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Book Review

Uprooting Racism:
How White People Can Work for Racial Justice

by Paul Kivel

Reviewed by:
Mark Cohen


In a recent issue of The Progressive, Adolph Reed, Jr. wrote in reaction to President Clinton's proposal for a "national conversation on race" that "It's an ideal vehicle for [Clinton] to express his concerns about race, because it's not connected to any real substance. It's just part of the fundamentally empty rhetoric of multiculturalism: diversity, mutual awareness, respect for difference, hearing different voices and the like. None of these notions is objectionable on its face, but that's partly because none of them means anything in particular...The problem isn't racial division or a need for healing. It is racial inequality and injustice."

It is one of the virtues of Paul Kivel's Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice that he doesn't--though a book with that title so easily could, and probably become a best-seller in the process--succumb to what Reed identifies as "the norm these days to make public issues a matter of personal feelings, and to separate beliefs from their social context." It's that psychologizing of issues in America, the focus on individual "problems" abstracted from real issues of power and privilege, and from historical context, that's made it possible for such absurd notions as "reverse discrimination" to become the object of serious discussion, and that's made even such half-assed attempts at creating racial justice as affirmative action so vulnerable to attack.

Kivel makes quite explicit the point that "the assumption of this book is that racism is the institutionalization of social injustice based on skin color, other physical characteristics, and cultural and religious difference. White racism is the uneven and unfair distribution of power, privilege, land and material goods favoring white people...although we can and should all become more tolerant and understanding of each other, only justice can put out the fire of racism."

Those points ought to be painfully obvious. But in the current climate, with a best-seller list full of books like D'Souza's The End of Racism, Sleeper's Liberal Racism, and Thernstrom's American in Black and White all telling an audience eager to hear it not only that racism is as dead as disco, but that whites are being discriminated against in favor of blacks (!), Kivel's book, though it will reach a far smaller audience, is a much-needed antidote.

Kivel gives just enough data to establish the continuing effects of white racism, in employment, education, housing, etc. His main focus is on the dynamics of institutional racism, and the positive steps that can be taken to change the system. He begins with a challenging examination of the ways white people benefit from the current system, even those--the most likely readers of a book like this--who feel entitled to the claim "...but I'm not racist." He takes a serious look at the way elites have used racism and anti-Semitism to divert attention from their own exploitation. He offers some very practical suggestions of ways white people can be allies in the struggle against racism. He goes beyond "black and white" with well-written chapters on People of Mixed Heritage, Native Americans, African Americans, Latino/as, and Jews.

In a section called "Fighting Institutional Racism", he tackles the "insitutional nature of [centuries of white racism] which is more entrenched than racial prejudice. In fact, it is barely touched by changes in individual white consciousness." Kivel does a fine job of highlighting the serious problems that must be faced in areas like affirmative action, work, education, the police and the criminal justice system. In the section on police, for example, he tells us "the answer is not simply more multicultural awareness for police, or more `community' policy. We need to make the police accountable to the entire community, and, at the same time, challenge the racism of our society which continues to use the police to enforce inequality and injustice."

In a concluding section, Democratic, Anti-Racist Multiculturalism, Kivel stresses the need to go beyond integration and tokenism, and challenge the prevailing, unspoken assumption that white, male, Christian values, practices and procedures represent a "mainstream" to which everyone else must adapt. He is quite clear, again, on the notion of power and privilege. "Unequal distribution of wealth is a keystone of racism. We haven't achieved much if we produce a multicultural ruling class. Our government, large corporations and other institutions are capable of becoming multicultural while continuing to exploit the majority of us."

If there is a basic flaw in this well-written book, it's that one could easily devote a book this size to each of the topics covered. While Kivel has done a good job of raising the pertinent issues in the space he has allotted himself, his coverage of the topics is necessarily cursory and, if not simplistic, certainly quite basic. If his intended audience is, as it seems to be, well-meaning white people who want to "do the right thing" about racism, but who start out thinking--as they've been conditioned to--that that involves confronting prejudice and individual acts rather than a system of power and privilege, Uprooting Racism may well be the best, brief introduction they're likely to find to what racism is really all about.

From an anarchist perspective, Kivel's book does fall short. He recognizes the way racism has been used by government and corporate elites to maintain power. But his policy recommendations--massive reinvestment in communities of color, progressive income and wealth tax to fund it, and the like--place far too much confidence in using those same institutions to change a system from which they benefit. Implicit in this is the assumption that we can deal with the "problem" of racism within the current corporate and statist system.

Kivel appears implicitly to recognize that dominance and hierarchy are intrinsic to that system; in his section on affirmative action, he recognizes the limitations of a program which asks people to compete for existing slots and says, "In the larger picture we must ask ourselves why aren't there enough decent paying, challenging and safe jobs for everyone?" But he doesn't go nearly far enough with such critiques, certainly not far enough to challenge his intended audience to even wonder whether anything beyond reformist tinkering with the system might be needed to deal with the serious problems Kivel so eloquently addresses.

But in the current climate, anything that moves the terms of the debate even a little to the left can be considered a victory, and Kivel's book is a strong contribution toward that.

 

Bibliography

Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work For Racial Justice by Paul Kivel. 243 pp. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1996. $16.95 paper.

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