Can we 'unlearn race?' Why de-emphasizing racial identity could help fix political divisions

De-emphasizing race — as a positive and negative — could be a way to allow a more honest cultural discussion to ensue.
Image: U.S. President Trump holds a rally with African-American supporters in Atlanta, Georgia
We are headed toward a year of divisive identity-first conversation in 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
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By Steve Krakauer

As South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s support rises in the Democratic primary polls in key early states like Iowa, is his sexual identity turning off some black voters? That was a storyline which took hold last week, and was subsequently pushed back against by two prominent columnists in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The underlying subtext of both sides of this debate is identity — black, gay and every intersectional identity in between.

Into this landscape enters a fascinating new book with a heterodox way of looking at race: “Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race” by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a visiting fellow at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities. It’s a personal story, but also a story of America — its history, its present and its future.

As the title suggests, Williams has a simple but loaded suggestion: de-emphasize race, and we’ll make progress as a culture. “If we are ever to progress, we must first slough off these old skins we’ve been forced to don,” he writes.

Williams, who speaks of his own racial identity throughout the book (a black father and a white mother) says a de-emphasis on race will lead to de-escalation of the increasingly overheated political and cultural environment in America. “Everybody needs to step back and deescalate our investment in these abstractions and try to find the transcendent humanism that connects us, and the universal values and the national values,” he told me in a recent interview.

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So much of what has catapulted race and racial identity into the mainstream over the past 10 years has been molded by our political climate, specifically the combination of the first black president and the, uh, controversial president who came after.

Williams writes in his book about canvassing and volunteering for President Barack Obama during his first campaign. “I momentarily but genuinely believed that Barack Obama was the answer not only to our nation’s depressing politics but to the question of our racial enlightenment,” he told me. But although Obama's presidency did not heal all our divides, he remains hopeful: “I still have a lot of that positive feeling about the whole thing, and I really do believe in the power of symbols … I think the more important and meaningful election for U.S. history is the Obama election, not the Trump election.”

Part of the challenge with identity politics is the complex and even false groupings it can create. A 2018 poll found 44 percent of black voters view themselves as moderates, while 27 percent say conservative and just 26 percent say liberal. But while black voters don’t necessarily see themselves as progressive, there has been a Trump-era rush toward “woke essentialism,” as Williams describes.

So much of what has catapulted race and racial identity into the mainstream over the past 10 years has been molded by our political climate.

He writes in the book: “In the years since the outcome of the 2016 election, I’ve been dismayed to see an opportunistic demagogue provoke racial resentment across the country and within families as well, but I’ve also been troubled to watch well-meaning white friends in my Twitter timeline and Facebook news feed flagellate themselves, sincerely or performatively apologizing for their ‘whiteness,’ as if they were somehow born into original sin.”

On a must-listen “The Fifth Column” episode from last year, Williams expands on this idea, saying the emphasis on race by those on the progressive left “overlaps with things that outright white nationalists and white supremacists told me they want. The idea that there’s something special about whiteness.”

As the cultural conversation has shifted in the decade since Obama’s election, so too has Williams’ personal views. He wrote in 2012 for the Times “I will teach my children that they, too, are black — regardless of what anyone else may say — so long as they remember and wish to be.”

But once he had kids of his own, Williams felt like the cultural conversation around race was becoming more essentialist. “That contradicted very much the things that I was experiencing in my own personal life,” he told me.

If Williams’ book is courting controversy by questioning what is deemed culturally acceptable in 2019, this column is undoubtably doing the same. And it is also not lost on me that, as a white man, even raising these issues as worthy of exploration could be deemed controversial.

Williams and I grew up mere miles apart, in suburban New Jersey, in towns he describes as “informally segregated.” It was that informal but obvious segregation that led me to explore outside my comfort zone in college, studying African American Studies as a minor. The best I can hope to do is challenge my own preconceived notions, listen with humility and keep learning.

I asked Williams what he thought would happen if society ever did find a way to minimize race as a cultural touch point on a large scale. What would that look like?

So I asked Williams what he thought would happen if society ever did find a way to minimize race as a cultural touch point on a large scale. What would that look like? “If white people on a larger scale really de-emphasized their whiteness, I think that would have to transform the Republican party into a more responsible party that couldn’t get by on just playing into white resentment, especially white middle and working class resentment while taking care of the interests of plutocrats,” he said. “We would have a much more honest and respected political system if the Republican party could no longer squeeze out as much success from white resentment and white identity politics.”

Of course, this emphasis on identity politics happens on the left too — and it’s growing. “It’s a bad strategy to have an identity-based strategy on the left,” Williams says. “De-emphasizing identity all-around would help our politics because we would have to pay more attention to the issues. We may have to pay more attention to class if we didn’t have these self-defeating identity agendas.”

It is admittedly unrealistic to think America’s racial conversation will become less prominent in the short-term, whether or not Trump is re-elected. But when the dust clears in the Democratic primary, the 2020 general election will truly kick off. No matter who becomes the Democratic nominee, we are headed toward a year of divisive identity-first conversation. De-emphasizing race — as a positive and negative — is not an easy ask, but could be a way to de-escalate the division in this country and allow an honest cultural discussion to ensue.