Imani Perry

 

On her book More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States

Cover Interview of October 07, 2011

In a nutshell

This book is about a conflict between American ideals and our social reality. Although we embrace the ideal of racial equality, in myriad studies in numerous fields there is abundant evidence that Americans act in ways that disadvantage people of color, and most dramatically African Americans, on the basis of race.

I attempt to provide an explanation for how and why we have this gap between word and deed. What I find, by culling through a huge body of research and analyzing cultural, legal and social realities, is that the “practice of racial inequality,” as I call it, is a cultural practice that is learned broadly through popular narratives, categories, rubrics, and in how we create value.

It is important to note that by and large, racial inequality is not a matter of intentional bias or deliberate animus. In fact, I argue that we are in a “post-intent” age when it comes to racial inequality—meaning that the “intention” to discriminate is not a good measure of the existence of discrimination.  Much of the discrimination is unintentional and/or unconscious.

So we must seek solutions that shift racial narratives and develop cultural practices that lead to greater access and full civic and social participation, for communities of people impacted by the practice of racial inequality.

This book also challenges some basic tenets in the study of race. The distinction that is often drawn between individual and structural/institutional racism is a false dichotomy. Structures and institutions are sustained by individuals.  Structural racism is nothing more than the cumulative impact of individuals acting to disadvantage others on the basis of race in ways learned through our history and culture. Some of these ways are what is termed in legal studies “facially neutral,” that is to say, race isn’t apparent on the surface, and yet racial inequality is at work.

I also question the ongoing usefulness of the idea of “the other” which has great currency in academic writing about race. We talk about non-white people as being treated as “the other,” but race doesn’t seem to operate in simple binaries any longer, but rather as a spectrum in which members of any group may be within the range of what is deemed as acceptable, or cast out as “extreme.”  This evaluation tends to have its own embedded bigotries, but it is not the same as the Enlightenment era good/evil, white/black that we’ve grown accustomed to using as an explanation. Again, new times call for new tools.