I FREQUENT a cheap restaurant in my city’s Chinatown where the white patrons, often tourists, are consistently given prettier menus and more courteous service than the locals. I tend to get the single-ply napkins, but white customers use fancy, two-ply napkins with embossed flowers. The unequal treatment leaves me disgruntled every time. But I try to brush it off because, ultimately, aren’t there bigger issues at stake? Isn’t it all quite petty? Perhaps not, argues John L. Jackson, Jr., whose new book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness (Basic Civitas Books), focuses on these sorts of personal interactions as the crux of the racial impasse plaguing U.S. society in the 21st century.
According to Jackson, an anthropology and communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, today’s race problem lies in the “de cardio racism” buried deep in our hearts. Jackson constructs his book around the observation that “legislative and economic discrimination…predicated on race [have] been explicitly outlawed, [and] statements betraying any personally held racial biases are altogether unacceptable in most of the public sphere. As a result, explicit racism has gone underground at least partially, relegated to people’s hearts and inner thoughts.”
Jackson’s default example is the Black person who gets followed or ignored in department stores, and the Latino who gets confused for the help in a restaurant. “Racial paranoia,” as defined by Jackson, is the torment of not knowing whether or not racist animus is fueling these incidents. Whites experience racial paranoia too, according to Jackson. When whites cross the street to avoid a Black person or clutch their wallets when a Black person enters an elevator, they exhibit signs of racial paranoia.
The realm of personal relationships may be the most accessible for folks to begin to discuss race, but too often the conversation stops at the personal, as it does in this book. Jackson misses the point by equating the frustrations of people of color with those of whites. There are sharp differences between a group that’s imprisoned at disproportionately high rates and one that is not, between a group whose members own the vast majority of the country’s wealth and the groups with the highest poverty rates. Jackson does a disservice to his readers by limiting his analysis to the “he said-she said” between people of color and whites without delving into the structural roots of racism that permeate our daily interactions and our social, political and economic institutions. Even though Jackson acknowledges larger, structural racisms and recognizes the danger of his argument, he nevertheless persists. “I don’t want to privilege individual psyches over larger structural forces…I want to remind us that we now live in a political atmosphere that promotes racial dissimulation and insincerity.” But by keeping it light, and ultimately superficial, Jackson skips out on the opportunity to discuss even the deeper psychological impacts of a lifetime of racial micro-aggressions.
Jackson builds his argument by citing headline-making controversies that he feels exemplify the “racial demons” plaguing the United States. He presents a compendium of the major race-related gaffes and scandals in recent years: comedian Michael Richards’s onstage outburst, Dave Chappelle’s abrupt disappearance from his television show and Louis Farrakhan’s accusations of levee tampering in New Orleans. The major players in the national political and pop cultural race dialogue get name-checked throughout the book’s pages: Al Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Lou Dobbs, Cornel West and Nas. Jackson’s footnotes alone are impressive. It’s so easy to get distracted by his casual academic writing style and misinterpret his breadth of knowledge for a depth of understanding or insight.
His parting suggestions for how Americans can begin to shake our “racial demons”? First, folks must “admit that they exist and allow people to express their racial fears out in the open, no matter how seemingly unwarranted or intuited.” Second, fighting racial paranoia demands making friends across racial lines. “How many Blacks have told me about whites who are kind and sweet at work but have never invited them home for dinner, never eaten with them at lunch?” If only turkey sandwiches were all it took.
Julianne Ong Hing is an editorial assistant at ColorLines.