically correct view and let the world know what he truly thinks about the responsibility of blacks in their own uplift. Many whites still love Mr. Cosby, but they worry now that expressing their affection openly may identify them with his ideas, thus putting them at risk of being seen as racist.

Steele has a good point about Obama’s communicating a certain racial trust (and colorblindness) to whites in his public campaign–a point Adia and I develop in deeper theoretical and empirical detail here—and did use a sort of mask to appeal to many whites, but that was not because we are in some post-racial America. If we were in such an America, no such colorblind bargaining would have been necessary. The probable masking of his real racial views was necessary because we are not post-racial. As Obama certainly knows well, we still face huge problems of racial inequality and discrimination in many sectors, and have much work to make this society even close to the egalitarian society we often claim. He could not, and cannot talk, seriously about such things as enforcing our civil rights laws without losing even more white support.

Interestingly, the one (somewhat older) research book I have seen on Cosby and whites makes it clear that most whites love him dearly. What evidence is there that whites do not identify with Cosby and his often white-framed and one-sided ideas about black families? His books and television programs are still very popular with whites.

Steele continues:

A greater problem for our nation today is that we have a president whose benign—and therefore desirable—blackness exempted him from the political individuation process that makes for strong, clear-headed leaders. . . . And yes, white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness—valued him all along for his “articulate and clean” blackness, so flattering to American innocence.

Yes, it does appear that many whites do value him over other blacks because of his articulateness and “cool” pose, and many Americans take note of his intelligence and actions. Yet, according to the surveys it is the white majority that does not value him much now in regard to his clearly principled political actions. Indeed, the white majority never has.

Steele contradicts himself throughout. This is not a post-racial America he is describing, but a very modern-racial society.
Steele is listed as a “senior research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.” He has a master’s degree in sociology, and writes about sociological issues in his four books, but without much of a record in serious social science field work. Perhaps it is time for him to do some serious social science research, and he will find we have no post-racial America–or indeed a post-modern egalitarian America when it comes to patterns of racial, gender, and class oppression.