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Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama (Open Media)by Tim Wise
Synopses & Reviews
Race is, and always has been, an explosive issue in the United States. In this timely new book, Tim Wise explores how Barack Obama’s emergence as a political force is taking the race debate to new levels. According to Wise, for many white people, Obama’s rise signifies the end of racism as a pervasive social force; they point to Obama not only as a validation of the American ideology that anyone can make it if they work hard, but also as an example of how institutional barriers against people of color have all but vanished. But is this true? And does a reinforced white belief in color-blind meritocracy potentially make it harder to address ongoing institutional racism? After all, in housing, employment, the justice system, and education, the evidence is clear: white privilege and discrimination against people of color are still operative and actively thwarting opportunities, despite the success of individuals like Obama.
Is black success making it harder for whites to see the problem of racism, thereby further straining race relations, or will it challenge anti-black stereotypes to such an extent that racism will diminish and race relations improve? Will blacks in power continue to be seen as an “exception” in white eyes? Is Obama “acceptable” because he seems “different from most blacks,” who are still viewed too often as the dangerous and inferior “other”?
Tim Wise is among the most prominent antiracist writers and activists in the US and has appeared on ABC's 20/20 and MSNBC Live. His previous books include Speaking Treason Fluently and White Like Me.
"Wise, a white anti-racism activist and scholar (and author of White Like Me), pushes plenty of buttons in this methodical breakdown of racism's place in the wake of Barack Obama's victory. In the first of two essays, the author obliterates the canard of the US as a post-racial society; bigotry and insititutionalized discrimination, he contends, have simply morphed into 'Racism 2.0,' in which successful minorities are celebrated 'as having "transcended" their blackness in some way.' While racial disparities in employment and income, housing, education and other areas persist, Obama has become an amiable sitcom dad like Bill Cosby, putting whites at ease by speaking, looking and acting 'a certain way'-not to mention avoiding discussion of race. In his second, more incendiary essay, Wise concludes that whites must take responsibility for racism. What the majority of whites fail to grasp, he says, is that they continue to benefit from a system of 'entrenched privileges' centuries in the making, and that racism remains a serious obstacle for millions of African Americans. There's no sugar coating here for whites, nor are there any news flashes for Americans of color, but Wise bravely enumerates the unpalatable truths of a nation still struggling to understand its legacy of racist oppression." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Among the many words that accompanied Barack Obama on his long road to the White House — "hope," "change," "Clinton" — none has proved more provocative than "post-racial." The idea is as seductive as it is simplistic: that in electing a black president we have settled our national debt to people of color. The notion that America is now a post-racial society embodies both idealism and cynicism: a... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) hope that the nation has overcome its racist past, and a desire to avoid the unfinished work of achieving true equality. Among the skeptics of post-racialism is Tim Wise, a critic of "white privilege" (his own included) who looks on Obama's election with trepidation. He fears a blossoming of what he calls Racism 2.0, which allows whites to celebrate the achievements of an individual such as Obama while harboring deep prejudice toward minorities as a whole. The punning title of his book, "Between Barack and a Hard Place," belies the sobering material within. Wise paints a stark picture of racial inequality in the United States today. He cites the disproportionate number of black men in prison, the increasing divide between rich and poor and a host of other disparities of opportunity, including those described in a study that found that white males with a criminal record were more likely than black males without one to be called back for job interviews, even when their credentials, experience, dress and style of communication were the same. Rather than interpreting Obama's election as a sign of the diminishing importance of race, Wise sees it as a potential distraction. "The meaning of Obama remains to be seen," he writes, "but we can and must expect those with an interest in papering over racism and changing the subject to use him for precisely those purposes." Wise's short book reads like an old-school polemic: Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" for the 21st century. His argument draws its strength more from the force of his conviction than from the rigor of his analysis. William Julius Wilson's "More Than Just Race" is just the reverse: an attempt to avoid polarizing language and find practical ways forward. Wilson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, sees some truth both in liberal explanations of racism as a structural force (entrenched bias accounts for disparities of income and opportunity) and in conservative understandings of racial inequity as a cultural malady (the "culture of poverty" and dependency), although he believes that in the end "structure trumps culture." Wilson shares with Wise a passionate belief that racial inequality is very much alive. Yet the two authors differ fundamentally in approach. Wise wants a call to account; he insists that the "race problem as the pundits have long called it — is a white problem." Wilson wants "candid and critical" discussions that set blame aside in favor of an open exchange in "frank and hopeful terms." Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in their wildly divergent assessments of the major speech on race that Obama delivered in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Wise hears a certain calculation in Obama's "need to pander to the perceived needs of the national white electorate." For his part, Wilson hears "exactly the type of framing that can result in broad support to address the problems of race and poverty." Though its title might suggest otherwise, "More Than Just Race" marks a decisive turn by one of our leading intellectuals. Several of Wilson's previous books, most notably "The Declining Significance of Race" and "The Bridge Over the Racial Divide," called for a colorblind political agenda. Wilson now says that he has changed his thinking and that "in framing public policy we should not shy away from an explicit discussion of the specific issues of race and poverty; on the contrary, we should highlight them." A post-racial United States is an imagined country. Both Wilson and Wise describe a nation where race remains a controlling factor in the fates of individuals and communities. Despite their differences, both authors implore Americans to turn again to race — not just as a way to look upon past abuses, but as the only way forward for a nation still in search of a more perfect union. Adam Bradley is the author of "Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop." Reviewed by Adam Bradley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"From the Civil Rights struggle, to Dr. King’s dream, to Barack Obama’s election, Tim Wise provides us with an extremely important and timely analysis of the increasing complexity of race on the American political and social landscape. 'Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama,' provides an insightful and much needed lens through which we can begin to navigate this current stage in our ongoing quest for a more inclusive definition of who we are as a nation. It’s definitely a book for these times!!!" Danny Glover, Actor, Human Rights Activist
"His book debunks any notion that the United States has entered a post-racial period; instead he identifies the problems that emerge in the context of the victory of a black presidential candidate who chose to run an essentially non-racial campaign."--Bill Fletcher, Jr., Executive Editor of BlackCommentator.com
"From income and jobs, housing, education, criminal justice, and healthcare, Wise masterfully demonstrates the continuing disparities between black and white America. He notes the absence of these issues in the Obama-Biden campaign or the attempt to read structural inequalities through a race-free lens called CLASS. At every step, Wise absolves the Obama campaign of responsibility for their less than candid approach to racial issues, saying that campaign strategists confronted the reality of white racism by side-stepping the issue. . . Wise's book provides welcome relief to the obnoxious self-congratulation that followed Obama's election to the presidency." —Jillian McLaughlin, The Kosmopolitan Online, http://www.thekosmo.com/books/
"This book makes an intriguing argument and is packed with insight. Wise clearly explains the complexity of institutional racism in contemporary society. He continuously reminds the reader that Obama's victory may signal the entrenchment of a more complicated, subtle, and insidious form of racism. The jury is still out." —Jeff Torlina
"Wise outlines . . . how racism and white privilege have morphed to fit the modern social landscape. In prose that reads like his lightening rod speeches, he draws from a long list of high-profile campaign examples to define what he calls 'Racism 2.0,' a more insidious form of racism that actually allows for and celebrates the achievements of individual people of color because they’re seen as the exceptions, not the rules." — Jamilah King, Colorlines
Book News Annotation:
Longstanding anti-racism activist Wise presents two essays exploring issues of race in America in the context of the election of the first person of color, Barack Obama, to the presidency of the United States. In the first essay he argues that, election night proclamations about the end of racism notwithstanding, systemic racial discrimination and profound inequality of opportunity continue to exist in the United States. Furthermore, the election of Obama could signify the rise of a new kind of racism in which individual successes by people of color are celebrated and used to support negative views towards the masses of people of color. However, he argues in the second essay, the energies unleashed by the Obama election can still be harnessed and turned towards productive antiracism and social justice work. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
How Barack Obama's rise is reshaping the meaning of race in the United States today.
About the Author
Wise was the 2008 Oliver L. Brown Distinguished Visiting Scholar for Diversity Issues at Washburn University. Wise tours constantly and delivers dozens of lectures each year. He is regularly sought for interviews and has been on 20/20, Paula Zahn, NOW with Bill Moyers, MSNBC, and Donahue. His previous books include Between Barack and a Hard Place and White Like Me.
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