by Roy L. Brooks. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 262pp. Cloth. $27.95/£19.95. ISBN: 9780691141985. e-Book. $27.95. ISBN: 9781400831043.

Reviewed by Daniel N. Lipson, Department of Political Science, SUNY New Paltz. Email: lipsond [at] newpaltz.edu.


The election of Barack Obama has often been cited as evidence that America is now “postracial.” In RACIAL JUSTICE IN THE AGE OF OBAMA, Roy L. Brooks explicitly disagrees, concluding that the racial disparities in financial resources, human capital, and social capital reveal an America where race still matters deeply (p.xiii). Brooks coins the first decade of the 21st century as “the Age of Obama,” seeing this time period as a new phase of post-civil rights America (p.xiii).

The title of this book is unfortunate, as this is neither a book about Obama’s approach to racial justice nor his administration’s record on racial justice. Rather, the book summarizes, critiques, and synthesizes four leading normative theories of racial justice. Whether the choice of title was driven by the university press or the author, it is bound to disappoint many readers who expect an early analysis of Obama’s record as candidate and as president. Instead, perhaps the book should have been titled “Racial Justice in Post-Civil Rights America” or “Racial Justice in the 21st Century,” as the book’s focus is on competing explanations of what sustains the racial disparities in material resources over the past four decades and the ensuing prescriptions on how to reduce these resource disparities in the coming decades.

Brooks succeeds at describing and evaluating the four competing theories: traditionalism, reformism, limited separation, and critical race theory. The book provides an impressive overview of the four approaches and is comprehensive and methodical in its evaluation of each approach. However, the book is quite underdeveloped in the epilogue, where Brooks advances his own normative approach based on an amalgamation of the four theories.

The author largely keeps the reader in suspense about his own views until the end of the book. That said, Brooks does make clear early on that he sees the racial problem today as primarily a problem of “disparate resources” (p.xiv) rather than what racial liberals see as a “white problem” of white racism (p.xiii) or what racial conservatives see as a “black problem” of dysfunctional culture. Brooks defines “disparate resources” as a “paucity of financial, human, and social capital” (p.xiv). Here Brooks follows a line of scholars – including William Julius Wilson in THE DECLINING SIGNIFICANCE OF RACE (1980) – in arguing that racial stratification between whites and blacks in the post-civil rights era is increasingly a function of economic marginalization (that has endured due to the devastating legacy of racial subordination): “What I am saying, then, to my liberal and conservative friends is that if racism [*273] ended today or if black culture were problem-free, African Americans would still be beset by a collective problem – disparate resources” (p.xiv). The central question, according to Brooks, is what mix of internal and external factors sustains the disparate resources that perpetuate the American race problem (p.xiv). At the end of this otherwise brief book the reader will find a 58-page appendix with 100 figures that provide a statistical profile of resource disparity in the US from 1972 to the present. It is a useful appendix given its focus on financial, human capital, and social capital disparities.

While his choice of terminology is in some respects preferable to the prevailing discourse, it is also confusing to readers to have to wrap their heads around yet more terminology. What Brooks labels “traditionalism” is more commonly identified as “racial conservatism”; what he labels “reformism” is more commonly known as “racial liberalism.” At the risk of upsetting the author, this review will rely on the conventional terminology (racial conservatism and racial liberalism) instead of his terminology (traditionalism and reformism).

Brooks makes clear that he does not find racial conservatism persuasive. Still, he provides a balanced summary of this traditionalist approach to racial justice in Chapter 2. In the end, he finds more to like than one might expect. Indeed, Brooks goes out of his way at the beginning and end of his book to convince the reader that his book is not promoting a partisan or ideologically “biased” agenda. According to Brooks, racial conservatives see the problem of disparate resources as rooted in flawed individual and family values among many African Americans of lower socio-economic (SES) status. To these racial conservatives, “in the end, it comes down to the individual” (p.28). According to Brooks, “they all believe that the race problem is essentially an internal problem, a problem of class rather than race” (p.24). He lays out the cultural critiques advanced by leading racial conservatives, including John McWhorter’s analysis of “the Cult of Victimology,” which Shelby Steele claims “slavery and Jim Crow vitiated” (p.25). Brooks recounts a fascinating, competing explanation by Thomas Sowell: Whereas Steele claims the victimology was home-grown by African Americans, Sowell concludes that “it was imported to the South during the time of slavery from parts of the British Isles” (p.25). In other words, this dysfunctional culture came from outlaw white Southerners who journeyed to the British Isles from ‘turbulent, if not lawless regions’ of north Britons (p.26).

