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Beyond Post-Racialism

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I recently watched a video of Ruha Benjamin, a Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Boston University. In this video, Professor Benjamin is being interviewed about so-called “post-racialism.” She frames post-racialism as a kind of story that Americans are telling themselves about where we are with race and identifies liberal and radical versions of this story. The liberal story is one of transcending race, while the radical story is of class distinctions eclipsing race as the primary point of social conflict.

Listening to Professor Benjamin reminded me of a question that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. The whole post-racialism debate tends to focus on either arguing that we have achieved a post-racial society or that we have not yet achieved a post-racial society. What I rarely hear asked is whether a post-racial society is in fact a desirable society at all. Is that the ultimate goal of our centuries-long struggle with race and racism?

It depends on how post-racialism is defined. One way of defining it is as abandoning race as a standard for judgment of our fellow human beings. If this is how you define post-racialism, as a Baha’i I can support it wholeheartedly. ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921, put it this way:

“The spirit and intelligence of man is essential, and that is the manifestation of divine virtues, the merciful bestowals of God, the eternal life and baptism through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, be it known that color or race is of no importance…The standard of divine measure and judgment is…intelligence and spirit.”

This kind of post-racialism has institutional and structural implications to the degree that it is translated into policies and practices that eliminate overt racial discrimination or unintentional racial inequities. However, there is a different form of post-racialism that is focused on a kind of radical assimilationism. This kind of post-racialism views racial, ethnic or cultural differences as inherently problematic and a threat to national unity which can only exist if the dominant (White) culture remains dominant. For example, people who hold this view tend to react negatively to expressions of racial or ethnic pride on the part of people of color. In fact, such expressions are often described as “racist” themselves. This approach to post-racialism involves denying, ignoring, or suppressing racial, ethnic, or cultural differences.

This form of post-racialism, what Omi and Winant might refer to as a “racial project,” is not something I can support as a Baha’i. It represents a misdiagnosis of the problem. What we have come to understand as racial differences are not the problem; racism is. ‘Abdu’l-Baha has suggested an alternative way of viewing racial differences: “This variety in forms and colorings which is manifest in all the kingdoms is according to creative wisdom and has a divine purpose.”

An alternative vision of America is one in which we are all striving to understand the “creative wisdom” and “divine purpose” of this “variety of forms and colorings.” Such a society would be less “post-racial” than “multiracial.” Demographic trends tell us that “multiracial” is and increasingly will be the social reality of America. Our challenge is to make it a spiritual and moral reality in our personal lives and social policy.

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About Phillipe Copeland

  • James Harrison

    Excellent post sir. I completely agree – until there is a wholehearted acceptance of humanity, in all it’s glorious hues and colors, temperaments and views we will only be robbing ourselves of full Reality.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    So long as there are people of different colors/ethnicities/religions/whatever, there will be ‘isms’ to describe the prejudice they face. We can strive to minimize such prejudice – indeed, we’ve made great strides in deglamorizing prejudice – but it will never, ever go away.

  • James, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Our current limited vision of what is possible in so many areas, race included, is sad but not inevitable. We can choose to see things differently.

    Glenn, I would agree that prejudice in all its forms is a matter of degree and that humanity will long struggle with this challenge. The important things is that we make the effort to overcome those prejudices when we become aware of them. Also, I tend to have a more optimistic view of human nature. There are many things that we take for granted today that generations past would have assumed were impossible. I don’t agree that prejudices will never go away, but that’s just me. Thanks for responding.

  • Collin237

    I have a different perspective. (In the interest of disclosure, I’m a basically agnostic and scientifically inclined Jew, and I believe in a God independent of scripture.)

    As I see it, the only purpose of differences in human forms is an adaptation to the basic physical differences between the environments of different continents. Anything else seems to me to be an arbitrary myth to inspire dominance. (I don’t pull punches on this; I despise the Lyubavitch myth just as much as any other.)

    I’ve often heard suggestions that working within a framework of a shared reality is a “white” concept, because reality was written about mainly by Greeks. However, I’ve recently read that the Greeks were actually taught about reality by the Egyptians, and even gave the Egyptians credit for their ideas.

    If this is true, it confirms what I have always suspected — that realism has never belonged to Europe, and that the theory of wielding non-European anti-realist narratives against the European agenda is itself a European agenda, designed to disempower other cultures by misappropriating their understanding of reality and pressuring them to radicalize against it.