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Are We All Postracial Yet? Debating race

Jesse Zink

David Theo Goldberg
Polity Press, 194pp

Following the shooting death of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri last year, the United States Department of Justice released two reports. One concluded that Wilson should not face federal criminal charges in the death. It found little evidence to support the claim - which had become widespread in protests after the shooting - that Brown had held up his hands and said, 'Don't shoot' shortly before Wilson did.

A second report, however, was damning. It concluded that the criminal justice system in Ferguson was riddled with inequity and discrimination. African-Americans accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets, and 93 percent of arrests, ratios that far exceeded their membership in the population at large. The city used its police and courts as money-making ventures, earning disproportionate revenue from tickets and fines and then jailing those who were unable to pay.

The two reports point to a challenge in talking about race in the twenty-first century. Racial discrimination is deeply embedded in societal structures, but it has an elusiveness in individual interactions that leaves many frustrated.

Race in contemporary society is the focus of David Theo Goldberg's extended essay Are We All Postracial Yet? The title is an evocation of a question that was often asked after the election of Barack Obama in 2008: given that a country founded by slave-owners had elected an African-American president, could we not therefore conclude that the United States has moved beyond race?

Goldberg begs to differ: racist expression is thriving, he argues, even at the very moment it is claimed to be a thing of the past. Indeed, the claim that racism is history is part of the problem. Rhetoric around race in the United States and elsewhere often seeks to expunge references to race, arguing for colourblindness and impartiality. Racism becomes not a problem for society but a matter of individual expression by a peripheral minority.

But this does not thereby do away with racial discrimination. Instead, it effectively hides it. This is what Goldberg calls postraciality: by insisting on the erasure of race, racial injustice is made more difficult to discern. To the question posed in the title, Goldberg therefore answers yes: contemporary society is postracial - and that has ominous implications. 'The founding pillar on which postraciality has been built now makes invisible the terms and conditions on which racisms historically have been predicated.'

Nor is postraciality confined to the United States. Goldberg ranges over examples from England (the Mark Duggan killing in London in 2011), Israel and Palestine, and his native South Africa. He paints with a broad brush, seeing only similarity and rarely highlighting differences between his cases, such as the black majority in South Africa. Repeatedly, Goldberg connects postraciality with global economic structures. The point is always made in passing and could have benefited from sustained argument to make the link clear. Race and class, for instance, often work together in forming structures of oppression and exclusion. One mode of discrimination cannot be fought independent of others.

While the passion driving Goldberg is clear, he does not always stir up the same in the reader. The book is hastily written and the writing suffers at times under the weight of its own grandiosity: overly long sentences, a surfeit of adjectives and adverbs that strip colour from the prose, and distracting parenthetical comments all combine to bury the text's meaning. Not all readers will have the patience to struggle through to the end.

It is in the final chapter that Goldberg turns to visions for the future. He endorses an approach that openly recognizes the role of race in society and works against it. These approaches are best made from below, 'a critical coalitional politics of insurgency and unsettlement.' This means the Black Lives Matter movement that has emerged in the United States since Brown's death in Ferguson. It means 'activists, artists, and intellectuals' committed to a new social vision. Such ideas are not new but Goldberg adds his fervour to the cause.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the argument comes in the final few pages. The world is a heterogeneous place, Goldberg notes, with an ever increasing array of social practices and styles of life. To live fully in this world, we need 'an agile conception of freedom' that can create an open, global society that is constantly engaging with others without turning them into the unknown Other.

Although Goldberg rarely mentions religion and never talks about the church - which suffers from its own legacy of racial discrimination and exclusion - it seems that here is the place in which Christians can begin to engage with race: on the one hand, the acknowledgment that we are enriched by people who are different from us as we grow into the fullness of life to which God calls us; and, on the other, the recognition that such relationships across difference require a disposition that is different from what we encounter in the world around us. It is in cultivating and modeling such a heterogeneous imagination that Christian engagement with a postracial world begins.