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The Colorblind ScreenTelevision in Post-Racial America$

Sarah Nilsen and Sarah E. Turner

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9781479809769

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479809769.001.0001

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The End of Racism?

The End of Racism?

Colorblind Racism and Popular Media

Chapter:
(p.57) 3 The End of Racism?
Source:
The Colorblind Screen
Author(s):

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

Austin Ashe

Publisher:
NYU Press
DOI:10.18574/nyu/9781479809769.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the discursive strategies utilized by both the media and popular culture in their commentaries on the Obama moment. These strategies—referred to as “racial grammar”—serve as a formidable political tool for the maintenance of racial order. Through an exploration of housing policies, the chapter demonstrates the subtle institutionalized impact of colorblind policies and “post-racial nonsense.” A close examination of research in the areas of housing, education, and everyday social interaction reveals little progress since the 1960s as Blacks are still more segregated than any other racial or ethnic group in America. The actual difference between the de jure racism of the Jim Crow era and the smiling face of segregation today is simply in how it is accomplished. The colorblind racism that emerged in post-racial America is therefore contradictory. Despite its genteel character, colorblind racism somehow safeguards white supremacy.

Keywords:   media, popular culture, Barack Obama, racial grammar, political tool, racial order, housing policies, colorblindness, colorblind racism, Blacks

Introduction: Colorblindness in Obamerica

In the beginning, Obama created the heavens and the earth and America became a nation no longer divided by race.1 A mythology that emerged in the post–civil rights era (from the 1970s onward) has become accepted dogma among whites with the election of Barack Obama: the idea that race is no longer a central factor determining the life chances of Americans. Journalists (Dowd 2009; Shapiro 2004), political advisers (Ifill 2009), some people of color (Reed and Louis 2009), and most whites (CBS 2009) have deemed the election of our first black president evidence that we have entered a “post-racial” era.

Despite the dominant white common sense about race becoming a secondary matter in the nation, media coverage of Obama’s campaign and presidency has actually been saturated with discussions about race.2 Nevertheless, Obama and his administration have all worked hard to maintain a colorblind (or race-blind) stand that fits perfectly the racial game of post–civil rights America. In contrast to the belief that his victory represents the “end of racism,” we contend Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency is part and parcel of the “New Racism.” In fact, Bonilla-Silva has argued the Obama phenomenon can be explained as the culmination of forty years of racial transition from the Jim Crow era to what he calls the “New Racism” regime (2010; cf. Bobo, Kluegel, and Smith 1997; Essed 1991). This is the fundamental explanation behind the Obama “miracle” (Bonilla-Silva and Seamster 2011). Among other (p.58) things, the age of Obama has ushered in (1) framing Obama’s multiracial heritage as “exceptional”;3 (2) the strategic portrayal of Obama’s family as “ethnic,” rather than black; (3) the emphasis on the traditional character and stability of Obama’s marriage and family, making them “exceptional” and thus “acceptable blacks”; (4) the careful construction of a nonthreatening, nonsexualized, black masculine identity; (5) the avoidance of any clear public connection to black leaders and the black community; (6) the careful retreat from any controversy that tastes of race;4 and (7) the hesitant yet consistent hint by Obama and his administration that race is no longer the central reason behind blacks’ role in America.

The potency of Obama’s “hope liquor” (Bonilla-Silva 2010) has gotten the country drunk with delusions of racial harmony. Average Americans and social analysts alike argue that race has “declined in significance” (Wilson 1978; Sakamoto, Wu, and Tzeng 2000; Wakefield and Uggen 2004), yet whites and people of color remain separate and disturbingly unequal in all sorts of matters (Sampson and Sharkey 2008). To account for this contradiction—a post-racial nation with growing racial disparities—whites have developed a new racial repertoire of explanations. Instead of claiming people of color are biologically or naturally inferior as they did during the Jim Crow era, they explain their status nowadays as the products of aberrant behaviors (e.g., having too many babies) or lacking the proper work ethic, or due to non-racial market factors (Bobo and Charles 2009; Hunt 2007). More troublesome is that many minority elite commentators (e.g., Steele 2006; O. Patterson 2006; McWhorter 2001) and more than a few liberals such as comedian Bill Cosby (Cosby and Poussaint 2007) and actor Will Smith are also embracing these views (Smith 2008).5

The belief that America is a post-racial nation is based on a narrowly defined notion of racism. For most whites (most social scientists included), racism is fundamentally an ideological or attitudinal phenomenon. In contrast, radical and progressive scholars regard racism as a structure, that is, as a network of relations at the social, political, economic, and ideological levels that shapes the life chances of the various racial groups (Bonilla-Silva 1997). The foundation of this structure, as with all social structure, is material: that the group in the superordinate position (whites) accrues systemic advantages over nonwhites and thus develops an interest in the reproduction of their dominant status position. What people (again, most social scientists included) define as racism is conceptualized in this (p.59) framework as racial ideology. Racial ideology helps explain and justify racial inequality in society as well as cement racial stratification.

