Breaking the Code of Good Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness

Melanie E.L. Bush, Breaking the Code of Good Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

Melanie Bush’s book presents research she conducted between 1998 and 2000 with students and some faculty and staff members of Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York. In her study, Bush aimed to uncover and explore her subjects’ attitudes about race. She was particularly interested in how white students perpetuate racism even when they profess to be non-racist or “color blind.”

Her chapters explore the respondents’ comments on racial identity (their own and that of others), “American” identity, democracy, American symbols, the experiences of recent immigrants, and racialized rules of etiquette that for many of the respondents dictate how they interact with members of their own and different racial groups. She also discusses the intersection of her respondents’ beliefs about race with their beliefs about poverty, wealth, discrimination, and privilege. She summarizes her findings as a list of mechanisms that many white people employ to evade thinking critically about race, their own racialized privilege, and economic and political structures that perpetuate racialized privilege and discrimination.

In her introduction to the anthology White Out, which she co-edited with Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Ashley “Woody” Doane argues that whiteness studies go astray when they are not explicitly anti-racist. Work on whiteness has “the potential danger of deflecting work on race relations toward a relatively meaningless debate on the construction of white identity” if whiteness is studied apart from a critical examination of white supremacy.1

Bush avoids this pitfall. Her stance in opposition to white supremacy is clear and informed. Her concluding effort is to look for “cracks in the wall of whiteness.” According to Bush, these “cracks” are ambiguous feelings held by white students about the demands of white supremacy and their concerns about the economic prospects of working-class and middle-class white people. Bush argues that these concerns can be used as a starting point for encouraging white students to critically engage with the ways that white supremacy, while it privileges them, is also the structure designed by white elites to exploit them.

Another important aspect of the book is that it is based on the premise, which I defend in my book Ethics along the Color Line, that, in Bush’s words, “the everyday thinking of ordinary people integrally relates to the perpetuation of patterns of systemic racial inequality” (33). To claim this is not to claim that the perpetuation of white supremacy is exclusively a function of individual racism. Carmichael and Hamilton’s concept of “institutional racism” was an important counter to previous definitions of racism that had focused only on individually held racist beliefs and individuals’ performances of racist acts. Institutional racism, as defined by Carmichael and Hamilton, describes the ways in which institutional structures that are not explicitly racist in intent and are not necessarily kept in place as racist actions may nonetheless be oppressive to black people.2 For example, a policy such as “last hired, first fired,” while not explicitly racist, has discriminatory effects on black employees in a context in which black employees have only recently been admitted to a company.

The concept of institutional racism was an extremely important contribution to understanding white supremacy. Now that the problem of institutional racism is widely recognized, however, the failure to change structures to eliminate institutional racism is best understood as a form of racism on the part of the people who are in a position to make those changes. The claim that “we didn’t understand what the effects of our policies were” has become disingenuous. Ultimately — and this is a major feature of Bush’s approach — attitudes that lead individuals to deny — or to acknowledge but fail to challenge — racist structures are what keep those structures in place. Of course, one individual alone cannot, by herself, tear down a structure. She can weaken it, however, and individuals coming together and challenging structures is the only way to dismantle them.

The conclusions that Bush draws from her data are nothing new to readers who are familiar with these kinds of discussions. White students profess to be non-racist, yet they believe that the continuing disproportionate poverty of black people is due to black people failing to take advantage of the supposedly increased opportunities available to them. White students believe that racial discrimination has decreased significantly and is no longer much of an obstacle to black achievement. White students express defensiveness about the possibility that they might be racist; they deny their white privilege — especially if they are struggling financially themselves — and blame black people for depriving them of opportunities (“they get all the scholarships, they have affirmative action”). None of this, unfortunately, is at all surprising. Bush’s book is a useful update to the available data, however. I have found when trying to teach my students about these issues that even data that are only ten years old are unconvincing to them. They just say, “Well, that was a long time ago; things have changed since then.” It is important, therefore, to have updates available in order to show young people that things are not changing (or are changing for the worse). Furthermore, Bush cites many of the most important older studies, so she is not setting herself up as having invented the wheel: she is very clear that she is building upon and updating data that were gathered earlier. She presents the arguments in Breaking the Code of Good Intentions very accessibly, and she gives numerous references, particularly for the kinds of horrific facts that catch students’ attention and provoke discussion. This would be an excellent book to use in a variety of undergraduate and even graduate courses on race. She also gives a nice summary in the first chapter of some important works in whiteness studies and critical race theory. Hers is not a comprehensive list, which is better in some ways because it is useful for a beginning reader, new to the field, to have some ideas about what else to read without getting overwhelmed.

Finally, Bush discusses the role that colleges and universities should play in educating students about white supremacy and the stranglehold that the very wealthy have on political power in the United States. At the very end of the book, she notes the positive response of many students to a core curriculum course at Brooklyn College in which students learn about these issues. It is not clear how many of the participants in her survey had taken that course. If they had, then it’s not working. But if many had not, then maybe there is still hope. At any rate, her book affirms the important idea that colleges and universities at their best serve as laboratories in our human experiment, not only in the sense of being places to conduct useful research on a relatively captive population but also in the sense of being places to try out possible solutions to our most pressing problems.

Reviewed by Anna Stubblefield
Department of Philosophy
Rutgers University-Newark
get2anna@andromeda.rutgers.edu

Notes

1. Reddaway & Glinski, The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms, p. 638.

2. Including three Nobel laureates in two remarkable proclamations to the public in the newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta, 1 July 1996, p 1; 9 June 2000, p 3.

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