A sub­tle form of op­pres­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Some of the most ac­claimed books on race in Amer­ica pub­lished over the past year have em­pha­sized ways that prej­u­dice is even more in­grained — across time and within in­sti­tu­tions — than read­ers might have imag­ined.

In “Stamped From the Be­gin­ning,” Ibram X. Kendi’s Na­tional Book Award-win­ning chron­i­cle of racist ideas, the author moves past racism and anti-racism to call out the “as­sim­i­la­tion­ists” through­out the na­tion’s his­tory, those who have sought to com­bat racial dis­par­i­ties but have found fault in both op­pres­sors and op­pressed. And Carol An­der­son’s “White Rage,” which re­ceived the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle prize for crit­i­cism, con­tends that, since eman­ci­pa­tion, black break­throughs have been fol­lowed by white back­lashes, usu­ally with the im­pri­matur of courts and leg­is­la­tures.

I don’t fore­see Roy L. Brooks’s “The Racial Glass Ceil­ing” re­ceiv­ing sim­i­lar at­ten­tion, nor should it; this is a less grip­ping or am­bi­tious work, and its prose is of­ten dense and me­an­der­ing. But the book of­fers a provoca­tive coun­ter­point to the coun­try’s cur­rent de­bates over race. Yes, there is out­right racism in Amer­ica, both overt and sub­tle, con­scious and un­in­ten­tional, Brooks writes, but he is more fo­cused on in­stances of “racial sub­or­di­na­tion,” which oc­curs “when an in­di­vid­ual or in­sti­tu­tion con­sciously for­goes an op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance racial progress and does so for the sake of pur­su­ing an im­por­tant com­pet­ing in­ter­est.”

Racial sub­or­di­na­tion hap­pens, for ex­am­ple, when the Supreme Court priv­i­leges states’ prerog­a­tives over African Amer­i­can vot­ing rights, or when dis­crim­i­na­tion against African Amer­i­cans is treated as less of a pol­icy pri­or­ity than, say, women’s rights or mar­riage equal­ity. “How a cul­ture pri­or­i­tizes its lim­ited re­sources of time, money, and moral out­rage,” Brooks writes, “is a crit­i­cally im­por­tant de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

Th­ese are set­backs for black Amer­i­cans, but Brooks does not treat them as in­stances of racism; they pose a lesser of­fense. “I do not ar­gue that racial sub­or­di­na­tors should be taken off the hook,” he writes. “I sim­ply ar­gue that they are on a dif­fer­ent hook.”

That dif­fer­ent hook can still rip things up. For in­stance, the prin­ci­ple of racial omis­sion — that race “must be omit­ted from gov­ern­men­tal rules and poli­cies re­gard­ing ed­u­ca­tion, em­ploy­ment, hous­ing, and other ar­eas of Amer­i­can life” — is an ex­am­ple of racial sub­or­di­na­tion. Un­der this ra­tio­nale, race-con­scious poli­cies pur­port­edly worsen the con­di­tions they seek to al­le­vi­ate. Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas has de­cried the “racial pa­ter­nal­ism” of spe­cial treat­ment for mi­nor­ity groups, while Chief Jus­tice John G. Roberts has put the mat­ter quite forthrightly: “The way to stop dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of race,” he wrote in 2007, “is to stop dis­crim­i­nat­ing on the ba­sis of race.”

Brooks does not call this racism, nor does he re­gard the jus­tices as racist. He does sug­gest that both are en­gag­ing in racial sub­or­di­na­tion.

Much of “The Racial Glass Ceil­ing” is de­voted to the his­tory of the high court’s land­mark cases on race, in­clud­ing the low points of Dred Scott v. Sand­ford (1857) and Plessy v. Fer­gu­son (1896), as well as Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion (1954), which fi­nally did away with Plessy’s “sep­a­rate but equal” prin­ci­ple. Brooks sees the Brown de­ci­sion as an in­stance of “ju­ridi­cal redemp­tion,” in which the court sought to atone for past mis­deeds.

Amer­ica’s courts, Brooks ar­gues, must be guided by “the spirit” of the Brown de­ci­sion and sup­port “sus­tained, un­re­lent­ing racial ad­vance­ment.” He praises the 2003 case Grut­ter v. Bollinger, which up­held af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in higher ed­u­ca­tion, as the court’s most im­por­tant de­ci­sion on cul­tural di­ver­sity, but he ar­gues that sub­or­di­na­tion can per­sist, even in a so­ci­ety com­mit­ted to cul­tural di­ver­sity.

The dis­cus­sions of cul­ture here are sug­ges­tive, though not much more. Black val­ues, in Brooks’s def­i­ni­tion, in­clude the be­lief that racism is om­nipresent, that pref­er­en­tial treat­ment is not a hand­out but a le­git­i­mate means of fight­ing in­equal­i­ties, and that elim­i­nat­ing racism from so­ci­ety “should be among the high­est pri­or­i­ties of our gov­ern­ment.” But be­cause the white mid­dle class acts as Amer­ica’s “cul­tural gate­keeper,” he writes, white val­ues end up trump­ing black ones.

So even in an age when black Amer­i­cans have at­tained pow­er­ful po­si­tions and won ac­cess to ex­clu­sive in­sti­tu­tions, Brooks writes, they must re­lin­quish their dis­tinc­tive, em­pow­er­ing voice. As pres­i­dent, for in­stance, Barack Obama could not be too black. (That was, as Columbia Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Fredrick Har­ris has ar­gued, the price of the ticket.) And in cor­po­rate set­tings, black ex­ec­u­tives can­not speak up too much about race, ei­ther. Dif­fer­ence might en­hance their ap­peal in a busi­ness world en­am­ored with di­ver­sity, Brooks writes, but same­ness will keep them em­ployed in it. “Cul­tural as­sim­i­la­tion, in short, is cul­tural sub­or­di­na­tion in the worst way pos­si­ble: it de­nies blacks the power to shape the racial con­di­tions of the main­stream cul­ture, leav­ing them stuck in the chasm of racial degra­da­tion,” Brooks writes. This is the glass ceil­ing of his ti­tle.