From this vantage point, rather than arguing about whether race has “declined in significance” (Wilson 1978), increased, or not changed at all, the issue at hand is assessing if the racial structure in the United States has undergone a transformation. We argue that racial oppression in America is still “systemic” (Feagin 2006), thus affecting all people and institutions. Racism is not limited to “racist,” uneducated, working-class people in the South, as was suggested by the media in the 2008 election, but is a structural problem affecting all of us (Bonilla-Silva 1997)—whites, as the superordinate group, receive material benefits and rewards,6 and people of color, as the racially subordinated groups, experience systemic disadvantages. In contemporary America, the racial practices7 and behaviors responsible for the reproduction of racial inequality are mostly subtle, apparently nonracial, and institutionalized. This new racial regime has been labeled by Bonilla-Silva as the “New Racism” (2001), and not surprisingly, the ideological anchor of this new regime, colorblind racism, is equally slippery and seemingly nonracial (Bonilla-Silva 2001; Bonilla-Silva and Doane 2003; see Caditz 1976 for an early work that captured this ideological transition).

Framing the current post-racial moment and the Obama phenomenon properly requires an understanding of how racism in the post–civil rights era fits the New Racism and its ideological anchor—colorblind racism. Our discussion of race and racism in Obamerica will consist of three parts. First, we describe the New Racism that emerged in the 1970s. Second, we explain the ideology of colorblind racism that co-emerged with the New Racism. Third, we illustrate how colorblind racism works in the popular media, which is the focus of this book. We conclude by making some general observations about the peculiar moment we live in, how it will shape the cultural and political terrain, and how we can fight the current illusion we are facing where nothing seems to be racial yet all is.

The New Racism: Jim Crow with a Smile

Just as Jim Crow racism served to justify racial oppression in the past, the New Racism upholds racial inequality in contemporary America. It is our contention that despite the profound changes that occurred in (p.60) the 1960s, a new racial structure is operating that accounts for the persistence of racial inequality. The elements that constitute this new racial structure are (1) the increasingly covert nature of racial discourse and racial practices; (2) the avoidance of racial terminology and the ever-growing claim by whites that they experience “reverse racism”; (3) the elaboration of a racial agenda over political matters that eschew direct racial references; (4) the invisibility of most mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality; and, finally, (5) the rearticulation of some racial practices characteristic of the Jim Crow period of race relations.8

There are many examples of how the new character of racism has played out in the political, social, and economic institutions of America. To illustrate this reality, we will provide a brief discussion of how residential segregation and housing discrimination operated in the past and how it works today in New Racism fashion to maintain racial inequality. We show that there is little evidence suggesting that residential segregation and housing discrimination will end any time soon unless there are significant systemic and institutional transformations.

Welcome to the Neighborhood: Residential Segregation and Housing Discrimination

A close examination of research in the areas of housing, education, and everyday social interaction reveals startlingly little progress since the 1960s. Data from the 2010 U.S. census indicate that residential segregation has declined for the fourth straight decade (CensusScope 2011), but these segregation indices tell only part of the story about segregation (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 2008). The apparent decline fails to account for the way that social distance operates in so-called integrated neighborhoods (Mayorga 2012). Mayorga (2012) observes and analyzes social interaction between and within three racial and ethnic groups in an integrated neighborhood. By focusing on social relationships in an integrated neighborhood, she moves beyond traditional studies of segregation research that use segregation indices, such as the dissimilarity index.9 By measuring social distance through neighborhood observations, in-depth interviews with residents, and a neighborhood-wide survey, Mayorga finds that racial segregation persists and that researchers must go beyond census-based analyses when studying racial segregation.

