The Colorblind Whitewashers of American History

(Mark Wilson / Getty)

Law professor and critical race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, writing in The Baffler, considers the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and the way that  declarations of America as “post-racial” or “colorblind” serve to diminish our history of racial violence. To those who understand Obama’s success as owing to his race-neutrality, she offers a sharp rebuke.

In the same way that elite institutions have congratulated themselves as sites where merit flourished, American society held up Barack Obama as conclusive evidence that power is indeed colorblind. Yet Obama’s election proves very little about the triumph of colorblindness either as a tactic for gaining power or as a frame for how it is exercised. In fact, upon closer inspection, the election of Obama supports the opposite inference. Despite the common refrain that Obama made history as the nation’s first post-racial Black candidate, the Obama campaign reflected the ongoing salience of race-consciousness among the electorate, the pundits, and the candidates. Obama’s steadied posture of racial avoidance was actually one of highly selective racial engagement, showcasing the candidate’s talent for deftly navigating the complex terrain of race and emerging with a reassuring tale of individual uplift—a moral, as it happens, best illustrated by the candidate’s own life story. The public image of Obama’s so-called race neutrality masked an intensely race-conscious campaign to counter Obama’s racial deficit on the electoral map. In key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, whites were mobilized to talk about race with other whites to neutralize Obama’s racial disadvantage. Even the celebration of Obama as “race-neutral” was obviously not colorblind, but rather a reflection of the opposite impulse. Voters and pundits of all races engaged in a complex assessment of Obama’s racial performance to determine what kind of Black Obama was going to be.

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