Persistence of discrimination
Reviewed by Shelley Walia

Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity
By Tim Wise.
City Lights Books, San Francisco.
Pages 213. $14.95.

RACE is a social category that has evolved in the course of explaining differences between groups by mistakenly attributing various "essences" to them. The problem of toleration is inherently troublesome and raises the question of the extent to which any society can be morally and culturally pluralistic. Racism still is rampant and "colour blindness" a mere ideological construct to hide the pervasive colour consciousness that has been an inherent part of American history.

As Tim Wise writes in his recent book, Colorblind: "After all, 2004 was the same year that research from MIT and the University of Chicago found that job applicants with ‘white’ names were 50 per cent more likely to be called back for an interview than those with ‘black’ names, even when all their qualifications were indistinguishable. And with black and brown unemployment standing at double the white rate, even as the new upstart from Chicago poured forth rhetoric professing national unity (and with the median white family possessing 8-10 times the net worth of the median black or Latino family), it should have been apparent that Obama was engaged in political science fiction rather than the description of sociological truth."

The American society has to recognise difference and yet transcend it. Tim Wise provocatively takes up the bitterness of the contemporary debate over racially charged issues aiming at racial justice and the general nature and implications of liberalism in a nation which faces the troublesome problem of discrimination.

Wise maintains that American society is not colourblind and, therefore, social justice can be achieved only through fairness and not through the principle of colour blindness. It cannot be denied that people and institutions mete out treatment to individuals according to their color. Wise is of the view that in the post-Barrack Obama scenario, the apologist of colourblindness are of the view that blacks in the US are victims now not of racism but of economic deprivation. Thus, according to this school, it becomes imperative to promote education and remove inequalities. It is an undeniable fact of considerable political significance that in the wake of the heated debate on the affirmative action programme, many have gone beyond the social policies of uplifting the downtrodden through an ideology of "colourblindness".

Wise, after putting forward this school of thought, goes on to refute it by his emphasis on not becoming colour blind but instead becoming more conscious of race for a true understanding of the lack of opportunities for the marginalised section of American society. Thus, colourblind ideology might not be the best way of moving towards a more egalitarian society. The argument, apparently, is based more on the rationale that equality and content of merit matters more when consciously viewing the problems of the blacks. However, many still feel that slavery was introduced for economic and not racist reasons and that segregation was not motivated by any desire for black oppression.

Such then, to evolve an unbiased action plan for the rights of minorities, this paradox of universalism and cultural autonomy must be taken into consideration, so that the politics of recognition and difference forms the basis of a critical frame that would counter any cultural imperialism that fails to recognise both the marginalised groups and particular identities. One way out of this impasse can nudge us towards a more accommodating liberalism which cuts down a little on the universalism aspect and gives concessions for the recognition of cultural groups.

The concept of universal human rights has been criticised by some who argue that these rights reflect the anti-communitarian, self-centered individualism of the West with a disproportionate focus on individual autonomy. It can instead be posited that communities can exist in modern Western societies, which protect not only the civil and political rights but the whole spectrum of individual human rights, including economic rights. There can be no bifurcation between universal human rights that recognise the equal dignity of all and a differentiation that recognises the unique identity and authenticity of cultural groups and individuals.

The book is consistently interesting and, in many ways, unsettling as it challenges the settled opinions on race matters. Though the views of Wise are of immense political and moral significance, they are but partial with a number of contradictory impulses that do not in any way suggest a model that can have a workable blend of the politics of recognition and individual liberty. The influence of race on life in America cannot be denied. Wise would like individuals to be treated fairly, and to achieve this, it would be important to enact coloor-conscious policies. In a post-racial society, "race-bound problems require race-conscious remedies." A preeminent anti-racist, Tim Wise lays out brilliantly his views on a society that is yet to move beyond discrimination to a post-racial liberalism.