The more spe­cific Brooks’s cul­tural ob­ser­va­tions be­come, how­ever, the more ran­dom they feel. He sim­ply in­forms read­ers, for ex­am­ple, that “I do not sub­scribe to the idea of cul­tural co-opt­ing.” That’s rel­e­vant at a mo­ment when dis­cus­sions of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion are ram­pant, but he doesn’t ar­gue the point as much as state it. He also no­ti­fies us that “there is no redeem­ing value in gangsta rap, noth­ing therein that saves the in­di­vid­ual from evil or er­ror” — apro­pos of not much. And the author, who is in his late 60s, dismisses younger gen­er­a­tions for be­ing dumb about race. “Mil­len­ni­als have lots of racial in­for­ma­tion, thanks to Google, but a dearth of racial ex­pe­ri­ence,” he writes. “They have lit­tle wis­dom about their eth­ni­cally di­verse ex­pe­ri­ences. The sub­ject of race is much too com­plex for mil­len­ni­als to try to learn on their own.”

Brooks also adds awk­ward prefa­tory re­marks to his state­ments, such as, “That point will be­come clear as I un­pack my ar­gu­ment.” (Spoiler: It of­ten does not.)

De­spite such short­com­ings, Brooks’s per­spec­tives on sub­or­di­na­tion com­pli­cate the dis­cus­sion of race, and in a good way. Though he fre­quently em­pha­sizes that sub­or­di­na­tion is less of­fen­sive than racism, it can be more dif­fi­cult to root out than overt prej­u­dice be­cause it is of­ten cloaked in the lan­guage of equal­ity — not in a du­plic­i­tous way but rather be­cause those in­vok­ing it truly be­lieve it.

That “tra­di­tion­al­ist” viewpoint — em­bod­ied by Roberts and Thomas, for in­stance — is but one of the schools of thought on race that Brooks says have grown in­flu­en­tial in the decades since the civil rights move­ment. Tra­di­tion­al­ism es­pouses the old “melt­ing pot” ap­proach of racial as­sim­i­la­tion. The re­formists pro­mote racial in­te­gra­tion and are ea­ger to de­ploy af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion to bring black Amer­i­cans into main­stream in­sti­tu­tions, “wherein power and money re­side.” Lim­ited sep­a­ratists, who up­hold racial iden­tity as the core value needed to achieve equal­ity, pre­fer a “cul­tural plu­ral­ism” that fea­tures more than a sin­gle main­stream, “each dom­i­nated by a sin­gle set of eth­nic val­ues,” thus “elim­i­nat­ing cul­tural sub­or­di­na­tion.” And crit­i­cal race the­o­rists, who in Brooks’s for­mu­la­tion re­gard white hege­mony as the ob­sta­cle to racial equal­ity, fa­vor “tran­scul­tur­al­ism,” a pro­gres­sive blend­ing of all Amer­i­can cul­tures.

Th­ese are more ideal types than im­mutable cat­e­gories (at least out­side the fac­ulty lounge) and Brooks him­self mixes and matches. In his mind, a com­bi­na­tion of tran­scul­tur­al­ism and cul­tural plu­ral­ism pro­vides the best way to min­i­mize sub­or­di­na­tion of black Amer­ica, though even he ad­mits that “cul­tural plu­ral­ism may take some time to de­velop, if it de­vel­ops at all.” He is adamant that racial equal­ity is and must re­main an over­rid­ing value of Amer­i­can democ­racy, but he knows it will not al­ways win out, even in the most promis­ing cir­cum­stances. “Even though im­por­tant black val­ues may not pre­vail in the mar­ket­place of val­ues, tran­scul­tur­al­ism gives blacks a fight­ing chance,” he writes.

I’d be cu­ri­ous to know which com­pet­ing val­ues Brooks thinks might keep racial equal­ity in a sub­or­di­nate po­si­tion — and if any value could merit such sta­tus. If not, the dif­fer­ence be­tween racism and sub­or­di­na­tion be­gins to ap­pear more se­man­tic than sub­stan­tive.

This book did not have to be a book. A lengthy jour­nal ar­ti­cle would have been plenty, and cer­tainly Brooks has ex­plored th­ese top­ics in other books and ar­ti­cles over the years. But there is some­thing to be said for a work that is sat­is­fied with of­fer­ing a sin­gle idea that can tilt read­ers’ un­der­stand­ing just a few de­grees. “The racial bar­rier must be prop­erly named,” Brooks sums up in his epi­logue. “Call­ing it racism or re­gard­ing it as racially in­no­cent ne­ces­si­tates a very dif­fer­ent type of dis­course than what ap­pears in the pages of this book. Racial sub­or­di­na­tion seems ap­pro­pri­ately de­scrip­tive to me.”


Thur­good Mar­shall, then NAACP chief le­gal coun­sel, with stu­dents at the Supreme Court in 1958 af­ter fil­ing an ap­peal in the in­te­gra­tion case of Lit­tle Rock’s Cen­tral High School.

By Roy L. Brooks. Yale Univer­sity Press. 256 pp. $38

THE RACIAL GLASS CEIL­ING Sub­or­di­na­tion in Amer­i­can Law and Cul­ture

Car­los Lozada

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