As the term post racial gains widespread acceptance, I am reminded of George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) the uproariously funny satire about a black man who becomes white through a Black No More process invented by a one Dr. Junius Crookman. The book is truly instructive. As a cautionary tale, by showing how absurd, self-serving, and easily exploitable our constructions of race can be, Schuyler points to the difficulty of quick fixes that easily mask our ignorance of history and deny racism as our national shame.
Now that federal judge A. Wallace Tashimi of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld in essence the Arizona law passed in 2010 prohibiting school districts from offering courses that provide a much needed racial and ethnic perspective, Schuyler’s satire has become real. We can expect more legislation that validates ignorance as a form of entitlement and encourages social and physical violence against people of color, violence that the media knows well how to exploit. This is only the most recent of those legal attacks. Those of us who remember our history will recall those deadly laws of not-so-long ago—the black codes in the 19th century targeting blacks and the Alien Land Law of the 20the century targeting Asian Americans are but two examples.
The need for knowledge about our racial history is more apparent that ever before. Race is a loaded term that means much more than what we see—it is often what we don’t see, what we don’t know, what we refuse to learn, how we refuse to act. It includes both private and public discourses. Who can forget South Carolina Senator Joe Wilson’s outrage in 2009, his uncontrollable urge to call President Obama a liar from the Congress floor, marking a first for a living President?
So whether we are targeting Mexican Americans, as the Arizona law does, or Black/Ethnic Studies curriculum, as so many white students seem to persist in doing, these are various acts of racism no matter how much they might appear otherwise. The difference between these acts and those related to, say, ethnic cleansing that we are so quick to condemn lies not in kind, but in degree. The Arizona law was written by those who know the value of education and are plagued by their own deeply-rooted racial fears. That law plays to those fears with legally binding acts of exclusion, a practice established by our Constitution at its inception, in order to protect a particular way of life.
I wonder if we would find George Schuyler quite so funny today. Perhaps Black No More should become America’s required reading to help combat the profound ignorance behind the race no more euphemism.