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Racialized Consciousness, Symbolic Representionalism, and the Prophetic/Critical Voice of the Black Intellectual

I. Introduction:  A Night to Remember So that We Can Forget

November 4th, 2008 was a night that African Americans will always remember.  It was also a night that most white Americans will also remember.  Unfortunately, it was also a night that allowed many Americans to forget that which should never be forgotten.  What have we forgotten?  We have forgotten the simple fact that racism is alive and well in the USA.  This is a fact that many (particularly white Americans) strive to forget.  In an interview entitled “Giving Whiteness a Black Eye: Excavating White Identities, Ideologies, and Institutions” Michael Eric Dyson states: “In regard to race, we are living in the United States of Amnesia.  We’ve got to revoke our citizenship in what Joseph Lowery terms “the 51st state, the state of denial.”[1]

Indeed, the day after the election I experienced this denial in full effect.  At a conference in Washington D.C. on the philosophy of Alain Locke, our keynote speaker, Professor Paul Taylor, in his address warned us against our pre-mature celebration of a post-racist America.  I was in agreement with Taylor.  However, I was astonished by the resistance to Taylor’s warning.  That night at dinner a couple of white colleagues and friends were quite critical of Taylor’s position, a position that I defended.  As I sat and talked with them I found myself in the same position that I’ve been in too often to remember in my twenty plus years in institutions of higher learning.  That is, I found myself trying to explain to my white friends how racism doesn’t just go away.  Even when it seems that racism no longer has the power to influence our decisions at the voting booth, it still has a strange way of surviving.  The sensitive victim of racism is painfully aware of how racism evolves and adapts so that it may bite us from behind.  In other words, I found myself working as an anti-racist surgeon with scalpel in hand trying to remove the cancerous blindfold from the eyes of my friends.  How frustrating!

It is this kind of experience with highly intelligent, well-intentioned, white liberals, who sincerely want to see racism come to an end that propels the critical consciousness and to some degree defines the critical role of the Black intellectual.  My friends were ready to eulogize racism after the election of Obama.  Such a move would only insure the survival of racism.

In this paper I will address the way in which even anti-racist, liberal whites fall victim to the evolution of racism.   Parts II will address what I call “racialized consciousness which is an attitude that permeates American society and allows new forms of racism to develop and persist undetected.  Part III will deal with the social mechanisms that work to maintain the structure of white supremacy while acknowledging African American achievement.  In Part IV will finally discuss the critical role of the modern Black intellectual.  The reason for saving my discussion of the critical role of the modern black intellectual until last is because before such a role can be discussed we must be clear about how racism works in this age of Obama.


II. Racialized Consciousness and Epistemologies of Ignorance

Nothing bothers me more than when TV talk show hosts invite as their guest groups like the KKK and the White Patriots Party, when they want to address the problem of racism in the US.  So, the audience gets to see a group of intellectually impaired individuals express their hatred for Blacks, Jews and gays.  This group is quickly ridiculed by the host and the audience.  What bothers me about this is not the racist individuals on stage, I can’t take them seriously.  I am bothered by the fact that Americans idea of racism is reduced to such groups.  This allows white Americans who not only do not belong to, but in fact, oppose such groups to think that they are not racist.  It allows them to get off the hook.

My critique here will not be of the blatant racist or white supremists, rather, I’m more concerned about those who get themselves off the hook by saying “I’m not like them”.  I am concerned about the so-called white anti-racist who unconsciously opens the door for the further victimization of Black people.  I have adopted the term “racialized consciousness” instead of racism because the term racism suggests a conscious commitment to white supremacy along with the intentional dehumanization of Blacks.

I have adopted the term “racialized consciousness” instead of racism because the term racism suggests a conscious commitment to some form of white supremacy along with the intentional dehumanization of people of color.  “Racialized consciousness is a term that will help us understand why even the well-intentioned white liberal who has participated in the struggle against racism may perpetuate a form of racism unintentionally.”[2]

In some ways, the notion of racialized consciousness is not that different from the concepts of institutionalized or structural racism.  Both of these terms point to the ongoing work of racism behind the backs of conscious, intentional agents.  In short, there is a growing awareness that social institutions are structured in such a way that even after the overturning of blatant racist laws and practices in response to the civil rights movement, African Americans still suffer from various forms of inequality.  Although racial discrimination in its de jure form has seemingly come to an end, it still exists in its de facto form.  If this is the case, then why would white liberals think that post-election 2008 we are in a post-racist America?  My term “racilized consciousness” is a theoretical concept used to explore a type of social ignorance that permeates White America as well as Black America to some degree.  However, racialized consciousness does not work the same in blacks as it does in whites.  I will explain this later.