(p.61) Furthermore, blacks are still more segregated than any other racial or ethnic group (Logan 2003; Zhao 2005; Zhao, Ondrich, and Yinger 2006)—segregation that they have experienced longer than any other group—and are segregated at every income level. The black poor, in particular, suffer the greatest degree of segregation, and this pattern of extreme isolation has remained the same through the last third of the previous century (Cashin 2004). The actual difference between the de jure racism of the Jim Crow era and the smiling face of segregation today is simply in how it is accomplished. In the past, the housing industry used overtly discriminatory practices such as real estate agents employing outright refusal or subterfuge to avoid renting or selling to black customers, federal government redlining policies, overtly discriminatory insurance and lending practices, and racially restrictive covenants on housing deeds in order to maintain segregated communities (Tauber and Tauber 1965; Tabb 1970; Massey and Denton 1993). In contrast, the covert behaviors of colorblind racism have replaced these practices and have maintained the same outcome: separate communities. The contemporary racial practices are subtle, indirect, and fluid and operate at the economic, political, social, and ideological levels. The current racial practices that reproduce racial inequality in contemporary America (1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most whites (Bonilla-Silva 1997).

Many studies have detailed the obstacles that minorities face from government agencies, real estate agents, moneylenders, and white residents. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that controlling for a number of variables, blacks on average were denied loans 60 percent more times than whites (Oliver and Shapiro 2006). In an overview of mortgage loan practices during the 1990s, Turner and Skidmore (1999) reported blacks received less information from loan officers, were quoted higher interest rates, and suffered higher loan denial rates. Much of the gain in home ownership among African Americans in the 1990s was achieved through subprime lenders who offered usurious rates, due in large part to the continued practice of redlining of black neighborhoods by mainstream lenders (Williams, Nesiba, and McConnell 2005; Cashin 2004).

Results from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 1989 and 2000 Housing Discrimination Study (HDS) both (p.62) found significant levels of racial discrimination. Reports based on the 1989 HDS found that blacks and Latinos were discriminated against in approximately half of their efforts to rent or buy housing (Turner, Struyk, and Yinger 1991). Using the 2000 audit of housing discrimination, Turner et al. (2002) report that, although there have been improvements since the 1989 audit, whites continue to be given more information about potential rentals and are shown more available housing units in both the rental and sales markets. This study also showed a significant increase in geographic steering that perpetuated segregation predominantly through real estate agent editorializing. Using the audit data from the 2000 HDS, Zhao (2005), controlling for the auditors’ socioeconomic status, find that blacks are shown 30 percent fewer units than whites, while Latinos are shown 10 percent fewer units. Zhao (2005) also find that discrimination against blacks has actually increased by 12 percent since 1989 and is mostly due to white prejudice. In examining racial and ethnic discrimination among real estate brokers specifically, Zhao, Ondrich, and Yinger (2006) find that discrimination remains strong but has declined since 1989.

These housing studies have found that when compared with whites, blacks are shown fewer apartments, quoted higher rents, offered worse conditions, and steered to specific neighborhoods (Yinger 1986; Galster 1990; Turner, Struyk, and Yinger 1991; Turner et al. 2002; Zhao 2005; Zhao, Ondrich, and Yinger 2006). African Americans and Latinos are also differentially marketed risky subprime loans (Rugh and Massey 2010), explaining a major factor in why minorities suffered disproportionately from the recent housing bubble and wave of foreclosures. Even minorities with similar incomes and credit scores as white borrowers are found to still receive less favorable loans and are charged additional fees (Aleo and Svirsky 2008).

Segregation continues to be a serious consequence of contemporary racial practices. Framing housing discrimination as a part of America’s racist past is misleading and serves to maintain the racial order. As rental markets increasingly move online, we must develop appropriate techniques for studying housing discrimination in cyberspace (Ahmed and Hammarstedt 2008). Recent audit studies have found that racism persists in the online housing market. Research examining the online rental market using racialized names (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004; (p.63) Hanson and Hawley 2011) found significant levels of discrimination against African Americans. Landlords respond to e-mails from white names more formally and politely. They also respond more quickly and send longer e-mails to inquiries from white renters (Hanson, Hawley, and Taylor 2011). The wealth of evidence proving the continued significance of racism in the housing market is simply an example of one domain in which the New Racism upholds an unequal structure. Essential to the maintenance of this racial hierarchy is its ideological component, colorblind racism, which we discuss in detail in the next section.

The (White) Color of Colorblind Racism

Bonilla-Silva (2001) argues that the dominant racial views held by whites constitute an ideology rather than mere prejudice. By this we mean that this ideology should be understood within the context of how power relations between whites and nonwhites are maintained in the racial arena. Thus, because the civil rights movement forced changes in the way racial inequality is reproduced in the United States,10 new explanations, accounts, and vocabulary emerged to justify the racial status quo.

