The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

Race Still Matters

The Racial Order

Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Grounds for Difference

Rogers Brubaker

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

Although few people realistically expected the election of Barack Obama to heal America’s long-festering racial wounds, it is striking how much more race seems to matter today than it did when the first black president took office. Or, more accurately, how much race still seems to matter to white people. Racism has always been real to those who experience its effects, but for much of white America, the story of racial progress has been a reassuring balm.

The inequalities didn’t go away on day one of the Obama presidency, of course—as is made so painfully evident by troubled urban schools, neighborhood segregation, and a prison system so heavily populated by black inmates that an observer might confuse our nation for apartheid South Africa. And there is the explicit racism, too, even if it is increasingly hidden and coded, leaving voter ID laws, welfare reform, and mass deportation open to at least some interpretation as to their intention. It’s not about race, the proponents of such measures say. This is still said, even after Eric Garner’s 2014 death was captured on video, the victim protesting his inability to breathe as he was being pressed to the ground by police while other officers looked on. Black Lives Matter has not made race an issue in American politics. Race has always been an issue in American politics. Black Lives Matter has simply helped white people recognize that this remains the case. Racial progress is real, but the story is far from over.

Why, then, is race still such a problem in America? Facile explanations abound: Racial inequality is just a matter of willpower, we are told, or else the real problem is a “culture of poverty.” Others say the problem is economic, that it’s a class issue more than anything else. Or maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe the problem is a lack of cultural pride and the mis-recognized need for racial autonomy. The problem with these variously proposed diagnoses is how easily they slip between the normative and the descriptive, the laying out of how things are against how they ought to be. It’s a mess that requires the care of a good theorist to sort out—or maybe three good theorists.

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Jeffrey Guhin was the Abd El-Kader Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia from 2013 to 2016. He is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His first book, on Muslim and evangelical high schools in the New York City area, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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