Author:Sumi Cho
Position:Professor of Law, DePaul University College of Law

Rather than treat post-racialism as a political trend or social fact, this Article argues that post-racialism in its current iteration is a twenty-first century ideology that reflects a belief that due to racial progress the state need not engage in race-based decision-making or adopt race-based remedies, and that civil society should eschew race as a central organizing principle of social action.... (see full summary)


Professor of Law, DePaul University College of Law. I am indebted to my Dean, Glen Weissenberger, for his generous support of this work; my stellar research assistant Jodi Schuette; my editor-collaborator, Gil Gott; and my superb Iowa Law Review editors, Cassie Peterson, Joshua Mandelbaum, and Christine Huggins. I thank Angela Onwuachi-Willig for her community-building work to help conceptualize and organize, along with all the organizers, the twentieth-anniversary commemoration of Critical Race Theory at the University of Iowa College of Law in April of 2009 that inspires this volume. I am grateful to the participants at the African American Policy Forum's Social Justice Writers' Retreat IV for the space to receive quality feedback on works-in-progress, and for the incredibly helpful comments and suggestions of Devon Carbado, Kimberle Crenshaw, Luke Harris, George Lipsitz, Saul Sarabia, Alvin Starks, and Barbara Tomlinson.

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I Introduction: The Problem

When Critical Race Theory burst upon the legal academic scene in the mid-to-late 1980s at the tail end of Ronald Reagan's second term, it was at the sunset of the civil-rights era. During this Guns n' Roses/Wall Street-inflected time, social conservatives began quietly but actively developing a cultural and legal movement to reverse the gains of the civil-rights movement. As a young attorney working in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice, Lee Cokorinos detailed how the architects of the far right began a social, political, and financial network to pursue an audacious anti-civil-rights agenda. 1 The simultaneous, if not homologous, generation of a race-conscious Critical Race Theory movement in legal academe, alongside a Racial Backlash movement carefully constructed by a confederation of inequality-activists, provides perspective to reflect on the successes and failures of Critical Race Theory twenty years later. It also sets the stage for the urgent challenges the twenty-first-century faces.2

The inherent tension between the Critical Race and Racial Backlash movements over the past two decades is also reflected in the disparate signifiers of racial equality presented by the historic election of Barack Obama as president. On the one hand, Obama, as the first African American head of the United States, represents to many commentators the personification of "We Shall Overcome." On the other hand, his road to the White House was marked by contradiction-a rhetoric and campaign of "post-racial" universalism by Obama, 3 contrasted with a campaign trail often racialized by the mainstream media and Republican challengers. Instances emerged throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, such as the racial/religious "othering" on the cover of The New Yorker, depicting a Page 1592 terrorist fist-bump between Barack and Michelle, which was later defended as merely "satire" about bigots who view the Obamas in this way.4 The Republican challengers also racialized the campaign using a desperation strategy marking Obama as an outsider and terrorist-sympathizer in a way that drew upon his exoticized racial pedigree. 5

Despite the ironies of the racialized post-racial campaign, the fact that the Obama campaign relied upon a "post-racial" strategy that ultimately prevailed poses a unique crisis for critical-race theorists. 6 The Critical Race Theory movement faces great danger if it fails to acknowledge that one of the great successes of the Racial Backlash movement is the promotion of a larger national and legal consensus that ignores the bulk of racial disparities, inequities, and imbalances in society, and pursues race-neutral remedies as a fundamental, a priori value. The movement also faces great danger if it fails to understand how forging a national consensus of race-neutral universalism is so effective that post-racialism has now become the presumed calling card of the first African American president. The movement faces further danger if it fails to recognize the proliferation of intellectuals, ranging from liberal to radical allies, who adopt post-racialism as a guiding theoretical framework and gestalt. It faces danger if it fails to recognize how the legal, political, and intellectual post-racialisms generated may form a type of cultural hegemony whose presentist, "yes we can" optimism-slouching towards solipsism- resonates widely with youth, including youth of color. Finally, the Critical Race Theory movement faces great danger if it fails to notice that the "new Page 1593 Black leadership" in the "post-racial era," which is touted by the mainstream press, ridicules collective political organization by people of color (as people of color) as hopelessly "old school."

Although post-racialism has great appeal for a wide range of actors- mostly from the political center to the radical Left-this Article argues that even when practiced by progressives of color, it is a dangerous ideology. First, post-racialism obscures the centrality of race and racism in society. Second, it more effectively achieves what the Racial Backlash movement sought to do over two decades ago-forge a national consensus around the retreat from race-based remedies on the basis that the racial eras of the past have been and should be transcended. Third, post-racialism as an ideology serves to reinstate an unchallenged white normativity. Post-racialism is fast becoming the "race card" of whites, deployed with obligatory reference to Barack Obama's presidency in an effort to trump the moral high ground held by survivors of racial discrimination in a country with centuries of racial injustice and inequality. Finally, post-racialism denigrates collective Black political organization. 7

To begin my argument, Part II of this Article provides a definition of post-racialism and discusses what "work" it does in contemporary political culture, its targeted audience, and its primary features. In Part III, I elaborate on the different contemporary articulations of post-racialism and provide an historical context explaining why post-racialism is a uniquely twenty-first-century "end of history"8 ideology. Finally, Part IV concludes with a discussion of possible avenues for resistance available to the next generation of Critical Race Theory scholars and activists.

II Definitions

Given the proliferation of media coverage of Obama's campaign and election as "post-racial," one might wonder why the term has gotten so much traction. One might also reasonably ask: what is "post" about post-racial, and what is it replacing? How does post-racialism differ from colorblindness? Or, what "work" does post-racialism do ideologically, that colorblindness does not or cannot? Who is the intended audience for the post-racial message? Do conservatives, liberals, or progressives favor and/or deploy post-racialism Page 1594 or post-racialist rhetoric? And what are the common characteristics of a post-racial/ideological move?

A Post-Racialism's Work And Target Audience

Rather than speak of post-racialism as merely a political trend or phenomenon or social fact, I argue that post-racialism in its current iteration is a twenty-first-century ideology that reflects a belief that due to the significant racial progress that has been made, the state need not engage in race-based decision-making or adopt race-based remedies, and that civil society should eschew race as a central organizing principle of social action. 9 According to post-racial logic, the move is to effectuate a "retreat from race."10 This retreat from race takes at least three forms: material, as the retreat from state-imposed remedies; sociocultural, as the retreat from white liberal/progressive deference to Black normativity on the meaning of racial equality and justice; and political, as the retreat from collective political entities organized along racial lines and agendas as a legitimate protest or reform vehicle.

Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant describe a "racial project" as one that organizes the distribution of resources by the state according to racialized categories. 11 As a material racial project, the discourse of post-racialism and its accompanying ideology provides a common-sense rhetoric and reasoning to fuel the state's retreat from racial remedies. Race-based affirmative action, race-based admissions or districting in school-desegregation plans, and minority voting districts, as a few prominent examples, all come under scrutiny in a post-racial world.

In additi onto the material retreat from race, post-racialism also levels the discursive playing field, allowing whites to oppose civil-rights remedies Page 1595 and advocate for race-neutral policies because society has transcended the racial moment, or civil-rights era. Under post-racialism, race does not matter, and should not be taken into account or even noticed. Thus, one who points out racial inequities risks being characterized as an obsessed-with-race racist who is unfairly and divisively "playing the race card"-one who occupies the same moral category as someone...

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