Post-Raciality or a Re-Imagining of Whiteness: an Interview with Clarence E. Walker

Post-Raciality or a Re-Imagining of Whiteness: an Interview with Clarence E. Walker

Platform: Journal of Media and Communication
Volume 3, Issue 1, Media and “Race” (April 2011)
pages 26-34
ISSN: 1836-5132

Sandy Watson, University of Melbourne, Australia

Clarence Walker is recognised as one of the leading historians of American race relations, and is noted for his advocacy of critical historical analysis of race relations and discourses as a way of understanding the present. Walker has written widely on issues relating to black American history, including five books covering variously race and politics (2009), race and the national imaginary (2010); Afrocentrism and discourses of black Africanism (2001, 1999) and the history of nineteenth century black religion (1982).


Walker’s most recent work, with Gregory Smithers, explores the emergence of discourses of post-raciality during the 2008 United States election campaign (Walker and Smithers 2009) where Walker argued that the historical superficiality of journalism exacerbates racial tensions rather than creating greater cultural understanding on racial issues (2009, p. 39). In this interview, he discusses the applicability of what he describes as reactionary discourses (that of post-raciality, colour blindness and colour neutrality) in the context of shifting media usage and tensions arising from perceived challenges to the dominant, white-centred national imaginary.

The critique of white-centred accounts of history has been central to Walker’s recent work, and was the subject of his compelling book Mongrel Nation (2010), in which he argues for the need to recognise the interracial founding of the United States. The book contextualises the controversy surrounding 1990s claims that Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, had one or more children in an interracial relationship with a slave girl called Sally Heming. These accounts were refuted heatedly by segments of academia who pointed to Jefferson’s documented concern about the dangers of amalgamation as an indication of the unlikely nature of his having an interracial affair. Walker argues persuasively and with historical force that such refutations need to be contextualised as reactionary discourses within a history of white-centred historicising and imagining of the national identity in the United States…

PLATFORM: The idea that American society is post-racial gained renewed ascendancy with Barack Obama’s election as the first (self-identifying) black President of the United States. However, narratives of post-race have been circulating in the US since the Civil Rights Act (1964). Can you elaborate on the nuances between narratives such as post-raciality, colour-blindness and race neutrality as a basis for informing analysis of their presence in political and media debates over the past two years?

Clarence Walker: In my view these are all reactionary movements. They are constructed around an attempt to efface race as a site of conflict in the American past and present. To say that one is colour-blind rather than colour-conscious is to say that you see something in someone that you don’t want to see, that is their colour. It’s also to say that you think that these issues are somewhat superficial and that if we want to wish them away we can. You can see this in the whole construction of Asians as some kind of model minority here because they’re successful academically and economically, at least in some sectors of the population. You can also see it in the hysteria over immigration with the arrival of large numbers of Spanish-speaking people over recent years.

It is the case in America that most white people do not want to talk about race. They prefer to think that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has effaced the racial problem, and that if there is a racial problem here it is because black people are basically angry or have refused to accept this new reality in which race is no longer a problem. But if race is no longer a problem, then why are there so many young black men between the ages of 18 and 25 including Mexicans also in American prisons? They constitute approximately one and a half million of two million people in American prisons.

Yet the Obama election was very much a racial election, despite these discourses of post-raciality. It was racial in the sense that it required white people to overcome their historical animosity towards the idea of a successful black candidate. I tend to think that up until the leaking to the media of the sermons of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, as Gregory Smithers and I discuss in The Preacher and The Politician, there was little attention to the fact on the part of many white Americans that Barack Obama was black. In the case of black Americans there was great suspicion of him because he was not associated with the two historically defining moments of black American history, one being of course the question of slavery and Jim Crow, the other being the Civil Rights Movement. It was only when Jeremiah Wright’s comments were leaked and it came out that Obama was associated with this Church which was part of a Christian black nationalist movement, a particular congregation that was Afro-centric and black nationalist, that attention started to be paid to the fact that Obama was black. This led to speculation about whether Obama therefore might have a subtext of black militancy that he wasn’t talking about. This was one of the signature moments in terms of race becoming part of the election debate.

The Obama presidency has if not reignited the other being the issues about race and colour then certainly shown that they haven’t gone away. In many ways the emergence of this black man as the President of the United States is comparable to the emergence of prominent Jews in France and Germany and the political and cultural life of those countries in the nineteenth century. There were elements in those societies who were opposed to Jewish civil and political equality just as there are elements in this country who feared the election of Obama or any black person as the President of the United States.

The discourse of post-racialism which emerged in relation to the 2008 campaign was itself really a product of the chattering classes, by that I mean the media commentators and academics who talked about the ‘Obama moment’ as the post-racial moment. For example, I teach a course called the History of Race in America here at the University of California and I have just finished teaching 80 undergraduates. I have talked about this subject in the way I have done for the 37 years of my career in that I don’t mince words and I am very direct about what I want to say. Many of my students find this very disturbing because their views have been shaped by the media and some of them were very resistant to the notion that this in fact was not a post-racial society because we had a black president and that because he was of mixed race nobody talked about the fact that he had a white mother. I said to my students, “How would his history have been different if his mother was black and his father white rather than the other way around?” It had never occurred to them that this would have created a different historical narrative and a different historical actor, and one whom many white people in this country would never have voted for because his cultural experience rather than being that of a white working class family would have been that of a black family…

PLATFORM: I’d like to return to a consistent theme in your work, that of the argument that a critical appraisal of historiography is vital in understanding contemporary debates and discourses on race. In Mongrel Nation you particularly emphasised the resistance of historians and others to the notion of an interracial founding of America rather than the dominant constructions of whiteness that have underpinned renderings of history in the US. This was in relation to claims that Thomas Jefferson fathered one or more children in an interracial relationship with Sally Hemings. How can this historical perspective inform our understanding of the role of discourses such as post-racialism?

CW: In the national imaginary up until recently the United States was historically imagined by historians as purely a white nation. This is changing with the work of the very distinguished historian Annette Gordon Reed and others, as well as in my work, where you see a rethinking of the American past that is more in line with what the country was like in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and what it is like today. The resistance to this arises out of the fact that it is very hard for some people, older people in particular, to think of the United States as anything other than ‘whiteland’ or ‘whitetopia’ and the fact that they refuse to come to grips with this. You see this most clearly in their hostility to Barack Obama. His election is something that is contrary to fact. If this is a white nation then what is it doing with a “coloured” president? And if this is a white nation, then what does it mean for the future? It means that we will have an Asian president, it means that we may even have a Muslim president, we may even have a woman president, and I hope we do. It’s not just that every generation writes history according to its own desires but that there has to be a recognition in the United States that although it was the product of white colonial settlers that the country did not remain white very long…

Read the entire interview here.

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