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

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Communications/Media Studies, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2011-11-28 05:12Z by Steven

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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The Preacher and the Politician: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and Race in America

Posted in Barack Obama, Books, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2011-10-21 21:43Z by Steven

The Preacher and the Politician: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and Race in America

University of Virginia Press
October 2009
160 pages
5 1/2x 81/4
Cloth ISBN: 0-8139-2886-9

Clarence E. Walker, Professor of History
University of California, Davis

Gregory D. Smithers, Visiting Associate Professor of History
Virginia Commonwealth University

Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first African American president of the United States has caused many commentators to conclude that America has entered a postracial age. The Preacher and the Politician argues otherwise, reminding us that, far from inevitable, Obama’s nomination was nearly derailed by his relationship with Jeremiah Wright, the outspoken former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago. The media storm surrounding Wright’s sermons, the historians Clarence E. Walker and Gregory D. Smithers suggest, reveals that America’s fraught racial past is very much with us, only slightly less obvious.

With meticulous research and insightful analysis, Walker and Smithers take us back to the Democratic primary season of 2008, viewing the controversy surrounding Wright in the context of key religious, political, and racial dynamics in American history. In the process they expose how the persistence of institutional racism, and racial stereotypes, became a significant hurdle for Obama in his quest for the presidency.

The authors situate Wright’s preaching in African American religious traditions dating back to the eighteenth century, but they also place his sermons in a broader prophetic strain of Protestantism that transcends racial categories. This latter connection was consistently missed or ignored by pundits on the right and the left who sought to paint the story in simplistic, and racially defined, terms. Obama’s connection with Wright gave rise to criticism that, according to Walker and Smithers, sits squarely in the American political tradition, where certain words are meant to incite racial fear, in the case of Obama with charges that the candidate was unpatriotic, a Marxist, a Black Nationalist, or a Muslim.

Once Obama became the Democratic nominee, the day of his election still saw ballot measures rejecting affirmative action and undermining the civil rights of other groups. The Preacher and the Politician is a concise and timely study that reminds us of the need to continue to confront the legacy of racism even as we celebrate advances in racial equality and opportunity.

Table of  Contents

  • “They Didn’t Give Us Our Mule and Our Acre”: Introduction
  • “The “Chickens Are Coming Home to Roost”: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and the Black Church
  • “I Don’t Want People to Pretend I’m Not Black”: Barack Obama and America’s Racial History
  • “To Choose Our Better History?” Epilogue
  • Text of Barack Obama’s March 18, 2008, Speech on Race
  • Notes
  • Index
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Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture

Posted in Anthologies, Books, History, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, United States, Virginia on 2009-11-19 02:19Z by Steven

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture

University of Virginia Press
325 pages
6 x 9
ISBN: 0-8139-1919-3

Edited by

Jan Ellen Lewis
Rutgers University

Peter S. Onuf
University of Virginia

The publication of DNA test results showing that Thomas Jefferson was probably the father of one of his slave Sally Hemings‘s children has sparked a broad but often superficial debate. The editors of this volume have assembled some of the most distinguished American historians, including three Pulitzer Prize winners, and other experts on Jefferson, his times, race, and slavery. Their essays reflect the deeper questions the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson has raised about American history and national culture.

The DNA tests would not have been conducted had there not already been strong historical evidence for the possibility of a relationship. As historians from Winthrop D. Jordan to Annette Gordon-Reed have argued, much more is at stake in this liaison than the mere question of paternity: historians must ask themselves if they are prepared to accept the full implications of our complicated racial history, a history powerfully shaped by the institution of slavery and by sex across the color line.

How, for example, does it change our understanding of American history to place Thomas Jefferson in his social context as a plantation owner who fathered white and black families both? What happens when we shift our focus from Jefferson and his white family to Sally Hemings and her children? How do we understand interracial sexual relationships in the early republic and in our own time? Can a renewed exploration of the contradiction between Jefferson’s life as a slaveholder and his libertarian views yield a clearer understanding of the great political principles he articulated so eloquently and that Americans cherish? Are there moral or political lessons to be learned from the lives of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the way that historians and the public have attempted to explain their liaison?

Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture promises an open-ended discussion on the living legacy of slavery and race relations in our national culture.


Annette Gordon-Reed, New York Law School
Rhys Isaac, College of William and Mary
Winthrop D. Jordan, University of Mississippi
Jan Ellen Lewis, Rutgers University, Newark
Philip D. Morgan, Institute of Early American History and Culture
Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia
Jack N. Rakove, Stanford University
Joshua Rothman, University of Virginia
Werner Sollors, Harvard University
Lucia Stanton, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation
Dianne Swann-Wright, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation
Clarence Walker, University of California at Davis
Gordon S. Wood, Brown University

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Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2009-11-19 02:02Z by Steven

Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

University of Virginia Press
January 2009
144 pages
5 1/2x 81/4
Cloth ISBN 0-8139-2777-0

Clarence E. Walker, Professor of History
University of California, Davis

The debate over the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings rarely rises above the question of “Did they or didn’t they?” But lost in the argument over the existence of such a relationship are equally urgent questions about a history that is more complex, both sexually and culturally, than most of us realize. Mongrel Nation seeks to uncover this complexity, as well as the reasons it is so often obscured.

Clarence Walker contends that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings must be seen not in isolation but in the broader context of interracial affairs within the plantation complex. Viewed from this perspective, the relationship was not unusual or aberrant but was fairly typical. For many, this is a disturbing realization, because it forces us to abandon the idea of American exceptionalism and reexamine slavery in America as part of a long, global history of slaveholders frequently crossing the color line.

More than many other societies—and despite our obvious mixed-race population—our nation has displayed particular reluctance to acknowledge this dynamic. In a country where, as early as 1662, interracial sex was already punishable by law, an understanding of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship has consistently met with resistance. From Jefferson’s time to our own, the general public denied—or remained oblivious to—the possibility of the affair. Historians, too, dismissed the idea, even when confronted with compelling arguments by fellow scholars. It took the DNA findings of 1998 to persuade many (although, to this day, doubters remain).

The refusal to admit the likelihood of this union between master and slave stems, of course, from Jefferson’s symbolic significance as a Founding Father. The president’s apologists, both before and after the DNA findings, have constructed an iconic Jefferson that tells us more about their own beliefs—and the often alarming demands of those beliefs—than it does about the interaction between slave owners and slaves. Much more than a search for the facts about two individuals, the debate over Jefferson and Hemings is emblematic of tensions in our society between competing conceptions both of race and of our nation.

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