Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010 

Racial Justice: New Structures and New Selves

by Steve Martinot
Temple University Press, 2010

by Douglas Massey
Russell Sage Foundation Publications, 2007

by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler
Doubleday Religion, 2009

Reviews by john a. powell


In his famous March 2008 speech in Philadelphia, then-candidate Obama asked us to move beyond a racial politics that demands a perpetrator and a victim and instead to begin to embrace the full complexity of race in this country. He called for us to acknowledge the extent to which our fates are interwoven, our problems shared, our futures interdependent. Yet, as we enter the winter of 2010, this rhetoric of hope and change has given way to an administration that has been disappointingly silent on race, as well as milquetoast in its policy prescriptions, even as multiple populist movements stir up white fear and anger.

The Machinery of Whiteness author Steve Martinot would be the first to point out that the ugly, racialized overtones of the calls to "take America back," the outrage over the location of a progressive Islamic Center, and the explicit demand for racial profiling in Arizona's SB 1070 are neither new nor surprising. In his occasionally heavy-handed book, he expands on his earlier work in The Rules of Racialization and demands of the reader that we not only accept that race is socially constructed but that we "describe the contours of this structure," that we come to terms with "the bulldozing machine of white supremacy" and ask the hard question about "the nature of whiteness ... [why] even in the face of the pro-Democratic ethics of the civil rights movements, it must keep coming back."

The essays in the book are somewhat repetitive, and Martinot's language can tend toward the overwrought vocabulary of cultural studies departments; for all its shortcomings, however, the book is unflinching in tracing the reconstitution of whiteness throughout history. Martinot is at his best when he is examining the way a white identity has been continually reconstituted through domination in the United States: the symbolic function of fugitive slave patrols and anti-miscegenation laws, the way women's bodies and sexuality were "weaponized" as instruments of whiteness, and the ways that U.S. foreign intervention has been about shoring up a fragile whiteness at home.

Martinot's book not only moves us beyond the class-dominant realm of many neo-Marxist historiographies, it also turns our attention on what is inherent in whiteness: its paranoia, its will to power, its demand for impunity. While he runs the risk of turning every social problem into a nail that can be explained by the violent hammering of whiteness, placing racialization back into the central spot in the history of the United States is a cold shower on the dominant narrative of racial progress in this country. Martinot's recognition that equity will not be brought in through the back door, that there can be no private renunciation of whiteness, nor a "race-neutral" multiculturalism, nor any side-stepping into simple class-focused policy remedies should be noted by all those working for social justice.

While the book does an excellent job in looking at the jagged and bloody edges of whiteness, it only touches on the more banal structures that reproduce racial hierarchy and racial disparities. It is here where we turn to Douglas Massey.

Massey's work with Nancy Denton on American Apartheid (1993) remains one of the few indispensible books for understanding racial hierarchy in the United States, and the centrality of spatial segregation to racialization. In Categorically Unequal, he turns his sociological gaze onto stratification across race, gender and class, but his work around race (chapter 3) remains the strongest section of the book. In contrast to Martinot's prose, Massey's style is easy, and in fifty pages he weaves the story of the institutionalization of racism in the North post-Jim Crow and highlights the network of reinforcing mechanisms that allow whites to "hoard opportunity" with "plausible deniability."

It is not the edges of whiteness that Massey is exploring here, but its devastating center. It's the wealth gap created by excluding African Americans from buying homes with Federal Housing Administration loans -- a gap that builds upon itself. It's the fragmentation of metropolitan areas into suburbs that wall off their tax bases from the central city, the segregation of our schools and neighborhoods, the disparities in health insurance that are a result of employment-based coverage, and of course, mass incarceration. He concludes, "not only did the Civil Rights legislation ... fail to end racial stratification in the United States, but in some ways it gave birth to even more pernicious and intractable mechanisms of categorical inequality."

Though Massey mainly gives us a strong overview of the structural mechanisms of racialization and the policy choices (some intentional, some not) that have resulted in racialized disparities, he also introduces us to the neurocognitive underpinnings of prejudice, a subject also taken up at length in The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World by the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Cutler.

Cutler engages with the Dalai Lama on a wide range of topics, including prejudice, racism, and neuroscience. One of the important insights that arises from this dialogue is the difference between conscious prejudice and unconscious (or implicit) bias. Cutler points out that "according to some estimates, 80 percent of Western[ers] ... will say they have no prejudiced views.... However, research reveals that even those who consider themselves to be totally unbiased are often shocked to find that they hold subtle biases."

The warning here is not that racism is inherent, but that it is built on the scaffolding of very old parts of our brain that function faster than thought while, "in contrast, the ‘thinking' area of the brain, the neocortex ... takes more time. Thus, by the time we are consciously aware of the person ... our emotional reactions have already occurred." Furthermore, when we understand our consciousness this way, it becomes clear that we all have a multiplicity of conflicting beliefs/schemas operating within us -- both at the conscious level and the unconscious -- that can be called into being with very real consequences (see Claude Steele and others' work on stereotype threat).

Massey and Cutler both emphasize that while social grouping and evaluation may be hardwired into the brain, racial groupings are socially constructed, subject to historical processes, and malleable. Martinot points us toward the ways in which whiteness has provided the background for these racialization processes to occur, inverting our traditional understanding of the relationship between whiteness and race, and Massey examines the policy choices we have made or failed to make that have inscribed them into our landscape.

However, what the Dalai Lama's book points to is that displacing white supremacy with a new racial landscape will be both a relational process and a spiritual process, not simply a political one. We are called to build new identities, groups, and communities that nurture our differences and interact in non-exploitative ways. At a time of great inequality, global problems, and intense polarization, we need to be building the new social and political structures that can support the transformation of our very selves.

Professor john a. powell is executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. He would like to thank Eric Stiens for his research assistance.

Source Citation: Powell, John A. 2010. Racial Justice: New Structures and New Selves. Tikkun 25(6): 63

tags: Books, Dalai Lama, President Barack Obama, Race, Racism, Reviews, White Supremacy  
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