We are a month into the new administration of Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States. And while there has been a great deal of celebratory comments on this fact, we can ill afford to be comfortable about the realities surrounding racism in this country. Tim Wise, a long-time anti-racist activist, has just finished a very timely book that warns against becoming comfortable with racism while we are distracted by Obama’s election.
Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama continues the excellent work around the issue of White Privilege that Wise has pounded home in his books, articles, and public talks across the country. This relatively short book was written just after the November 2008 elections and consists of two essays.
In the first essay, Wise raises the issue of whether or not the election of a Black man as the President of the United States demonstrates that racism is no longer a deeply entrenched problem in this country. Wise emphatically responds to that question with a loud “no.” In fact, Wise thinks that the election of Obama could actually allow racism to morph into a more subtle form, what he calls “Racism 2.0.”
“Racism 2.0” could be manifested in the dominant culture celebrating individual Black achievement, but continuing to ignore or demonize the majority of Blacks and other minorities in the U.S.. Since Obama is articulate, presents himself “well,” and has not as of yet discussed the contemporary problem of racism, people might want to use him as a standard for all other Blacks. Therefore, anyone who makes racism a central part of their critique of America might be more easily dismissed, since the most powerful Black man in America doesn’t appear to have any major problems with it.
Wise supports this notion of “Racism 2.0” by presenting lots of data and examples of how Blacks and other minorities are still being systematically discriminated against in the areas of housing, health care, education and income. With a Black man occupying the White House will we be less inclined to say that racism is still alive and well in America? Maybe those minorities who make less and don’t go to college do so because of their own inability to make gains in society. These are the potential rationalizations that White society might make now that we are in the age of Obama.
The second essay is entitled “The Audacity of Truth: A Call for White Responsibility.” In this section of the book Wise makes a clarion call to those of us in the White community to take on the responsibility of addressing White privilege and racism, to listen to what people of color have to say, and to be willing to honesty investigate this country’s history as it relates to what White people have done to people of color.
Wise uses the example of what happened to Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Wright, when he chose to challenge and instruct us on this brutal history of White Supremacy. The author believes that we can only achieve racial justice if we honestly come to terms with the past.
Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama closes with a challenge to the White community to also discover and learn from the rich tradition of Whites who made racial justice their cause. From those who fought for abolition to those who participated in the Civil Rights movement, we need to see that White people are also a part of a legacy that has struggle for equality and against racism.
Tim Wise, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, (City Lights, 2009).