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Controversial and strikingly original, Race Experts looks at how we capsized racial progress in the quest for self-esteem.Race Experts uncovers the hidden trajectory and terms of our thinking about race relations since the 1960s. Since segregation's dismantling, intense anxiety has surrounded interracial encounters, and a movement has arisen to engineer social relations through the specification of elaborate codes of conduct. Diversity training in business, multicultural education in schools, and cross-cultural ...
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Controversial and strikingly original, Race Experts looks at how we capsized racial progress in the quest for self-esteem.Race Experts uncovers the hidden trajectory and terms of our thinking about race relations since the 1960s. Since segregation's dismantling, intense anxiety has surrounded interracial encounters, and a movement has arisen to engineer social relations through the specification of elaborate codes of conduct. Diversity training in business, multicultural education in schools, and cross-cultural psychotherapy have created a world of prescriptions. Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn carefully analyzes the teachings of these self-appointed "experts" and offers a bold and searching analysis of the origins of their ideas in the human potential movement and the radical milieu of the 1960s. Casting race primarily as an issue of etiquette or therapy, rather than of justice or equality, has had dire consequences for American life, diverting attention from the deeper problems of poverty, violence, and continued inequality and discrimination. In this sobering analysis, Race Experts illuminates how far away we are from the issues that deserve our attention.
The New Racial Etiquette:
The Ritual of Racial Reprimand
In The Content of Our Character, Shelby Steele describes what he calls a new "public choreography of black and white" under integration. He recalls a dinner party on a "warm, windless California evening," where a racially mixed group mellowed out over a pleasant meal, drinks, and trusting self-disclosure. Then a jarring note rang out. A black engineer turned the conversation to the issue of race with "accusation in his voice." He spoke of his irritation that his daughter was only one of three black children at her school: "I didn't realize my ambition to get ahead would pull me into a world where my daughter would lose touch with her blackness." The effect of this assertion was stunned silence, but the man persisted in his truculent demeanor. Awkward and at a loss for what to say, the guests soon left. This is Steele's autopsy of the party: "death induced by an abrupt and lethal injection of the American race issue."
Steele interprets this scene as a reenactment of the "harangue-flagellation" ritual well known at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the civil rights movement had shifted to the more militant notions of black power and black identity. He forsakes and chastises such behavior now—despite occasionally getting a faint "itch" for it—but at the time he, too, enjoyed the "cheap thrills" to begained from intentionally provocative behavior or incendiary talk about race, particularly in interracial settings. In those days, "it was such great fun to pinion some professor or housewife, or, best of all, a large group of remorseful whites, with the knowledge of both their racism and their denial of it."
In Steele's account, such behavior was simply a means of pulling rank—"a power play"—by inducing white guilt. But there is nothing simple about it today. It has instead become part of a larger and even more troublesome attitude that Steele associates with the insecurities and the crises of confidence in the black middle class's adaptation to integration. In recent decades, racial anxiety has been transformed into an unanxious racialism, as many blacks seek a way of holding on to race rather than risk being judged by universal measures of character or achievement.
Whether or not one agrees with Steele's explanation, it would be difficult for a conscientious observer of contemporary American culture to deny that the "harangue-flagellation" ritual and other such scripts have become "part of the texture of integration." To be sure, we can also laugh at such scenes, as popular culture makes abundantly clear, and the premature death of a mellow night of California self-disclosure may not be such a bad thing. Yet not all the rituals of race under integration are so benign. Nor are the consequences of those rituals insignificant. They can seep into our thinking and set the terms in which an event or behavior is understood. They influence everything from how the problems of the black family can be discussed to the images of black men that appear in the media. These rituals affect, and sometimes severely compromise the effectiveness of, movements to improve race relations and living conditions for African Americans and others.