According to Omi and Winant (1986), the first phase of the civil rights movement produced real although limited reforms (e.g., enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and registration of millions of southern black voters). However, the economic status of most blacks was left unaffected by these reforms. To understand this significant ideological shift, we must also recognize that the civil rights rebellion, in conjunction with other social, economic, and demographic changes, dramatically altered the nature of the racial order. Today the maintenance of “white privilege” (McIntosh 1998) no longer depends on the subordinated incorporation of all individual members of racial minority groups in the economic, social, and political spheres. Instead, it is reproduced in a mostly institutional way.

For analytical purposes, racial ideology can be conceived as consisting of the following three elements: frames, styles, and racial stories. Systematic interview data are used in this section to illustrate how these three components function to create apparently nonracial explanations of race events. The data come from two similarly structured projects. The first is the 1997 Survey of Social Attitudes of College Students, (p.64) based on a convenience sample of 627 college students (including 451 white students) surveyed at a large midwestern university (henceforth MU), a large southern university, and a medium-size West Coast university. The second data source is the 1998 Detroit Area Study (DAS), a probabilistic survey of 323 white and 67 black Detroit metropolitan area residents. In this section we use these data to briefly explain the functions of colorblind frames, styles, and stories (Bonilla-Silva 2010).

Frames are the unacknowledged, contextual standpoints that provide the intellectual and moral building blocks whites (and some blacks) use to explain racial matters. We discuss only the abstract liberalism frame in detail here;11 this frame incorporates values associated with political and economic liberalism in an abstract and decontextualized manner. The framing of race-related issues through liberalism allows whites to present themselves as “reasonable” and even “moral” while opposing all practical approaches to deal with racial inequality. For instance, by using the tenets of the free market ideology in the abstract, whites can oppose affirmative action as a violation of the norm of equal opportunity. The following example illustrates how whites use this frame. Jim, a thirty-year-old computer software salesperson from a privileged background, explained his opposition to affirmative action as follows:

I think it’s unfair top to bottom on everybody and the whole process. It often, you know, discrimination itself is a bad word, right? But you discriminate every day. You wanna buy a beer at the store and there are six kinda beers you can get from Natural Light to Sam Adams, right? And you look at the price and you look at the kind of beer, and you … it’s a choice. … And it’s the same thing about getting into school or getting into some place. … I don’t think [MU] has a lot of racism in the admissions process. … So why not just pick people that are going to do well at Midwestern University, pick people by their merit? I think we should stop the whole idea of choosing people based on their color.

Because Jim assumes decisions are like market choices (choosing between competing brands of beer), he embraces a laissez-faire position on racial discrimination. The problem with Jim’s view is that labor market discrimination is alive and well (Holzer 2009), and most jobs are obtained through informal networks (Royster 2003). Jim’s abstract (p.65) position is further cushioned by his belief that although blacks “perceive or feel” like there is a lot of discrimination, he does not see much out there. Therefore, by upholding a strict laissez-faire view on hiring and at the same time ignoring the significant impact of discrimination in the labor market, Jim can safely voice his opposition to affirmative action in an apparently race-neutral way. This frame allows whites to be unconcerned about school and residential segregation, oppose almost any kind of government intervention to ameliorate the effects of past and contemporary discrimination, and even support their preferences for whites as partners and friends as a matter of choice.

The style of a racial ideology refers to its particular linguistic manners and rhetorical strategies or the tools that allow users to articulate the frames and stories of an ideology. Because overt racist talk in public venues is no longer tolerated, contemporary racial discussions must be done in code or with shields that allow individuals to express their views in a way that preserves their image of race neutrality.12 In the following, we highlight a few of the stylistic components of colorblind racism.

“Semantic moves” or “strategically managed propositions” are phrases that are interjected in speech when an individual is about to state a position that is seemingly racist. Two classic examples of semantic moves are “I’m not prejudiced, but …” and “Some of my best friends are black.”13 A woman in her sixties used the former move in her explanation of why blacks are worse off than whites in the United States:

Well, I’m gonna be, you understand, I’m not prejudice or racial or whatever. They’re always given the smut jobs because they would do it. Then they stopped, they stopped doing [them]. The welfare system got to be very, very easy. And I’m not saying all, there’s many, many white people on welfare that shouldn’t be. But if you take the percentage in the Tri-City county area, you will find that the majority are white, but all you see is the black people on welfare. … And it was easier to collect welfare from the state rather than go out and get a job. Why work if the government’s gonna take care of you? (57)

This is a classic example of how these moves are used. After she interjected the “I’m not prejudice or racial or whatever,” this older woman (p.66) proceeded to state her belief that blacks are lazy and welfare-dependent. The ideological value of the disclaimer is clear as it allowed this respondent to justify racial inequality in an overt way without opening herself to the charge of racism.

