The Everyday Practice of Race in America: Ambiguous Privilege

The Everyday Practice of Race in America: Ambiguous Privilege

The Everyday Practice of Race in America: Ambiguous Privilege

The Everyday Practice of Race in America: Ambiguous Privilege


An original contribution to political theory and cultural studies this work argues for a reinterpretation of how race is described in US society. McKnight develops a line of reasoning to explain how we accommodate racial categories in a period when it has become important to adopt anti-racist formal instruments in much of our daily lives.

The discussion ranges over a wide theoretical landscape, bringing to bear the insights of Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell, Michel Foucault, Cornel West and others to the dilemmas represented by the continuing social practice of race. The book lays the theoretical foundation for a politics of critical race practice, it provides insight into why we have sought the legal and formal institutional solutions to racism that have developed since the 1960s, and then describes why these are inadequate to addressing the new practices of racism in society. The work seeks to leave the reader with a sense of possibility, not pessimism; and demonstrates how specific arguments about racial subjection may allow for changing how we live and thereby improve the impact race continues to have in our lives.

By developing a new way to critically study how race persists in dominating society, the book provides readers with an understanding of how race is socially constructed today, and will be of great interest to students and scholars of political theory, American politics and race & ethnic politics


Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life?—In use it is alive.
Is life breathed into it there?—Or is the use its life?

(Wittgenstein 1967: Sec 432)

At about ten o’clock the Jumbotrons began showing the performers on stage at the Inauguration. This took the minds of everyone standing in that cold January morning off the bitter wind whipping through the crowd. My 14-yearold had been standing, waiting since seven a.m., as dawn slowly crept over the horizon. For the people on the Mall something unique was taking place. That day America’s first Black president was going to be sworn into office. The narratives of those in attendance echoed one another as they described the unprecedented sense of shared joy and the civility that came from a common sense of satisfaction and success. Everyone was happy; of the huge crowd attending the event, not a single person was arrested. This is an unusual story in today’s America. What happened to race politics on that day?

The election of Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States was possible because there is a particular logic to how race is used in this society. Today a Black person can literally stand for the elimination of race socially. To elect Obama as president is the ultimate act of a politics of representation. Under the guise of accepting Blacks into White society with new practices of inclusion, it has become possible to assert that race is no longer an important value in the US. As I will argue in the chapters that follow, the inclusion of some Blacks is used to subordinate others. This inclusion is based on the need to eliminate not the use of race, but to eliminate the ability to argue that racism is still being practiced.

With Obama’s election it has become even more important to develop a theory of race in the everyday. What follows is an effort in a tradition that Wendy Brown invokes very nicely with the following statement, “In some partial fashion, theory makes an object of everyday life and practices – and . . .

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