Whiteness Redux or Redefined?

Forum edited by Cynthia Young and Min Hyoung Song

In our forum, we asked several scholars representing a wide range of interests to reflect on changes to the way whiteness is inhabited and practiced in the US during the Obama years.  Since we're getting close to the final years of his two-term presidency, it seemed a fitting time for us to convene such a discussion about the ways in which the mainstream US thinking about race had recently been articulated, and is now being rearticulated.  

In particular, as we note in the introduction, the election of President Obama was surrounded by claims that the US was entering a "postracial" era.  One example we provide of a sophisticated and thoughtful example of such claim-making was an essay by Hua Hsu that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1, 2009.  Entitled "The End of White America," it made many optimistic claims that we felt the intervening years did not support.

Of all the examples we picked out to show why we could justifiably feel, so deep into Obama's presidency, that such optimism was misplaced, none stood out more to us than the recent controversy surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown by police office Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.  Neither of us could have predicted that this would happen when we completed this forum, but in many ways this event helped to spotlight for us the ways in which recent definitions of whiteness in many quarters of American society have embraced the presumption of white victimhood and nonwhite predators.  It is certainly remarkable to us how many whites identify with Darren Wilson and view Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year old black male, as the most likely aggressor.  This is a pattern that we also witnessed in the 2013 shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and the 2014 trial of Michael Dunn for the murder of Jordan Davis. 

Such sensational cases surely must contribute to what we call a more "sober" attitude toward race.  One instance of this sober attitude that we highlighted in our introduction is the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates.  A memoirists, political writer, and popular blogger, he has made waves in recent years by publishing an essay entitled "The Case for Reparations" in, again, the Atlantic Monthly.  We think it is incredibly informative to read Hsu's and Coates's argument side-by-side, to consider how tonally as well as content-wise two very astute writers whose appeal to a broad audience cannot be denied have, in different but closely related historical moments, written about race.  If whiteness is now more prone to an injury-based discourse, more assertive of its right to express grievance and compensatory pride, and less likely to resort to a guise of universalism, it may also be fair to say that we now have many nonwhite commentators who are willing to critique such thinking and in doing so to claim a moral, and perhaps even a more universalistic, high ground.

Recommended Readings and Other Relevant Material

Hua Hsu, "The End of White America," Atlantic, January 1, 2009.  

Ta-Nehisi Coats, "The Case for Reparations," Atlantic, May 21, 2014.

Mychal Denzel Smith, “How Trayvon Martin’s Death Launched a New Generation of Black Activism,” The Nation, 14 August 2014.

Jelani Cobb, “George Zimmerman: Blood on the Leaves,” 13 July 2013.

On Point with Tom AshbrookLegacy and Lessons from Ferguson, 28 August 2014

Democracy Now, “Jeremy Scahill: Leaked U.S. Terrorist Watchlist Rulebook Reveals 'Global Stop and Frisk Program.'” 

Possessive Investment: Indian Removals and the Affective
Entitlements of Whiteness

Alyosha Goldstein

The following links provide useful information regarding the ongoing conflicts over the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, as well as organizing on behalf of Native youth more broadly:

The Distributions of Whiteness

Roderick A. Ferguson

My essay argues that the new mode of whiteness is “sensitive” to diversity while remaining committed to anti-redistribution. Hence, this version of whiteness has learned to affirm forms of minority difference while devising ways to ensure its own continued dominance. The essay also explores how the university helped to produce this “kinder and gentler” mode of whiteness that manages to reconsolidate racial orders rather than disrupt them. As a result, my piece considers how contemporary structural inequalities are produced within the context of whiteness’s new guise. To this end, let me turn my attention to four organizations that are working on behalf of redistribution and thereby challenging whiteness’s structural legacies and outcomes:

These organizations show that we do not need kinder and gentler forms of whiteness that are not interested in redistribution. We need redistributive visions that can create institutional spaces in which minoritized subjects can become the producers and disseminators of new forms of politics and knowledge.