Racialized consciousness designates a dialectic of conscious and unconscious social action.  It points to a form of social ignorance that undergirds even conscious, well-intentioned actions and beliefs.  The concept of habitus developed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is helpful for unpacking my notion of racialized consciousness.

The habitus – embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history – is the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product.   As such, it is what gives practices their relative autonomy with respect to external determinations of the immediate present.  This autonomy is that of the past, enacted and acting, which, functioning as accumulated capital, produces history on the basis of history and so ensures the permanence in change that makes the individual agent a world within the world.  The habitus is a spontaneity without consciousness or will, opposed as much to the mechanical necessity of things without history in mechanistic theories as it is to the reflexive freedom of subjects `without inertia’ in rationalist theories.[3]

Due to their histories black people and white people live in two separate worlds.  The fact that whites were more willing to see the US post-racist than blacks suggests a difference of perception due to the habitus.  Of course, these two worlds overlap and there is a shared experience like the middle part of two sides of an overlapping Venn’s diagram.  This may sound highly problematic at first but I think that an examination of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and the formation of consciousness will bring some clarity to my claim.

While consciousness is always consciousness of something, it is not the case that consciousness is conscious of its own formation.  This being the case, consciousness always carries with it the unconscious mechanisms of its own formation.  This is precisely what the habitus is.  It is the unconscious conditions for the formation of consciousness.  This is very important for understanding racialized consciousness and white racialized ignorance.  While a white person may not be consciously or intentionally racist, he or she has developed practices, values, ways of being, ways of seeing, and ways of interpreting social phenomena that allows some form of white supremacy to survive.  To the extent that whites and black have had a very different experience in America it seems that these embodied histories would naturally produce different perspectives on social phenomena.  I recall several conversations with white and black people after 9/11.  Almost all of the white people whom I talked with spoke of feeling insecure for the first time in their lives.  Blacks on the other hand tended to claim that nothing has changed regarding their sense of security.  The point is that to be black in America is to always feel insecure and unsafe.  This dichotomy is a reflection of our radically different histories as well as present social structures that disadvantage blacks in a number of ways.

I could say much more about the different worlds that Black people and white People occupy, however, that would require far too much space, and, there is already a huge body of literature on this.  I now want to turn to the overlap between our worlds.  This is where the problem lies in this age of Obama and the premature belief that we now have a color-blind society.  We must admit that over the years quite a bit of progress has been made in terms of race relations.  However, we still have far to go.  One of the major obstacles to further progress is the desire by whites to claim at every step “it is finished”.  I said in my introduction that I was in agreement with Paul Taylor’s assessment of the post-election hype.  There is perhaps one small disagreement between us and this may be due to a misunderstanding.  Nevertheless, whether I misunderstood Professor Taylor is irrelevant to the point that I’m going to make.  Professor Taylor criticized the tendency among whites to celebrate post-racism after the 2008 election.  I agree with him here.  He went on to point out that for decades now blacks have moved into positions that were once reserved for whites.  We have an incredible list a black achievement in the arts, politics, academia etc.  There are black doctors and lawyers on TV and in real life ect.  So, why is it the case that it took the election of Barak Obama to prove to blacks that we can be somebody?  Taylor’s view was that this was just one more move by whites to ignore racism by pretending that we are now post-racist.

It seemed to me as if Taylor took this attitude of whites as a recent phenomenon.  This might be where I misunderstood him.  However, this move by whites is historical.  It is the attitude that blacks have what they want, so, we’ve done enough.  This was the attitude after slavery and even during several phases of the civil rights movement.  Whites have had a tendency historically to say to blacks after every new black achievement, “you’ve made it, now there is no more racism”.  However, somehow blacks still tend to linger at the bottom of the socio/economic ladder.  It seems funny to me that people think that racism ends with just one event.  When does the post-racist moment occur?  Did it occur after the election?  Did it occur at some point before the election and we were not aware of it until election day?  Were we post-racist on November 3rd 2008 and black people did not know that their situation in America had changed?  Granted, the election of Obama is a historical moment and it puts black skin where it has never been before, but does this change the situation of all black skin in America.  No.

In the last section I will talk in more detail about the role of the black intellectual today.