Indeed, an exploration of racial rituals broadly conceived—our unwritten expectations, our taboos, our notions of proper etiquette—helps to pinpoint the ways in which we have failed thus far in some of the most important tests of integration. In arenas like sports, entertainment, and the military, there is often much to suggest that we are serious about accepting and embracing the racially mixed nature of the American citizenry. In places like counties, neighborhoods, and schools, however, we often see the legacy of our problems in continued racial separation. If the commitment to integration and equality is to triumph permanently over the inherited mental and spatial structures that keep us apart, we must reconsider the terms on which our integrated social life rests to be certain we are creating a foundation sturdy enough to support long-lasting change.
Black Assertion, White Submission
Black assertiveness or expressiveness and white submission, restraint, or acquiescence have been honed into styles of self-presentation so familiar in American life under integration that the mere reference to this dynamic is guaranteed to produce at bare minimum a tremor of recognition, if not outright hilarity. One of the most memorable scenes in any 1990s American film, not just those involving race, was the "show me the money" scene in the film Jerry Maguire. In this scene, a black football star, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., harangues his white sports agent, played by today's highest-paid Hollywood actor, Tom Cruise, and Cruise's character responds with total submission. The scene gives a perfect—if extreme—illustration of the harangue-flagellation ritual that has become a familiar aspect of the cultural landscape of integrated America.
Before the scene opens, Cruise's character, Jerry Maguire, undergoes a late-night epiphany about his profession, deciding that he has lost touch with the real essence of sports—the love of the game—in his pursuit of the largest sums of money he can command for his clients. In a frenzy of inspiration, he types up a memo and deposits copies in the mailboxes of all of his co-workers, who don false, but temporary, expressions of admiration for his virtue. Soon afterward, the young upstart company boss, whom Maguire initially trained, takes him out to lunch and fires him on the spot. Maguire storms out of the restaurant and rushes back to his office to call each of his clients. He aims to win as many clients away from the company as possible so that he can go into business for himself. While he talks to his clients, viewers see Maguire's boss talking on the phone with the same people, succeeding in nearly every case to keep them with the company.
One of Maguire's clients, though, does not hang up on him. This is the football star, Rod Tidwell, played by Cuba Gooding. What ensues is a highly entertaining, and now renowned, scene in which Tidwell keeps Maguire on the phone during the pivotal period in which Maguire loses valuable clients each minute he fails to answer their calls. Tidwell slows down the intense tempo of the film and makes Maguire (and us) concentrate solely on him and his family's situation. He makes Maguire jump through hoop after hoop with only a remote possibility that he will remain Maguire's client. The hoops get more and more absurd, until Tidwell has Maguire repeating after him his family's motto, "Show me the money!" Starting off quietly, Maguire repeats the phrase until he is shouting at the top of his lungs. Completely visible in his glassed-in office, and now audible, Maguire's surrender to Tidwell's outrageous demands draws the attention of the entire company. As the conversation reaches a climax, with Tidwell smiling and strutting around his house to loud music and Maguire yelling each phrase Tidwell wants him to, Tidwell asks, "Do you love this black man?" "I love the black man!" shouts Maguire. "I love black people!" says Tidwell. "I love black people!" shouts Maguire. "Who's your mother fucker?!" shouts Tidwell. "YOU'RE MY MOTHER FUCKER!!!!" shouts Maguire. "What you gonna do, Jerry?" asks Tidwell. "SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!" screams Maguire. "Congratulations, you're still my agent," Tidwell says, with a cocky grunt, cutting off the music and abruptly hanging up the phone.
The resonance of scenes like these has everything to do with the rise, since the 1960s, of a new confusion about the appropriate way to behave in interracial settings and an attempt to address that confusion through an etiquette of race. Certainly this extreme assertiveness by blacks and total submission by whites is not the rule in everyday American life. This dramatization is extreme by any measure—a hyperbolic treatment aimed at comic results. At least part of its humor has to do with the way it evokes and subverts the inhumane code of behavior under slavery and Jim Crow, white supremacy and enforced black submission. However, it also plays on the audience's awareness of a more recent interracial dynamic that emerged in some parts of the culture under integration. It is a syndrome of white liberal guilt and black self-assertion that became prominent in the mid- to late 1960s, as the civil rights coalition lost its cohesiveness and direction, and has since become a stock theme in our popular culture.
