Seeing Beyond Race

Reviewed by Shirley Jackson

Vol. 20, No. 1, 1998 pp. 29-30

Ellis Cose, Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World, New York: HarperCollins, 1997

Ellis Cose, a contributing editor for Newsweek, and author of The Rage of a Privileged Class, The Press, A Man's World, A Nation of Strangers, and The Rebirth of Community Power, focuses primarily on race. In his latest book, Color-Blind: Seeing Beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World, Cose examines the belief that equality in American society will come with color-blindness. He points out the problems associated with this view and the relationship between a color-blind society and affirmative action.

Cose explores the discourse on race in South Africa, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. He then compares the experiences and approaches to the race problem of the countries with those of the United States. Cose shows that even in those countries in which it is claimed race does not matter, race nonetheless manages to play an important role in how individuals are treated and greatly impacts their life chances. He notes, "Even before the civil rights movement erupted and Jim Crow died, racial definitions in the United States were somewhat different from those in South Africa (and Latin America), and specific policies varied as well." This is an important point which Cose pursues throughout Color-Blind. Race is viewed in very different ways depending on the weight a particular society places on it.

Cose's book is compelling by his insertion of discussions with individuals from Puerto Rico, South Africa, and Brazil, on topics relevant to an in-depth comparative analysis to the race problem in the United States. The discussions on race and color-blindness in these countries show the complexity of race in various parts of the world. Cose goes on to explore the multiracial debate and its significance to the United States. He then moves on to discuss the fascination Americans have with debates on genetics and intelligence. Next, he addresses education and affirmative action and the debate on the future of affirmative action. He ends with discussions on color blindness, and finally, race neutrality.

Color-Blind's discussion of multiracialism is an interesting one. Cose employs interviews with multiracialists in the United States and South Africa to show that while the debate may have valid meaning given the racial history of the United States, the same debate is the source of conflict in South Africa. In the United States, there is a desire on the part of multiracial individuals to show their support for a category which defines them as a separate group. In the United States, the multiracial movement is struggling for acknowledgment of individuals of multiple races and ethnicities. Proponents of the multiracial category feel they do not neatly fit into the race and ethnicity categories as they presently appear on the census forms.

In South Africa, however, attempts to maintain a distinction between blacks and coloreds has resulted in continued distrust and conflict. This seems to have its basis in the tense race situation between Coloreds, Indians, Black South Africans, and White South Africans prior to the dismantling of the apartheid system. The attempt to distinguish between individuals who are colored and black in South Africa has also been perceived by some observers as a way to continue polarizing an already bifurcated society. One interesting similarity exists between South African and the U.S. with regard to the multiracial racial designation. Individuals, whether proclaiming to be colored in South African or multiracial in the United States, are mistrusted by Blacks in both countries.

Cose shows the complications involved in the debate surrounding the multiracial category. Even among advocates and opponents of a multiracial category, the rationale for their positions may be quite varied. Additionally, the debate continues to take on different meanings depending on where the debate takes place.

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One of the other issues Cose briefly touches upon is genetics and intelligence. In particular, he takes to task journalists who gave merit and credit to Herrnstein and Murray's, The Bell Curve. The tiresome debate surrounding the degree of intelligence displayed by individuals of different racial groups continues, but for what reason? Cose opines the belief that these debates serve no real purpose but are ever present because there is an agenda. This agenda comes in the form of psuedo-scientists who want to prove that equality can never be achieved by some groups because they are simply unfit based on their gene pool. Cose argues that if we, as a society, believe the rhetoric spewed by psuedo-scientists, we too can simply throw up our hands and accept inequality as a given; simply the result of genetic inadequacies, rather than finding ways to make society more equal by making its people successful.

This debate is closely linked with a lengthy discussion engaged in by Cose, that of education and affirmative action. Cose asks, "How do we achieve educational parity?" Cose posits early action to ensure equal education and to prepare minority children for the college experience. He suggests that we spend more time working to level the playing field by using a variety of different college preparation programs in high school as well as those programs which have been shown to be successful at several colleges and universities. According to Cose, we need to teach minority children to strive, rather than settle, when it comes to their education. He further suggests we teach minority students the value of an education and encourage them early and continuously.

In discussing education and the debate on affirmative action, Cose gives a thorough overview of important cases and evens from Bakke to Hopwood. He examines the desire by some to continue basing affirmative action on a group's disadvantaged status and the desire by others to include class so that those individuals who may not be historically disadvantaged may benefit from affirmative action. Cose then discusses yet another option--the possible dismantling of affirmative action in college admissions altogether. He points out the risks that may occur, namely, the notion that color-blindness will make affirmative action unnecessary, and thus its use in college admissions will become a moot point. He also notes the risk inherent in throwing out the old without truly understanding that what may take its place could be worse.

The link between color and class is also discussed, especially in the book's early chapters. Cose brings into the scope of the discussion William Julius Wilson's work on race and class as it pertains to African Americans in the contemporary era. The salient issue of colorism in Latin America is discussed quite well in Chapter 7. In this chapter, claims of color-blindness are well scrutinized and challenged. This is an especially relevant issue given recent accusations of racism alleged in some Latin American commercials and advertisements viewed by satellite in the New York City area. Some individuals claim there is no race problem in Latin America because they say Latin Americans do not see race in the same way as individuals in the United States. An individual in blackface, with thick lips, and a propensity to pick pockets may be viewed by some Latin Americans as simply a part of the comic scene. For Cose, however, the reality is a society which wants to ignore its divisions based on color and class.

In the last chapter, Cose outlines the twelve necessary steps to move us toward "racial sanity" in the United States. Some of these steps appear relatively simple, while others require a concerted group effort. "We must stop expecting time to solve the problem for us," Cose writes. He appears to be directly addressing those who feel that the problems associated with a race-obsessed society will simply disappear if we stop talking about it and if we rid ourselves of affirmative action programs and policies. Unfortunately, the chapter's twelve steps are rather unbalanced in accordance with the rest of the book. The steps, while admirable, read like a "To Do" list on race relations. This, unfortunately, is what many readers may focus upon, rather than the more important weightier issues discussed in the earlier chapters. It is perhaps because of their simplicity that the complexity of dealing with race matters may appear trivial.

Cose's use of interviews, discussions of early court cases, and his attack on the narrow views of individuals who posit a color-blind philosophy in the U.S. is quite an undertaking. The early chapters in the book are especially interesting and provide a rich source information for anyone struggling to make headway in the debate on color-blindness. The book presents a compelling analysis of race and color-blindness, offering an in-depth discussion of the intricacies involved when we speak of a color-blind society. It also provides astute answers to some very important questions. Color-Blind is an important source at which to either begin or continue to engage in a fruitful dialogue on matters which may be uncomfortable to talk about, but which, nonetheless, deserve out attention.

Shirley A. Jackson is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.