In addition to frames and styles, racial stories refer to the narratives whites use to articulate and bolster their racial accounts and work as story lines (generic stories without much personal content) and testimonies (stories that are seemingly personal). The racial stories associated with colorblind racism assist whites in making sense of their world in ways that reinforce the racial order. Racial storytelling is ideological because the stories are collectively produced and circulated, as if there is only one way of telling them. Racial stories thus are extremely powerful tools because they seem to lie in the realm of the given, in the matter-of-fact world.

Story lines are socially shared tales that are fable-like and incorporate a common scheme or wording. The dominant story lines of the post–civil rights era are “The past is the past,” “I didn’t own any slaves,” “I did not get a job, or was not admitted to college, because of a minority,” and “If Jews, Irish, and Italians made it, how come blacks have not?” Roland, an electrical engineer in his forties, used the first two story lines when expressing his extreme displeasure with the idea of reparations:

I think they’ve gotten enough. I don’t think we need to pay them anything or I think as long as they are afforded opportunities and avail themselves to the opportunities like everybody else. I, I don’t know why we should give them any reparation for something that happened, you know … I can’t, I can’t help what happened in the 1400s, the 1500s, or the 1600s, when the blacks were brought over here and put into slavery. I mean, I had no control over that, neither did you, so I don’t think we should do anything as far as reparations are concerned. (81)

Roland, like most whites,14 assumes that discrimination means slavery and thus that it is something in America’s remote past. By missing 150 years of racial history, Roland could voice his anger over the idea of reparations. The components of colorblind racism (styles, frames, and racial stories) have proved to be strategically attuned to maintain the (p.67) New Racism. In the next section, we discuss how the new racial discourse and racial practices are expressed in the media.

Media (Colorblind) Racism in Post–Civil Rights America

Since the mid-1980s, major media companies have transformed the entertainment industry by purchasing smaller firms to form larger conglomerates. These media conglomerates are increasingly global, with a handful of media giants dominating what we see, hear, and read (Crouteau and Hoynes 2001). CBS, Disney, News Corp, and Time Warner are among the largest of these media corporations (Kratz 2009), which continue to dominate the industry. The media is a necessary site for understanding racial ideologies because it plays such an important role in the production, reproduction, and transformation of ideologies.15

Clark (1969) argues that there are four stages of media representation for social groups: The first stage, nonrecognition, refers to no appearance at all, while the second, ridicule, indicates inclusion only in stereotypical images. The third stage, protectors, describes the moment that representation expands to include roles as police officers and detectives, and stage four, respect, refers to variation in media representation so that all sorts of characters are presented. This is a useful frame to start a conversation about media representation given that media is directly involved in the production and transformation of ideologies (Hall 1981). While it is true that the first black representations in television were solely stereotypical roles (Coleman 2000) and that now there are a variety of roles for people of color, blacks are still usually represented stereotypically (e.g., in the films The Blind Side [2009] and The Help [2011]), with the addition of the more “positive” but latently racist characters (Hughey 2009). While the media does not present one unified image of race, we argue that the predominant production is of a colorblind notion of race and racism.

In this section we provide a discussion of how colorblind racism is reflected in the media with examples from television and film. First, we will discuss how diverse casts can serve to support the dominant ideology through symbolic inclusion. Second, we will address how color-blind racism allows a space for the “ethnically ambiguous” to receive roles that were once restricted to whites.

(p.68) Diverse for the Worst

Diversity has been articulated as a part of the liberal solution to racism. Racism in the media can therefore be seen as resolved with more diverse casts. The latest report by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD 2011) shows that overall ethnic diversity on prime-time broadcast scripted series has dropped. According to the Screen Actors Guild’s most recent data (SAG 2008), African American actors held 13.3 percent of all film and television roles in 2008, down from 14.8 percent in 2007. Latinos were also slightly down in their proportion of roles from 2007–2008, particularly in lead roles (SAG 2008). Still, this numerical assessment of representation is inadequate considering that the roles for minorities are mostly symbolic. If racism in the media could be resolved by simply increasing the number of minority roles, then it would seem that racism in the media is gone for the most part. Instead, we argue that the media is directly involved in the production of racial ideology, specifically colorblind racism, and that diversity in this symbolic form is a part of the abstract liberal agenda.

