Color Codes

Color Codes

Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society by Michael K. Brown, Martin Carnoy, Elliot Currie, Troy Duster, David B. Oppenheimer, Marjorie M. Shultz, and David Wellman

Whitewashing Race:
The Myth of a Color-Blind Society
By Michael K. Brown, Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie,
Troy Duster, David B. Oppenheimer,
Marjorie M. Shultz, and David Wellman
University of California Press, 2003
349 pp $27.50

Unfortunately, this is a very useful book. The authors have meticulously developed a case against the most respectable, and therefore most insidious, arguments that currently attempt to justify manifest racial inequalities. It should not be necessary to exert such intellectual labor to counter the same kinds of sophistries that have been around since Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley’s 1883 opinion overturning the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Recalling that Justice Bradley contended then that blacks no longer needed to be “special favorite of the laws” should give pause to those who maintain that positive anti-discrimination initiatives give blacks unfair advantage. Alas! That view has gathered steam during the last two decades, and the authors of Whitewashing Race provide an important public service in countering it. They challenge what they describe as an emerging “racial realism,” which claims that, as a result of the legislative victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, racism has been largely overcome as a significant determinant of black Americans’ life chances. According to this view, inequalities in employment, wealth and income, education, or arrest and incarceration have more to do with blacks’ own limitations than with discrimination or any systemic injustice.

Brown et al. identify several proponents of this view, but Whitewashing Race homes in on Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom’s massive America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, which represents itself as the most systematic argument against color conscious public policy in contemporary political discourse. This narrative choice makes sense both because of the Thernstroms’ pretensions toward empirical and historical thoroughness and because focusing on a single text helps sustain coherence of style and argument across the multiple-author volume. And Whitewashing Race is by and large cogently and consistently argued. It is also engagingly written.

Among the book’s contributions is its very clear, grounded discussion of the role of race in electoral apportionment, the area in which Abigail Thernstrom launched her attack on civil rights enforcement. The authors bring that discussion down from platitudes about democracy and representation to argue that no cookie-cutter style instruments can be applied to the issue of effective electoral representation. And they undercut the framework of Thernstrom and others who attempt, by logical sleight-of-hand, to characterize current voting rights enforcement techniques as vehicles for ensuring affirmative action for minorit...


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