Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair-minded of whites . . . tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization--or race-specific claims based on the history of race discrimination in this country. . . . Most white Americans figure that they haven't engaged in discrimination themselves and have plenty of their own problems to worry about. . . . .
As a result, proposals that solely benefit minorities and dissect Americans into "us" and "them" may generate a few short-term concessions when the costs to whites aren't too high, but they can't serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America. On the other hand, universal appeals around strategies that help all Americans (schools that teach, jobs that pay, health care for everyone who needs it, a government that helps out after a flood), along with measures that ensure our laws apply equally to everyone and hence uphold broadly held American ideals (like better enforcement of exiting civil rights laws), can serve as the basis for such coalitions--even if such strategies disproportionately help minorities.
Good strategy, or no?
I think there is a lot to say for this sort of approach. But I consider it to be more of a rhetorical approach and less of a substantive one. Professor Overton phrases the issue as whether Black leaders should abandon the press for race-specific policies (e.g., Affirmative Action). I think that much of that positive agenda can be preserved within Obama's framework, so long as we talk about it in a different way.
"[P]roposals that solely benefit minorities and dissect Americans into "us" and "them" may generate a few short-term concessions when the costs to whites aren't too high, but they can't serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America." That sentence, which has interesting echoes of Derrick Bell, is the crucial one for me. Policies like Affirmative Action have been relentless cast in this "us" versus "them" framework, with Black Americans seen as getting a special advantage over Whites. Some people might argue they deserve such an advantage due to the effects of discrimination, but few have challenged the popular norm that affirmative action is a racially zero-sum game.
Yet there is no objective reason Affirmative Action needs to be framed this way. Increased Black representation in the halls of business and academia do not just benefit Black people. There is ample proof that it helps society as a whole as well as White people specifically. I, a White student, proactively benefit because Carleton hosts a diverse array of students who do not all hail from one city, or study one major, or share one belief. Diversity is a fearure, not a bug. Calls for affirmative action should be phrased less as "you owe us" and more as "let us make this company/college/country a better place." In other words, the press for racial justice should be tied specifically into how it benefits the group as a whole. Which, coincidentally enough, it does.
This sort of rhetorical shift, advocated by Obama as well as academics such as Kenji Yoshino, offers a way out of combative racial discourse in which Whites feel they are under attack and hunker down. Forget about policies in which "the costs to whites aren't too high"--there are many policies which are and should be presented as paying veritable dividends to the White population, to the Black population, and to the American population.