However, in passing I would like to mention the task of the black intellectual as well as the task for all persons who truly want the US to become a non-racist society.  Racism or racialized consciousness evolves over time.  It has a way of maintaining itself by responding to any form of progress.  I cite Bourdieu on the nature of habitus again:

The habitus which, at every moment, structures new experiences in accordance with the structures produced by past experiences, which are modified by the new experiences within the limits defined by their power of selection, brings about a unique integration, dominated by the earliest experiences, of the experiences statistically common to members of the same class.  Early experiences have particular weight because the habitus tends to ensure its own constancy and its defence against change through the selection it makes within new information by rejecting information capable of calling into question its accumulated information, if exposed to it accidentally of by force, especially by avoiding exposure to such information.[4]


III. Complimentary Racism and Symbolic Representationalism

In the previous section I discussed racialized consciousness as habitus, a structured and structuring structure that allows racism in its unconscious and unintentional form to reproduce itself.  In this section I will focus on a particular form of racialized consciousness and its function.  On several occasions during my college years white students would refer to me as the “smart black guy”.  On a couple of occasions a white friend would say to me “you’re the smartest black that I know”.  Black academics are accustomed to hearing from whites “you are so articulate”.  Here one is reminded of Joe Biden’s comments about Obama’s articulateness and cleanliness after Obama announced his candidacy for the Presidency.

What appears to be a compliment actually functions as a mechanism for the perpetuation of racism and racist stereotypes.  It also functions to separate the “good black” (the type that whites can tolerate) from the “bad black” (the dangerous, over sexed thug).  The “compliment”, in fact, serves to establish in white minds a universal law.  The law is that Blacks are generally bad, ugly, ignorant, lazy, etc.  The “compliment” elevates an individual above the group.  “This one is an exception to the rule.”  The effect is the creation of a new class of Blacks that Whites can tolerate and in some cases even love.

To get back to the Venn’s diagram analogy that I used earlier, the space where the two circles overlap is the space occupied by Whites and is open for the entrance of certain types of Blacks.  By being an exception to the rule, these Blacks are to some degree de-racialized.  As exceptional, they no longer properly fit the category Black.  Yet, they must be labeled as black so that the whites who embrace them can say that they are not racist, that they are color-blind.  Hence, the exceptional Black is engaged in the performance of blackness, a performance that must properly balance whiteness and blackness.

While Obama identifies himself as black, he has had to avoid directly addressing on going racial inequalities.  These inequalities are very real and are disclosed year after year in various studies and lived experience.

The Black unemployment rate is currently 11.9%.  Among Black males age 16-19 unemployment is 38%. Unemployment for whites in 2008 was 5.8%.

The median household incomes of Blacks and Latinos are $38,269 and 40,000 respectively, while the median household income of whites is $61,280.

People of color are disproportionately poor in the United States.  Blacks and Latinos have poverty rates of 24% and 21% respectively, compared to their white counterparts.

Nationally, the typical African-American family today possesses less than 10 percent of the net worth of the average white family.  Almost 30 percent of black families have zero or negative net worth.  And far fewer blacks than whites benefit from inherited wealth or assets.

On the median, for every dollar of white wealth, people of color have 15 cents.  On average, people of color have 8 cents for every dollar of white wealth.[5]

The situation of blacks in America has not changed under Obama.  In fact, Obama has apparently made a conscious effort to avoid dealing with black issues.  One need only think of the several invitations to meet with black leaders, activists, and scholars that he has turned down.  Also, his willingness to distance himself from Rev. Wright during his campaign.

The problem of complimentary racism opens the door for a new form of racialized consciousness that I call symbolic representationalism.  That is, the exceptional black becomes a symbol for the progress of the entire race.  The success of certain black elites and the ascendency of Barack Obama to the White House is certainly a sign of progress.  However, not nearly enough progress has been made to suggest that we are in a post-racist or color-blind society.  Symbolic representationalism then, functions as a distraction.  It allows the struggle for complete equality to come to an end because we can always point to the symbols of black achievement.  In this respect, whites and blacks perpetuate a form of racialized consciousness.  While whites are too quick to assert that America is post-racist, blacks are inclined to avoid critique or critical engagement with leaders such as Obama.  Blacks are too content to have a black President to actually ask “what has the President done”.   It is with this idea in mind that we are ready to examine the role of the modern black intellectual.


IV. Giving Voice to Ruins: The Prophetic Role of the Black Intellectual

First, I must say that it is my position that all intellectuals should play a prophetic role in a society such as ours.  It is unimaginable to me that any intellectual can be content with the level of class, race, gender, and sexual oppression and repression in American society and in the world.  For me, the intellectual should use his or her knowledge to envision a better society.  The prophetic intellectual is one who orients his or her intellectual labor around what Douglas Kellner calls the three Cs of critical theory.  Indeed, the prophetic intellectual must be a critical theorist (not necessarily in the Frankfurt School sense).  Kellner writes:

From a methodological point of view, critical theory is at once to comprehend the given society, criticize its contradictions and failures, and to construct alternatives.[6]

I think that this is especially true for the black intellectual given the history of black people in America.  We owe it to blacks in the prophetic tradition whose struggle made it possible for us to enter the halls of academia.  We owe it to our aunts, uncles, and cousins who have not been as lucky as we have.  However, the black intellectual who dares occupy the position of critical theorist or prophetic voice is in a precarious place.

