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  • Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society
  • Julie Novkov
Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. By Michael K. Brown et al.Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003; pp xi + 338. $27.50.

Whitewashing Raceis an extensive analysis of the current political and economic status of minorities in the United States, particularly African Americans, in the post–civil rights world of the twenty-first century. The book's agenda is driven home starkly throughout: the authors insist and empirically demonstrate that substantive equality remains out of reach for minorities across several dimensions of politics and society. The result is a thorough debunking of the recent wave of conservative attacks on the state's lukewarm efforts to intervene in and change the racial hierarchy embedded in the U.S. society and economy.

The book is carefully researched and passionately argued, but I fear that it cannot achieve its primary goal of shifting the contemporary terms of debate about race. Perhaps, though, no single book could make that contribution. Scholars on the left might be able to work toward achieving a shift by starting with Whitewashing Race's ground-clearing efforts. The book does, as I will detail, accomplish much of the critical work it sets out to do.

Whitewashing Racehas several different goals, all of which are urgent and commendable. First and foremost, the authors challenge the wave of conservative scholarship on race, picking apart the empirical claims of writers like Tamar Jacoby, Jim Sleeper, Dinesh D'Souza, Shelby Steele, and their favorite stalking horses Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom. Brown and his colleagues expose these writers' "racial realism" as a mask for racially biased assumptions and flawed research purporting to show that any lingering problems of minorities are solely of their own making. The second agenda is to shift the terms of the contemporary political debates about race, moving the focus away from individuals' behaviors and beliefs in favor of more focus on the institutionally embedded nature of racial hierarchy. Racism appears through this lens not as isolated behavior on the part of a few benighted individuals but instead as a multilayered system of promoting accumulation of resources (cultural, social, political, and economic) by whites at the expense of people of color. The third agenda, developed most directly in the book's final chapter, is to articulate a program for change that is sufficiently concrete and politically salient to gain support.

To demolish the conservative argument against state intervention for civil and economic rights, the authors present a series of case studies. The greatest strength of the book is in this collaborative effort. The reader is taken on a multidisciplinary exploration of a single premise—that conservative thinking on race fails to recognize the continued complicity of institutions in creating and maintaining racial hierarchy—in the context of employment, [End Page 334]education, the criminal justice system, affirmative action and legal doctrine, and voting rights. The book could have been written as a series of discipline-based essays on each of these topics by the authors, all of whom are sharp, top scholars in their own right. Instead, the authors produced a unified argument, carefully nuanced and moderated by the disciplinary tensions and interdisciplinary collaborations among them. Here we have sociological and political work that carefully acknowledges and incorporates legal categories and legal work with deep and rigorous empirical roots. The economic analysis relies upon a thick conception of political institutions. The work on education relies upon political, sociological, and economic insights as well as recent legal theory. The final product coherently and systematically attacks the conservative case and dismantles it both theoretically and empirically. Though one can easily attribute primary authorship of the empirical chapters among the authors, one can just as easily see the deep collaboration among them and the greater strength that the arguments have for having gone through this refinement.

The other great virtue of deep collaboration is that the book is quite readable. Because it really is a joint product, the pieces do not become so immersed within internal debates that they become contributions to their disciplines at the expense of making a broad and coherent argument. This...


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