In 2005, the New York Times published an article titled “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Goes Colorblind” (Fogel 2005), referring to the television series. The presence of black doctors, without addressing their racial realities, suggests that the series went “colorblind racist” instead. The creator, executive producer, and head writer of Grey’s Anatomy is a black woman, Shonda Rhimes, who described the setting of the series as a “multicultural hub where social issues take a back seat to the more pressing problems of hospital life.” Grey’s Anatomy, like past shows (e.g., The Cosby Show [1984–92]), portrays a black fantasy of fully integrated black doctors. In 2005, only 8 percent of U.S. first-year medical students were black, despite blacks accounting for 15 percent of the population (Cannon 2010). Just as having “racial contacts” does not mean substantive integration, simply having a diverse cast does not adequately or accurately represent the racial reality of twentieth-century America.

Rhimes stated that she does not sit around with her friends and discuss race because “we’re post–civil rights, post-feminist babies” (Fogel 2005). She also claims the show was written and developed with “blind-casting” where she did not have particular races in mind (Fogel 2005). Neglecting to recognize race as a social reality allows for these (p.69) colorblind dreams to dominate in popular media. Television series like Glee and The Office provide evidence of the kind of symbolic inclusion that complicates the struggle for minority representation beyond a request for numerical representation. These so-called diverse casts serve to uphold the current racial structure by obscuring the real inequalities both on television and in real life.

The popular television series Glee, which has been rewarded for having a diverse cast, illustrates how “diversity” can exist with people of color being shown in narrow, restrictive roles.16 Stereotypical images of people of color for comedic shorthand (Bogle 2001) characterize many television portrayals, even in supposedly “diverse” shows. Glee has been criticized for its stereotypical presentation of homosexuality, women, and minorities while patting itself on the back for being the most progressive show on television (Hartmann 2010). For instance, the role of Mercedes Jones, played by Amber Riley, presents the stereotypical portrayal of an overweight, lonely black woman with an attitude.17

The abstract liberal frame, referring to the presentation of racial issues in an abstract manner using the language of liberalism, is rewarded over realistic depiction of how race is lived in America. A comparison of the HBO series The Wire (Neal 2010) and Grey’s Anatomy reveals how abstract liberalism is entrenched in American popular media. Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, expressed a commitment to blind-casting while simultaneously stating in a liberal abstract manner that in “Shondaland” (her production company), “we’re not going to have a black, drug-dealing single-mother selling crack” (Chozick 2011). On the other hand, The Wire included plenty of drug dealers and single mothers, worrying less about constructing a Utopian experience and instead dealing with the realities of race as it relates to education, politics, and imprisonment. Many viewers, including sociologist Elijah Anderson, were critical of The Wire because, as he stated in an interview done by the Atlantic, “what they have left out are the decent people” (Bowden 2008). Why aren’t we instead criticizing shows like Grey’s Anatomy and instead asking “Where is the racism?” Grey’s Anatomy gets awarded NAACP image awards while The Wire does not. This focus on superficial racial representation instead of confronting the reality of racism reflects the strength of the “liberal” media industries in this period of New Racism and colorblindness.

(p.70) The Rise of the Honorary Whites

The post–civil rights era has allowed a space for the rise of the neomulatto and the “ethnically ambiguous” (Beltrán and Fojas 2008) to fill some of the roles traditionally accorded to white actors. The rise of the “honorary white” fits with the new racial regime and highlights the Latin Americanization thesis, which suggests that the United States is moving toward a racial stratification system similar to many Latin American and Caribbean nations (Bonilla-Silva 2004). He suggests that the emerging triracial system will consist of “whites” at the top, an intermediary group of “honorary whites” in the middle, and a black collective at the bottom. The honorary white category is of particular interest in the following discussion.

Biracial actor Vin Diesel sees the popularity of ethnic ambiguity as a positive development because his multiracial appearance has allowed him to get more job offers, to have a greater variety of potential roles than actors who are easily identified as black or white. Toronto-born platinum-selling hip-hop artist Drake identifies as “mixed-race” and cites his background as one of the reasons for his success. When asked about his racial identity, Drake admitted to how his ambiguity benefits his career, stating, “I get a lot of love everywhere, for just being diverse, instead of straight out being [one thing]” (Rivas 2011). In the area of popular music, many performers, including both individuals who are “multiracial” and those who simply appear ambiguously raced, often have played up the “exotic look” of their light-skinned phenotype by bleaching their hair blond and wearing long, straight hairpieces. Marketing experts, such as Linda Well, editor in chief for Allure, point to a current “popular fascination with the racial hybrid” (La Ferla 2003).

