Laying Down the Law: Post-Racialism and the Deracination Project

By Halewood, Peter | Albany Law Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Laying Down the Law: Post-Racialism and the Deracination Project


Halewood, Peter, Albany Law Review


During the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election, the following essay by Tim Wise was widely circulated on the web and by email. At least half a dozen friends emailed it to me:

   For those who still can't grasp the concept of white privilege,
   or who are looking for some easy-to-understand examples of
   it, perhaps this list will help.

      White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen
   like Bristol Palin [Sarah Palin's daughter] and everyone is
   quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a
   personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or
   your parents, because "every family has challenges," even as
   black and Latino families with similar "challenges" are
   regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters
   of social decay.

      White privilege is when you can call yourself a "fuckin'
   redneck," like Bristol Palin's boyfriend does, and talk about
   how if anyone messes with you, you'll "kick their fuckin' ass,"
   and talk about how you like to "shoot shit" for fun, and still
   be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great
   son-in-law to be) rather than a thug.

      White privilege is when you can attend four different
   colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you
   basically failed out of, then returned to after making up
   some coursework at a community college), and no one
   questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement,
   whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as
   unfit for college, and probably someone who only got in in the
   first place because of affirmative action.

      And finally, white privilege is the only thing that could
   possibly allow someone to become president when he has
   voted with George W. Bush 90 percent of the time, even as
   unemployment is skyrocketing, people are losing their
   homes, inflation is rising, and the U.S. is increasingly
   isolated from world opinion, just because white voters aren't
   sure about that whole "change" thing. Ya know, it's just too
   vague and ill-defined, unlike, say, four more years of the
   same, which is very concrete and certain.

      White privilege is, in short, the problem. (1)

The essay struck a chord with a segment of the electorate who perceived not only a racial double standard in the American public's interpretation of that election cycle but who I believe also felt that this episode crystallized a much larger racial double standard in American society as a whole. It was also a kind of collective light-bulb-moment about the law in some respects: how could nearly sixty years of civil rights law since Brown v. Board of Education have had so little apparent impact on white privilege and have produced so little critical white race consciousness? (2) Had civil rights and anti-discrimination law--surely aspects of the social construction of race--actually contributed to this state of affairs, such that the racial double standard made plain in the presidential election had been to some extent enabled by the very law designed to undo race discrimination? If racial justice is about remembering racial injury, had our law made that memory impossible, erased by official colorblindness? (3) And why was this all happening--who precisely benefits?

Though Barack Obama of course went on to be elected President, the vivid memory of reading Wise's essay remains and disrupts my post-election euphoria. (4) Wise interpreted a basic truth of American society. He captured a central paradox of American life: that, despite having no biological/genetic basis, race nonetheless controls the American perception of reality, and whiteness is the lens through which all interpretation ultimately is refracted. Because whiteness is largely invisible to white Americans, America's racial problem has for the most part been understood by whites as a problem of (real or imagined) black grievances.

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