Although we can laugh at it in movies, this new interracial complex deserves serious attention. It simplifies the remaining problems we face that have to do with race, not least by perpetuating the false dichotomy of white and black in the first place. A great deal of energy has gone into the endeavor to establish what common sense should have long ago: that beyond a notion of shared genetic pools that explains general similarities within ethnic groups, race has little concrete existence, particularly in the stark sense of black and white. People of mixed race, like the golf champion Tiger Woods, have made it clear that, even as a cultural construction, race often has little salience for those of mixed parentage. The recent debate over whether racial categories should continue to be used in the U.S. census brought into question the future of the black-white racial distinction.
The harangue-flagellation ritual is just one of a larger set of stock roles Americans have come to expect. The journalist and Northwestern University political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. wrote in reference to Tiger Woods, for instance, that the notion that black athletes should be held to higher standards because of their obligations as spokespersons and role models was "unreasonable and unfair." Still, Steele's harangue-flagellation ritual whereby blacks ostensibly take the upper hand does seem to characterize, if not explain, the behavior of some leaders in the public eye and the public's willingness to give them a hearing. The Reverend Al Sharpton is but one example of someone who falls in line with this ritual by playing the race card at every opportunity.
From Racial Protocol to Civil Rights
and Back Again
The ritual portrayed so strikingly by Cruise and Gooding zeros in on the way in which Americans—faced with the sudden overthrow of the social code of segregation—failed to translate the universalism of the civil rights movement into a guide for behavior under integration. Cultural changes beyond the civil rights movement helped put in question our sense of the proper underpinnings for the treatment of other citizens (mutualism, respect, integrity, fairness, dignity, the golden rule) about which the civil rights movement was so certain. The 1960s also witnessed the counterculture's questioning of all authority and pretense, the revolt against formality and etiquette as relics of elitism, and the increasingly uncivil social relations and self-obsession of advanced consumer capitalism. In this context, the very real question of how a society with deeply differential, racialized codes of behavior would adapt to integration and equality was solved only partially and uneasily. New codes of interracial etiquette sought to reverse the old patterns of racial deference by itemizing endless numbers of new rules, an endeavor that produced unintended consequences for American race relations.
Attempting to address the conundrum of race under integration in significant part through etiquette, Americans became deeply mired in a set of assumptions and practices from which it was increasingly difficult to extricate themselves. The new interracial etiquette gurus stepped eagerly to the fore, giving their own theories and advice, nearly always helping to undermine faith in the possibilities for a universal code of behavior. They often based their ideas on the existence of separate basic black and white identities that mandated different behavior, treatment, and social roles. Even more important, they helped ensure that the civil rights movement would be reoriented away from the realm of politics, civic, and business life, where it began and where the worst inequalities remain. Casting interracial problems as issues of etiquette put a premium on superficial symbols of good intentions and good motivations as well as on style and appearance rather than on the substance of change.
There is some irony in the persistence of such themes in a society that just one generation ago underwent the civil rights revolution. That movement not only tore down the legalized caste system that relegated blacks to a separate and inferior social status and attacked informal discrimination; it also delivered a frontal assault on the entire cultural apparatus that buttressed and rationalized Jim Crow and de facto segregation with its rigidly differential treatment and protocol. Building on important precedents of earlier agitation, the movement exposed the heinous race-sex complex that undergirded the rigid southern social etiquette of white supremacy, under which a misplaced glance seemed to many whites to constitute a violation tantamount to rape, drawing swift retribution from a lynch mob. At the same time, the civil rights movement questioned the North's extralegal conceptions of turf ownership that made unwitting trespass, even by a child at play, explode into recrimination, retribution, and riot.
The civil rights era activists and later scholars made it common knowledge just how much race relations had become ritualized under the violent reign of slavery and segregation and just how brutal a stranglehold the etiquette of race managed to maintain on everyday social life. The civil rights crusade sought to confront the nation's crimes against humanity by rooting out the double standards ingrained in every aspect of daily life: separate and inferior schools and public facilities; lies and myths about black inferiority perpetuated under the banner of hard science and social science; unshakable rules for behavior that maintained a rigid social hierarchy. The totality of white victimization of blacks had expressed itself not only in economic and political arrangements but also in elaborate social codes, which black parents were forced to teach their children for sheer survival. Generation after generation was thus socialized anew into the inherently unfair, dehumanizing world that was once America.