The celebration of ethnically ambiguous characters is a reflection of a continued privilege for those actors/actresses who are considered capable of assimilating and appealing to whiteness (Beltrán and Fojas 2008). The apparent trend to cast South Asian woman as love interests of white men (The Big Bang Theory, Numbers, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Greek, Scrubs, The Office, ER) could be misread as a signal that interracial relationships are now viewed as acceptable and that racism is no longer relevant. However, South Asian women are most often found playing nonracialized roles. People of color are included while (p.71) simultaneously being denied any substantial conversation concerning race and racism. Such shows that have a South Asian woman provide rhetorical ammunition to defend against criticisms and accusation of racism because they have a diverse cast.

Conclusion

The “post-racial” incubus that oozed out of the Jim Crow beast in the 1970s has grown into a full-blown monster. Nowadays the idea that race is no longer central to this country’s institutions and discourse but is instead a vestige of the past has become the normative depiction of racial matters. And in so-called post-racial America, the monster proclaims that anyone can be “racist” as racism is no longer viewed as the prerogative of whites; thus blacks and Latinos can be labeled racist if associated with race-based organizations such as the NAACP or the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) or if accused of playing the “race card.”

In this chapter, however, we tried to slay the monster. We argued that racism—which we regard as a structural problem in the nation—is still central to the organizational matrix of America. As such, we interpreted the election of Barack Obama and the post-racial logic that he embodies not as symbols of racial progress but as part of the New Racism regime that emerged in the 1970s (Bonilla-Silva 2010). Hence, Obama’s “race shuffle” (“Hey, I am black but I do not deal with race or racial politics!”) fits perfectly with the new way of reproducing racial inequality. In fact, in many ways, the new racial order works better (in a more hegemonic manner) in blackface.

The transition from Jim Crow to the new racial order, we suggested, generated a new racial ideology: the ideology of colorblind racism. This ideology, like a Trojan horse, hides its real purpose. Despite its seemingly suave and genteel character (“I am not a racist, but …”), colorblind racism’s job is to safeguard white supremacy. Instead of claiming that blacks and people of color are biologically inferior or that God made blacks subservient, whites today explain racial disparities as the result of people of color’s cultural deficiencies (laziness, bad parenting, and lack of proper work ethic) or justify not doing anything to ameliorate racial inequality by invoking liberalism in an abstract and (p.72) decontextualized manner (“I am all for equal opportunity, and that is why I am against affirmative action because it amounts to discrimination in reverse”). This ideological tool also developed a new “race-talk” that is elusive; hence, nowadays one can hide behind racial stories (“I did not own slaves”) or use semantic moves to state racial views without opening oneself to the charge of racism (“I am not a racist, but why is it that so many blacks are poor or incarcerated?”).

We briefly illustrated that the ideology of colorbind racism is directly connected to the production of television, film, and other forms of popular culture. The method of “colorblind” casting is rewarded as (white) roles are increasingly given to people of color—most often to those who appear racially ambiguous. Still, some of the old stereotypical images of blackness remain with characters like Mercedes (Glee) and Stanley (The Office), who remain underdeveloped racial signifiers. Meanwhile, a character like Bubbles (The Wire), who on the surface fits the typical role of black homelessness and drug addiction, is a fully developed character who defies stereotypes and instead forces the audience to think critically about issues of race and poverty. But we must point out that The Wire was not a financially successful TV show, and we have no reason to believe white viewers understood the depth of what was been attempted. Perhaps as in the case of Chappelle’s Show (Cobb 2007) or hip-hop music (Rodriquez 2006), whites consumed this show as yet another way of appropriating the “Other.” The need to move beyond symbolic inclusion reflects the necessity to further examine the cultural component of racism.

But the question remains: What is to be done? It is important to recognize the centrality of the culture in reproducing racial order while simultaneously fighting racism and discrimination in other venues. Continuing to consume passively and even with pleasure the various products of our “racist culture” (Goldberg 1993), as many of us do daily, makes our struggle against the new racial monster of America harder. These products reinforce the current racial script of America and poison our minds and souls. The more we are entertained with movies such as Avatar (a neocolonial film where the hero is a neo-Tarzan character), The Blind Side (a racist film similar to Mississippi Burning), and TV shows like The Office, Glee, and Grey’s Anatomy, the more we accept unwillingly our own domination.

