Racism without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

Title: Racism without Racists
Author: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
Genre: Nonfiction / sociology

Rating: 5 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s

“One reason why, in general terms, whites and people of color cannot agree on racial matters is because they conceive terms such as ‘racism’ very differently,” writes Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes in the excellent first chapter of his excellent book Racism without Racists. He continues, “Whereas for most whites racism is prejudice, for most people of color racism is systemic or institutionalized.” This is really the crux of his argument: in the post-Jim Crow racial order, prejudice is frowned upon by virtually everyone—even David Duke (former Grand Wizard of the KKK) claims that he’s not racist, merely “pro-white”—and yet the situation of black people as a whole has not improved much since the 1960s. This is the racism without racists of the title—that despite ostensibly good intentions and a lack of conscious bias, the racist legacy (segregation, anti-miscegenation, unequal schools, unequal housing, discrimination, police brutality, etc.) is still firmly in place. As Bonilla-Silva shows in interviews, many white racial progressives who are supportive of people of color in the abstract are either hesitant to support or even oppose any policies that would actually ameliorate the racist circumstances we find in our country.

This book is great. It’s obviously well-researched—the average number of footnotes for each chapter is 64, and chapters that don’t rely primarily on his studies/interviews have up to 191. I have highlighted passages on almost every single page of this book. For someone wanting to know what racism looks like in America today, or is dubious that it exists at all, this book is basically a one-stop resource to inform (this book, along with The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, was assigned reading for a race & ethnic relations class I took last year).

Bonilla-Silva focuses the most on black-white relations “because blacks are still the racial antithesis of whites in the racial spectrum,” but he does examine other racial groups as well. The book is also about United States racial relations in particular, although there is a chapter where he briefly discusses Latin American race relations because he believes the US is heading toward a “triracial stratification system similar to that of many Latin American and Caribbean nations.” There is also an excellent chapter on why the Obama presidency does not herald the end of racism as many hoped, and another on the frames of “abstract liberalism” that people now couch their racism in rather than spewing out-and-out prejudicial statements.

The only blight on this book is that it does, unfortunately, contain some transphobia. I cringed when I read this: “Henrietta, a transsexual school teacher in his fifties…” Ouch. Maybe it stands out so starkly in contrast to the the rest of the book in which the author is so right on, but this purposeful misgendering was just not cool (also, does Henrietta identify as “transsexual,” or is that the author’s label?). As is perhaps evidenced by that example, the book is not particularly intersectional—but then, it never claimed to be, as it focuses on race specifically. At times the book can get a bit “academic,” but it isn’t of the dry sort, just the detailed.

Overall this is a strong, well-argued, and really important book that I wish more people would read (or at least absorb the message of). I’ve been recommending it and referring to it in conversation over the past year before even finishing it. So tackling it one chapter a time is a fine way to read it; even reading one chapter would be worth it—and hey, look at that, the first chapter is available for free on Google Books :3

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