Although Brooks is generally fair in his characterization of racial conservatism, the primary objection to his depiction of racial conservatism is his conflation of class with culture. Brooks depicts racial conservatives as “still see[ing] the problem of disparate resources not as a problem of race but as a problem of culture, or class” (pp.15-16). This is but one example of Brooks characterizing racial conservatives as appearing to conflate “class” with “culture.” While this may be an accurate summary of George Will’s views (see footnote 55 on page 24), it does not appear to be representative of leading racial conservatives. After all, racial conservatives – whether implicitly or explicitly – are obsessed with what they [*274] see as a “race” problem that is not simply a function of class. Racial conservatives are quick to distinguish what they see as an admirable American work ethic among poor (especially rural) whites from what they see as a violation of these American values among much of the black underclass. Whereas Brooks depicts racial conservatives as fixating on class problems (which he uses interchangeably with “culture problem”) rather than a race problem, it is more accurate to say that they depict a “culture of poverty” among a segment of poor African Americans in inner-city neighborhoods as being at the root of the race problem in the United States.

Apart from the depiction of racial conservative scholars as conflating class with culture, Brooks deeply understands racial conservatives’ cultural critique. One strength of this chapter is its attention to the divisions among racial conservatives. In particular, Brooks draws attention to the conflicts between the “compassionate conservatives” (whom he calls “comcons” for short) and the core racial conservatives (whom he calls core traditionalists): “today’s traditionalists are a mixture of Jim Crow liberals (people who always believed in equal rights) and Jim Crow conservatives (people who fought to uphold segregation but have subsequently had a change of heart)” (p.15). Brooks draws on core racial conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, Dinesh D’Souza, George Will, John McWhorter, Bill O’Reilly, Clarence Thomas, and Shelby Steele and contrasts them with a small number of “compassionate conservatives” such as Ward Connerly along with Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom.

Whereas core conservatives distrust activist government and prescribe “just-say-no” solutions for poor inner-city blacks, “compassionate conservatives” (a.k.a. “Bush II conservatives”) embrace a big-government conservative agenda that includes private assistance to the poor aimed at promoting lifestyle change (p.24). Compassionate conservatives propose race-neutral reforms that ostensibly empower the socially and economically disadvantaged. Such reforms include workfare (rather than welfare), school vouchers, charter schools, standardized testing, and merit-based pay for teachers (pp.22-23). While core racial conservatives disagree with compassionate conservatives over the desirability of conservative activist government, they are united in opposition to liberal activist government. In particular, racial conservatives are united in opposition to race-based affirmative action.

According to Brooks, racial conservatism’s primary flaws are excessive criticism of internal problems with African American culture, inadequate attention paid to the external problems of racial subordination, and a disappointing reform agenda. Like other critics, he sees racial conservatives as singling out poor African Americans for cultural problems – such as intraracial crime – that are not unique to African Americans (p.33). He faults racial conservatives for not “tell[ing] us how a resource-deficient community can obtain resources on their [sic] own” (p.33). Interestingly, Brooks views inflammatory “populist” conservative media celebrity Bill O’Reilly more favorably than he views conservative academics: “Bill O’Reilly’s indictment of what he terms a ‘secular’ popular [*275] culture strikes me as much more persuasive than his and other traditionalists’ condemnation of affirmative action” (p.30).

Conceding in Chapter 2 that he once identified as a racial liberal (p.55), it should not be surprising that Brooks views racial liberals more favorably. The core rallying cry of racial liberals is that “race still matters” (p.57). Whereas racial conservatives see the persistence of racial stratification as driven by a dysfunctional black culture, reformists “believe that disparate resources are sustained externally by racism (frontstage and backstage) and racial discrimination (individual as well as structural in the forms of institutional and societal discrimination)” (p.38). Chapter 2 features such prominent racial liberals as Cornel West, Glenn Loury (formerly a prominent racial conservative), William Julius Wilson, Gary Orfield, Joe Feagin, Ellis Cose, and Michael Eric Dyson.

According to Brooks, reformists “owe a debt of gratitude to traditionalists... for having the courage to bring the [internal] problem [in black America] into mainstream civil rights discourse” (p.62). Whereas racial conservatives see a “spiritual impoverishment” in inner-city African American communities requiring a “just-say-no” prescription, racial liberals see in these communities “black nihilism” and the temptations of “ghettofabulosity” (the potent combination of “thuggery, misogyny, and instant gratification”) and advance an “adopt-a-family” black-self-help program (p.62). Racial liberals distinguish their analysis of the black middle-class from the black poverty class and underclass. According to Brooks, racial liberals conclude that racial discrimination sustains the racial resource disparities between blacks and whites in the middle- and working-class. In contrast, racial disparities among the poverty class and underclass are sustained more by teenage pregnancy, criminal behavior, and other internal factors (p.47). The centerpiece of racial liberals’ policy agenda is race-based affirmative action. In addition, racial liberals embrace multiracial/multiethnic coalition-building, protest politics, “vigorous enforcement of and doctrinal changes to extant civil rights laws,” job-training and job-creation programs, and reparations (p.48).