(p.73) Our task, then, is to fight white supremacy in all its manifestations, and this includes the ideological terrain. Ideology is neither fixed nor permanent and can always be challenged; hence, we must develop reverse discourses (Weaver 2010) to counter the relentless colorblind nonsense that permeates our culture. And we must not get confused by symbolic inclusion of any kind. It is not enough that people of color are more likely to appear these days on TV or in movies because the issue that matters most is how we are represented and what kind of racial messages are conveyed. Similarly, it is not enough to have a black president when he only delivers on the color but not on the all-important flavor. By this standard we are a long way from equality in the cultural field as well as in society. Accordingly, we must remain committed and vigilant; we must fight racism in the streets as well as on the screens. In the words of Public Enemy, we must “Fight the power!” and we must do so by any means necessary!

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Notes:

(1.) Bonilla-Silva has labeled the United States since the election of President Barack Obama as Obamerica (Bonilla-Silva 2010).

(2.) The media in general, but the liberal outlets in particular (New York Times and MSNBC), have done a lot of reporting on racial incidents. However, the focus on the old-fashioned racial behavior of groups such as the Birther movement, the actions and statements of many Tea Party members, racially inflammatory comments by Republican operatives (The Ed Schultz Show, December 21, 2010), or the resurgence of Klan-like organizations misses the point. Although we should always be vigilant about these organizations and people, in post–civil rights America the bulk of racial behavior and practices work in a more suave and, thus, more formidable way. This is something we will highlight in this chapter and something Bonilla-Silva has been articulating for quite some time in his work.

(3.) We are all “multiracial” as we are all Homo sapiens and, as such, are thoroughly “mixed.” This is what anthropologists and geneticists examining the human genome have concluded. And in the specific case of the recent American experience (last 200 years or so), we have mixed a lot across “racial lines.” Some estimate that about 70 percent of “blacks” are recently mixed with “whites” and that a relatively large number of “whites” are mixed with blacks. The issue is not that Obama is “multiracial” or “biracial” but that in the post–civil rights era we can designate him as such.

(4.) See chapter 9 in Bonilla-Silva 2010.

(p.74) (5.) Both Bill Cosby and Will Smith have been criticized for being too liberal and have been ardent supporters of Barack Obama for president. Smith stated in 2008 that Obama is only the second political figure he has ever thrown his support behind—the first being Nelson Mandela.

(6.) See chapter 1 in Bonilla-Silva 2001 for a more complete discussion on rethinking racism as structural matter and how all whites receive material benefits as members of the dominant racial group.

(7.) Bonilla-Silva (2001) has argued it is time to drop the notion of “discrimination” because it limits our understanding of racism and forces us to use the “prejudice problematic,” that is, to individual-level analysis of racial matters (the racists) as well as to overt racial behavior (Klan-like actions by individuals and organizations).

(8.) For details, see chapter 4 in Bonilla-Silva 2001.

(9.) The index of dissimilarity is a measure developed by demographers to assess how even is the distribution of two groups in an area. The score of this index run from 0 to 100 and represents the percentage of a group that would have to move into the area to achieve evenness, hence, a score of 0 is interpreted as “no segregation” and a score of 100 as “total segregation.”

(10.) See chapter 4 in Bonilla-Silva 2001.

(11.) The four central frames of this ideology are abstract liberalism, cultural racism, minimization of racism, and naturalization of race-related matters (Bonilla-Silva 2010).

(12.) Bonilla-Silva suggests that the style of colorblind racism has five components: avoidance of racist speech, semantic moves, projection, diminutives, and rhetorical incoherence. For a more detailed discussion, see Bonilla-Silva 2001.

(13.) Bonilla-Silva (2001) found that these two examples were two of the most common semantic moves used by white respondents.

(14.) For more examples, see Bonilla-Silva 2001.

(15.) Herman Gray argues that television “remains a decisive arena in which struggles for representation, and more significantly, struggles over the meanings of representation, continue to be waged at various levels of national politics, expressive culture, and moral authority” (xvii).

(16.) Winner of Outstanding Comedy Series by Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) for 2010 and 2011, and Winner of Diversity Award from the Multicultural Motion Picture Association for 2009.

(17.) Kurt (played by Chris Colfer) represents the stereotypical depiction of a gay teenager and Brittany (played by Heather Morris) the “dumb blonde.”