Before explaining the prophetic role of the black intellectual and its precarious nature, I would like to situate the prophetic black intellectual by taking a look at Walter Benjamin’s “Ninth Thesis on History”.

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.  His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  This storm is called progress.[7]

I turn to Benjamin at this moment because this thesis accurately represents the situation that we are in with regards to race, class, gender, sexual orientation etc., in the US.    Oppression succeeds if it can get the oppressor as well as the oppressed to look in the same direction and speak the same language.  In our present situation privileged whites and oppressed blacks look toward Obama and see racial progress.  Indeed, the very presence of Obama in the White House (as well as the presence of a few black in predominantly white academic institutions) is a sign of progress.  However, this is the reduction of race relations to symbolic representationalism.  Turning our gaze toward the symbol of progress forces us to not see the wreckage that continues to pile up.  This creates a very bad situation for those blacks who are still discriminated against, who live in poverty, and still experience disrespect and dehumanization on a daily basis.  The claim to be post-racist because of the success of a few individuals and because there is a bi-racial individual in the White House does nothing more that permit various forms of racism to continue.  The victims of this ongoing racism have no weapons with which to fight because they are told that racism is over.

In the above passage by Benjamin, the angel looks in a different direction than the rest of society.  He sees what no one else sees and it horrifies him.  While others are shouting “progress” the angel sees the ongoing legacy and long-term consequences of the system of white supremacy.  This system has not been abolished but has only change forms.  It is difficult for most to see that the system of white supremacy is still in place because of the number of symbols of black achievement that cloud our vision.  This is the importance of the different direction in which the angel looks.  In fact, this different direction represents a different place.  The angel sees from a different place.  He sees from the position of the old and new victims of racism.  He sees from the perspective of the poor.  He sees from the perspective of the wreckage or the ruins of history.  He does not see Obama, instead, he sees the masses of black folk who even the Obama lovers despise.  He sees the cooks and housekeepers in our white academic institutions who are constantly treated with disrespect by white academics who voted for Obama.

The black intellectual who really wants to make progress with regards to race relations must put him or herself in the place of the angel of history.  That means, he or she must recognize the degree to which little progress has been made.  Such an intellectual must side with the ruins of history even if it means challenging the symbols.  Black people are not better off because Obama is in office.  First, Obama’s presidency does not mean that we are in a post-racist society.  All it means is that he is the kind of black that many white Americans are comfortable with.  Secondly, blacks are not better off because they now have someone looking out for them.  I have already discussed Obama’s attempt to avoid the issue of race.

The modern black intellectual must focus his or her attention on Sly Stone’s “everyday people”.  It is the situation, lives, and experiences of everyday people that will tell us when we have a post-racist society, not an elected politician or movie star, or athlete etc.  This means that the black intellectual must agitate.  He or she must disrupt our desire to find premature comfort in our small stages of progress.  The struggle for social justice is not finished until the “least of these” no longer suffer from disrespect, dehumanization, and the lack of the necessary resources for self-development and self-determination.  The prophetic black intellectual runs the risk of being unpopular because the oppressor and the oppressed tend to find comfort in these small, brief moments of progress.  The black intellectual must dismantle the mechanism of symbolic representationalism for the sake of real progress.  This will of course put the intellectual at odds with his or her society.  With respect to Obama, the black intellectual must find a balance between supporter and critic.  In fact, to be a supporter is to be a critic.  If Obama is going to make the change that he promised, he must be pushed by those who have not been fooled by symbolic representationalism.



[1] Michael Eric Dyson, “Giving Whiteness a Black Eye: Excavating White Identities, Ideologies, and Institutions” In, Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture and Religion(Basic Books, 2003) p. 112.

[2] Arnold L. Farr, “Whiteness Visible: Enlightenment Racism and the Structure of Racialized Consciousness” In George Yancy ed, What White Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question (New York and London: Routledge, 2004). P. 144-145.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice Translated by Richard Nice (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990) p56.

[4] Ibid., p. 60-61.

[5] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary America  (Lanhan, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC, 2010)  P. 209-210.

[6] Douglas Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and London: Macmillan, 1984) p. 122-123.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations Ed. Hannah Arendt Translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) p. 257-258.

1 comment

1 Ron Salzberger { 03.29.12 at 6:35 pm }

Isn’t the very notion of “the black intellectual” problematic? Isn’t this desigmator a tad too definite? Think McWhorter and West.