It was precisely the moral objections to this way of life raised by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders that resonated to a vast number of Americans and ensured drastic change. King appealed constantly to universal rights and dignity as well as unity and interdependence when he called on Americans "to make real the promises of democracy." These promises were embodied, he said, in "the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," which announced that "all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." King's "I Have a Dream Speech" at the March on Washington in 1963 invoked the nation's "sacred obligation" to "rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." His legendary words made the implications of this universalism concrete, comprehensible, and compelling: "I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." The unrelentingly moral logic that caused King to emphasize character, with its connotations of self-discipline and obligation to the common good, had everything to do with the movement's success in attacking the brutal hypocrisy and racial double standard of segregation.
What has not received sustained analysis is what happened to racial etiquette in the era of integration. While civil rights brought tremendous improvements in conditions for African Americans and many others, the new racial protocol that emerged in the late 1960s helped steer it off track. Although the new etiquette hardly causes all remaining problems regarding race, it constrains how these problems can be faced and reflects our larger difficulties, tensions, and uncertainties about the very foundations of our collective life.
A classic film articulated race relations in the language of the etiquette of integration and began to explore the possibilities of the emerging new model of black assertiveness and white submission. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, released in 1967, depicted a young, ingenuous white woman (played by Katharine Houghton) who shocks her well-to-do but liberal parents by bringing home unannounced the man she has met and wants to marry, played by Sidney Poitier.
This film explores the humor and tension inherent in the confrontation of the woman's parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) with their own hypocritical reservations about the prospect of their precious only daughter marrying a black man. More complexity develops when the man's parents also have trouble accepting the match. The bulk of the dramatic tension results from the excruciating politeness among the characters, especially the members of the older generation. The women, endowed with a superior, almost spiritual sense of common humanity, have far less trouble accepting the interracial couple, ostensibly because of their romantic view of marriage, but one suspects the ulterior motive of wanting to keep the social event running smoothly. The fathers are concerned, on the surface in any case, with the practical difficulties the pair would inevitably encounter, as is even the fiancé. One of the lessons of the movie is that the treatment of all according to the same standard of respect should triumph over specific expectations held by a particular community.
The film stood in between the old racial etiquette of segregation and the new social demands of integration. The old etiquette is represented by all the forces aligned against the young couple, including the family's black maid, who makes it known she does not approve of people getting out of their proper places.
But there was a foreshadowing of a new etiquette. While the interracial scenes are characterized by extreme politeness, the scenes of Poitier's character alone with his fiancée show him uninhibited and flirtatious. But the best example of changing rules of deference is the speech he delivers to the parents of the young woman. In a strident tone, he informs them that, unbeknownst to his eager would-be bride, he will break off the engagement if the parents cannot promise to give unwavering support of their marriage. His reasoning is that the new couple will face so many obstacles that he is not willing to take on any "new problems." The young woman's father, played by Spencer Tracy, replies that he respects that decision, but resents its being communicated in the form of an ultimatum. Poitier's character has the last word: it is not an ultimatum, because his fiancée's parents have the power to call the whole thing off. Of course, this would crush her and perhaps sever their tie with their daughter. But the more striking message, to the viewer, is that the woman means a great deal to the young man but is not worth everything. Love can conquer most, but not all—not the prospect of continued disrespect from the white parents. In the highly palatable form of Poitier's engaging and confident masculinity, mainstream America was gently initiated into a new style of black assertion. Quietly firm in his demand for respect, Poitier's character adhered to impeccable standards of politeness and civility and even conviviality. The lesson is that there should be a single standard of good behavior all around.