The thoroughness of Brooks’ chapters on racial conservatism and racial liberalism comes at the price of redundancy and dryness. His chapters do not lay out these competing theories as vividly as did Orlando Patterson in THE ORDEAL OF INTEGRATION (1998). Patterson’s book cuts to the core of the difference between racial liberals and racial conservatives: racial conservatives embrace free will and thereby argue that blacks ought to blame themselves for their problems, whereas racial liberals adopt a structural/historical argument that blames the “system” for their problems. Racial conservatives accuse racial liberals of embracing a racial determinism that allows struggling African Americans to deflect all blame for their own plights. Racial liberals accuse racial conservatives of “blaming the victim” through an atomistic theory that is blind to historical and contemporary social forces (including racial discrimination and subordination) that sustain stratification. Orlando Patterson is also much more successful [*276] at developing and advancing a clear, middle-of-the-road normative agenda.

The greatest contribution of Brooks’ book is its careful attention to the distinctions and overlaps among three left-leaning approaches that are commonly conflated: racial liberalism, limited separation, and critical race theory. Whereas Patterson’s ORDEAL OF INTEGRATION fell into the trap of portraying the debate as merely two-sided (between liberals and conservatives), Brooks reveals the racial “left” is instead an uneasy coalition of liberal integrationists, limited separatists, and radical “race crits.”

While Brooks finds critical race theory to be “the most fascinating and complex civil rights theory articulated during this post-civil rights era,” readers may very well instead find Chapter 4 on “Limited Separation” to be the most thought-provoking. After all, few would dispute that the limited separatism lost the political and legal debate to liberal integrationism. The media coverage of the 50th anniversary of BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1954) showcased the extent to which liberal integrationism has become the prevailing discourse of educators and political leaders. Limited separatists see the elevation of BROWN to hero-status as dangerous, instead concluding that “society, including blacks, has placed too much faith in racial integration or assimilation” (p.65). Yet limited separatists view the failures of racial integration less as a result of racial subordination (as critical race theorists argue) or racial discrimination by whites (as racial liberals argue) and more as a function of whites pursuing their own self-interest (pp.65, 73, 77).

Chapter 4 recounts Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Derrick Bell paying homage to the virtues of growing up in “black-mainstream communities” – that is, neighborhoods that were racially segregated but socio-economically integrated (p.63). These African American elites recounted the losses they saw from the end of limited separation. Specifically, the exodus of the black middle-class to predominantly white middle-class neighborhoods devastated black communities.

Central to the policy agenda of limited separatists is the call for the Supreme Court to constitutionalize limited separation. Brooks himself lays out a promising three-prong test that would (1) require institutions that operate under limited separation to “demonstrate a need to create a supportive environment free of debilitating racial disadvantage,” (2) require limited-separate institutions to “grant access to individuals from outside the group, so long as these individuals are willing to support the institution’s mission,” and (3) permit limited-separate institutions to “deny access to an individual belonging to another group only when his or her race would destroy the institution’s identity” (pp.76-77).

Brooks makes excellent use of popular movies – as well as comparisons from other countries such as Denmark and Finland – to illustrate key differences among the four approaches to racial justice. For example, Brooks points to AKEELAH AND THE BEE (2006) to highlight the benefits limited separation provides for African Americans, whereas CRASH (2004) instead shows why liberal integration – rather than [*277] limited separation – is so appealing to middle-class African Americans despite the discrimination they suffer (p.87). Brooks draws analogies to Chinatowns across the country as well as Cuban American communities in Miami (p.77). He suggests that “there would have been no Martin Luther King Jr. without group identity” and draws attention to the centrality of black churches in mobilizing the resources needed to build the successful civil rights movement (p.85). Chapter 4 recounts the heyday of the Harlem renaissance (p.80) and renewed efforts to empower African Americans today via the Harlem Children’s Zone (p.81).

Brooks identifies three obstacles that are difficult for limited separatists to overcome. First, the expansion of limited-separatist institutions (such as K-12 public schools) is unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny. Second, limited separation is seen as a dangerous, fringe view in the U.S. Third, the cause of limited separation faces a daunting hurdle: its success depends on middle-class African American trailblazers moving their families from predominantly white middle class suburban neighborhoods into poor inner-city neighborhoods. To be sure, these four obstacles assume the limited-separation is desirable. Perhaps the resistance to limited separation for blacks is warranted; after all, it gives fodder for the cause of (limited or total) white separatism.

