Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama

Tim Wise, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (San Francisco: City Light Books/Open Media Series, 2009)

To what extent may the election of Barack Obama to the highest political office in the United States have heralded the emergence of a new form of racism in America? Wise defines this variation of racism as “Racism 2.0” or “enlightened exceptionalism.” Whereas “Racism 1.0” was and is overt bigotry that traces its lineage to racist murders, lynching and verbal hatred – which occasionally reared its head during the run-up to the elections – Racism 2.0 is more covert, subtle and sophisticated. It is almost invisible in its existence and operation, but the effects remain the same: racial inequity and white privilege. Both types of racism prevailed during the 2008 presidential election. However, according to Wise “enlightened exceptionalism” among whites is based on the belief that Obama exemplifies the archetype of an exceptional and acceptable element of people of colour who have attained middle class (meaning white) values; who have “transcended” their blackness (by remaining silent on matters relating to race and racism); are articulate, suave and have bought into the American narrative that the US is a country of freedom and opportunity in which the needs of all can be met. In the words of Wise, “If large numbers of white folks embraced Obama, but only because of his ability to “transcend race,” by which we really mean transcend his own blackness, doesn’t this suggest the ongoing power of whiteness and racist thinking?” (86)

Those whites adhering to “Racism 2.0” believe Obama to be distinct from unacceptable black and brown people, i.e. those who remain on welfare, are idle, unemployed and unwilling to take responsibility for their lives. Obama too has exhorted black people to take on this personal responsibility and in doing so, Wise argues, has made whites “more comfortable with his candidacy” (72). Far from eliminating racism, “enlightened exceptionalism” absorbs and accommodates a minority of individuals of colour whilst simultaneously despising the masses of black and brown Americans. Such thinking reflects the chameleon-like nature of racism and its ability to change its shape in new contexts. Yet simultaneously, it is able to erect new barriers for people of colour who do not conform to the archetype of Obama, who Wise argues “has become the Cliff Huxtable of politics: a black man with whom millions of whites can identify and to whom they can relate, as with the former TV dad from The Cosby Show” (87).

Wise contends that whites fundamentally overlook the operation of “enlightened exceptionalism,” which is about accepting black people on white people’s terms; it is about black people having to pander to the perception of whites in an unchanged socio-economic system where whites still control the economic and political levers.

This small and eloquently written book is divided into two chapters. The first entitled “Barack Obama, White Denial and the Reality of Racism” is the larger of the two and examines the meaning and impact of racism on the lives of black and brown people in the US today. Wise discusses the objective facts of continued racial disparities. He provides a wealth of statistical evidence to substantiate his argument that people of colour continue to confront racial discrimination in their income, jobs, housing, education, the criminal justice system, and healthcare. Those who were the victims of Hurricane Katrina were also victims of “the veritable ethnic cleansing that has marked the post-Katrina rebuilding process” (65). This section of the book demonstrates persuasively that racism continues in American society – from the huge prison-industrial complex (a majority of whose inmates are people of colour) to the polls from both whites and blacks who have very different perceptions of the reality of discrimination. For whites, racism either does not exist or is diminishing and people of colour are responsible for their own misfortunes. For people of colour, issues to do with race often permeate their very existence. Indifference to people of colour appears to be “the new face of racism in the twenty first century,” shown in how the Bush administration and the majority of white people viewed the victims of Katrina.

The “post-racial society” that the Wall Street Journal proclaimed the day after Obama’s victory is mythical if not a “definition of lunacy” (27). Wise observes that a parallel claim – that sexism had come to an end – would never have been made in Pakistan on the grounds that Benazir Bhutto had twice been elected prime minister (or in the US if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination). Yet, so many media pundits have been swift to claim that the systemic injustices of racism have been eradicated by the election of one person of colour. Such colossal denial allows white privilege to continue unchallenged. The 43% of whites who voted for Obama (more than any who voted for any white Democratic candidate since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, but less than many would like to think) may imagine that Obama’s victory signifies the demise of racism in America, but Wise shatters any such illusion.

Obama, in denouncing his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, portrayed himself as belonging to a gentler, non-threatening cohort of black people. He extolled the greatness and goodness of America as he did in his first national speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Furthermore, he failed to critique the structures of American society, thereby devaluing the legitimate anger harboured by Wright and others.

In chapter two, “The Audacity of Truth: A Call for White Responsibility,” Wise poses a confrontational challenge to “white perspectivism.” He argues that white people must learn to listen and believe what people of colour say about racism because whites have for too long operated with the mindset that nothing exists unless white people first discover and experience it. He emphasizes that “the need for this level of honesty is no mere ethical matter. It is a matter of survival” (142). Living life in a bubble as the majority of white Americans do, will ill prepare them for trauma, which is what happened when 9/11 struck. It was predominantly whites who asked: “why do they hate us?” People of colour have often had to survive by knowing what others think about them and appropriately adapting their behaviour. Whites rarely see the world from the eyes of the other and need to be able to do so on the grounds of what he calls the tradition of “antiracist white allyship” (145). Such an alliance is necessary at this particular juncture when the campaign for Obama inspired a generation of young people – black, white, Latino and Asian – to become politically active and to vote. Yet, Wise warns that “voting is no panacea.” Moreover, he cautions that “hope is not audacious (in Obama’s terms) so much as it is dangerous” (112). The danger lies in failing to make Obama’s policies accountable to ordinary people rather than big business and forfeiting collective agency in the belief that the work has been done in electing a black messiah.

Wise has given us a brilliant and candid deconstruction of racism in the age of Obama. He writes with integrity, sincerity and commitment to genuine racial equality. His book should be read by all – particularly white people genuinely committed to anti-racism.

2010 Ama Biney
Birkbeck College, University of London

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