The Masochistic Pleasures of
Three years later, another work humorously explored the prevailing etiquette between the races, but here the flashes of assertiveness in Poitier's character give way to a much more demonstrative black style for public interracial encounters, a style that reflected the shift in the black movement from civil rights to vocal black power militancy. Whereas Guess Who's Coming to Dinner questioned the superficiality of a racial liberalism still resting on the premise of social segregation, Tom Wolfe's satirical commentary Radical Chic and Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers pierced through the artificiality of an interracial fund-raising party thrown for the Black Panthers by the white liberal elite of New York City. Radical Chic ridiculed a new racial order in which interracial harmony was now purchased with abject white submission.
Unveiling the white elite's self-interested motives for supporting the black cause, Wolfe illustrates its obsession with an etiquette based on white sensitivity to the dictates of the blacks who seem to be most authentically black—the Panthers. The host and hostess, Lenny Bernstein and his wife, Felicia, prove themselves to be "geniuses" for figuring out how to solve the problem of servants for the Black Panther fund-raiser: they hired white South Americans in place of their "Negro butler and maid, Claude and Maude":
Plenty of people have tried to think it out. They try to picture the Panthers or whoever walking in bristling with electric hair and Cuban shades and leather pieces and the rest of it, and they try to picture Claude and Maude with the black uniforms coming up and saying, "Would you care for a drink, sir?" They close their eyes and try to picture it some way, but there is no way. One simply cannot see that moment. So the current wave of Radical Chic has touched off the most desperate search for white servants.
Wolfe's treatment of white liberals exposes their less than admirable motives for embracing the routine of black assertiveness and white submission. Their adherence to the new etiquette serves their own fragile egos and image consciousness. The important thing is to be correct according to their inner, wealthy, radical circle; correctness in this radical etiquette is what proves that one is authentic, genuine, the real thing. The test of authenticity ironically seems to be distance from their own circumscribed and artificial existence. Establishing authenticity thus entails a rejection of this repressed world for one without rules, the world of Norman Mailer's "White Negro," the white hipster enthralled by blacks' seeming ability to live "in the perpetual climax of the present." Wolfe writes that it is "nostalgie de la boue, or romanticizing of primitive souls," which "was one of the things that brought Radical Chic to the fore in New York Society": "Nostalgie de la boue is a nineteenth-century French term that means, literally, `nostalgia for the mud.'" The nouveaux riches, eager to distinguish themselves from the "hated `middle class,'" either "take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes, and high protocol," or "indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders," or both. Any genuine fellow feeling or egalitarianism is eclipsed by a superficial show of authenticity, a form of total self-absorption that nevertheless hinges on certification by others, and has its own elaborate rituals and protocol.
Excerpted from RACE EXPERTS by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Copyright © 2001 by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Ch. 1||The New Racial Etiquette: The Ritual of Racial Reprimand||1|
|Ch. 2||Radical Chic and the Rise of a Politics of Therapy||40|
|Ch. 3||The Encounter Group: A New Interracial Mode for Integration||63|
|Ch. 4||Racial Identity Theory: Groundwork for a Renewal of Suspicion||110|
|Ch. 5||Revolt against Repression: New Age Therapy from the Fringe to the Mainstream||134|
|Ch. 6||A World of Endless Slights: Diversity Training and Its Illogical Consequences||161|
|Ch. 7||In Perpetual Recovery: The Problem with Multicultural Education for Self-Esteem||194|
Posted January 20, 2010
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When looking at the title and liner notes, I thought this book was going to focus on Race Experts that we all know. (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton) Or maybe this book will focus on talking heads that we always see on T.V. talking about race--Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, Skip Gates, Larry Elder) Instead most of the book centered on obscure workshops that most people have never heard of. I did enjoy many aspects of the book. My favorite was the discussion of the book Nappy Hair. I vaguely remember this event, but Race Experts made many things clear. If I were the child of an African-American child in 3rd grade, I would not want a white teacher reading a book of that nature to my child. It's amazing that this teacher, being inexperienced, did not consult another teacher before reading Nappy Hair to the class. The parents had a right to be angry, but not that angry. In my book Plain Talk, I state upfront, that I do not believe that there is a such thing as a Race Expert. This book has solidified my stance.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.