Even if limited separation is desirable, it faces a fourth obstacle to which Brooks does not pay adequate attention: whites outnumber blacks in the United States by a ratio of approximately six to one. In contrast, Orlando Patterson’s THE ORDEAL OF INTEGRATION does a masterful job of calling attention to the importance of this imbalance between black and white populations in the US. If the proportion of African Americans enrolling in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) increased substantially, the remaining universities would see significant declines in African American enrollments.

Chapter 5 provides an excellent overview of the core tenets of, as well as internal divisions among, the Critical Race Theorists (a.k.a. “race crits”). The race crits see racial subordination as the core dynamic sustaining racial disparities. Racial discrimination is but one symptom of racial subordination. The race crits see the world in terms of insiders and outsiders, and African Americans are the racial outsiders. Racism is permanent and pervasive according to the race crits (p.92), who conceptualize the term “racism” differently from conventional usage (p.93). For critical race theorists, the intent or motivations of whites matters less than the impact of white hegemony on African Americans (p.92).

Whereas some race crits come out of the structuralist, realist tradition of Critical Legal Studies (p.95), others are influenced by the idealist tradition of poststructuralism. The former, such as Derrick Bell, see disparate resources as being sustained by the “white self-interest principle,” whereby whites support racial progress only when there is a convergence between the interests of African Americans and their own interests as whites. In contrast, poststructuralists focus on the power of discourse in framing and filtering the [*278] subordination of African Americans (p.96).

Brooks finds the lack of an internal prescription the most problematic aspect about critical race theory (p.108). That is, race crits blame the system for racial disparities and racial dysfunction. In addition, Brooks finds it surprising that the policy agenda of the race crits is so similar to that of racial liberals. He would expect the originality and boldness of the race crits’ diagnosis of the problem to be followed by a more radical and original policy agenda. Instead, the realist race crit prescription “looks very reformist. . . At the very least, it means more affirmative action” (p.101). And the idealist race crit prescription boils down to “tell[ing] your stories” (p.102). Overall, critical race theory “is less prescriptive than diagnostic” (p.91).

In the epilogue, Brooks seeks to discover the “‘best’ post-civil rights theory” (p.109). In the end, he concludes that the way forward is an “amalgamation of all the extant theories” (p.111). Brooks concludes that race still matters, but “less as racial discrimination than as racial subordination” (p.113). He agrees that internal factors – “despair, ghettofabulosity, and defiance” – work to sustain racial disparities. His prescription for addressing the internal problems in black communities is “all of the above” (p.114). He writes, “I believe African Americans should be allowed to select the self-help program that works best for the individual, the family, or the community”; this includes limited-separatists’ visions of healthy black communities with vibrant black businesses, schools, and churches (p.114).

Brooks shares several creative initiatives to address the external problems of racial subordination. He supports federal loan guarantees and microloans along with the expansion of privately-funded programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone. The US should learn from the successes of Finland by investing more in excellent teachers (and less in equipment and facilities). Brooks proposes “teachers who teach in predominantly black schools . . . be paid . . . a starting salary of at least $75,000” (p.116). He also calls for expanding the number of KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Academies, which are intensive public schools (the majority are charter schools) requiring extended days, weeks, and school years. In addition, Brooks supports the granting of federal tax credits to businesses in the entertainment industry that “promote positive and truthful images of black Americans” (p.115).

As intriguing as Brooks’ proposals are, his epilogue leaves the reader wanting much more. He aspires to develop a “theory of completeness” that moves beyond the “incomplete post-civil rights theory [that] is insufficiently formed [and] undertheorized” (p.xvi). While he deserves praise for beginning this effort, his proposals are still very much under-theorized and incomplete. Who in government would decide which films and television shows portray positive and truthful images of African Americans, and based on what criteria? Who in government would pay for the $75,000 starting salaries for teachers in predominantly black schools, and based on what criteria? What would be the process for expanding the number of KIPP Academies? Should such programs be limited to predominantly black [*279] schools or expanded to also include Latinos, American Indians, individuals of other ethno-racial backgrounds, and/or poor whites?

RACIAL JUSTICE IN THE AGE OF OBAMA provides an excellent, balanced summary, critique, and synthesis of the central approaches to racial justice as well as creative proposals – which are informed by each of the four approaches – for alleviating the internal and external problems that sustain the disparate resources between whites and blacks in the US. Brooks’ book would fit well in courses on race and civil rights in political science, sociology, and African American Studies at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as in related law-school seminars.

Patterson, Orlando. 1998. THE ORDEAL OF INTEGRATION: PROGRESS AND RESENTMENT IN AMERICA’S “RACIAL” CRISIS. Washington, D.C.: Civitas/Counterpoint: Distributed by Publishers Group West.

Wilson, William J. 1980. THE DECLINING SIGNIFICANCE OF RACE: BLACKS AND CHANGING AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


© Copyright 2010 by the author, Daniel N. Lipson.