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Book Review

Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America by Elwood David Watson (The University of Chicago Press)

How did we get here? Racial unrest across the country, a new virus crippling the nation’s health, an anemic economy, and extreme political divisions are shaking our democratic foundations. Elwood Watson’s Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America helps to answer this vexing question. Written before the death of George Floyd and the COVID-19 global pandemic, it is prescient and illustrates how we got to this moment of inflection and social strife.

This brilliantly written, intellectually honest essay collection examines the complex manifestations of race in the contemporary context. It references academic research to support its claims, but its strength lies in confronting the past and present reality of Black dehumanization and devaluation in the United States with vivid facts and events. It deftly uses the evidence to expose the weaknesses of opposing arguments. It addresses difficult topics, such as Black self-hatred, the politics of homophobia in the Black community, sparring between Black intellectuals, sexism and violence against Black women.

Watson, a historian, situates the Black Lives Matter movement, Colin Kaepernick, and other modern activists within the context of past grassroots movements. He also draws attention to White Nationalism and the longstanding scourges of homegrown terrorism and racial violence.

Rejecting mere performative activism and “fleeting” symbolism, the book calls for a more nuanced approach to racial controversy. Symbols, such as the Confederate flag and statues venerating rebel soldiers, have a proper place — museums, where they can be contextualized. Watson urged Quaker Oats and Mars, Inc., to consider retiring the Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben labels from their products long before they actually did so. The persistent use of these racially offensive stereotypes speaks to the priorities of corporate marketers, profiting from the perverse nostalgia with which all too many Americans regard them.

Watson goes further, warning that symbolic gestures are not enough; the focus must remain on substantive measures for change. For example, he contends that bias training for Starbucks’ employees in the wake of a racial profiling scandal, although well-intended, likely had limited impact on eradicating racism in the contemporary context. He is skeptical of the “let’s come together and talk about it” forums that “do little to solve the problem of systemic and structural racism.” If polite conversations about race worked, the lived experience of countless Black Americans would be markedly different.

Instead, Watson places agency where it belongs — on White Americans, who must “come to grips with their own racism and begin to have a conversation among themselves.” He recognizes that many Black Americans are sick and tired of voicing their concerns to White Americans, who often respond with cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, defensiveness, indifference, denials, and hostility, while turning the argument to accuse Blacks of being overly sensitive, angry, and “ungrateful” for simply pursuing fairness. Ironically, White Americans have been making race a defining category by treating Black Americans unfairly for centuries.

If the book mentions the current White House occupant, it is to dig deep into the factors that drove his rise to, and exercise of, power; that is, as a symptom of underlying societal maladies.

Despite its sobering lessons about what is needed to surmount racial injustice, it acknowledges that the Black American experience is about thriving. Watson highlights the contributions of Black Americans like John Lewis, Aretha Franklin, and Prince to the American cultural and socio-political lexicon.

This important book reminds us of the reckoning we face if we work to transcend racial animus and subjugation in this country. Nothing short of a broad-based commitment to action will eradicate racial injustice. We may not want to hear the book’s direct judgments and prescriptions, but they are what we need to hear to forge a way through the contemporary moment.

In short, this book lives up to its title. Watson’s Keepin’ It Real is essential reading for all people — White, Black, young, old, conservative, liberal, domestic, foreign, justice proponents and naysayers — who want to know how we got here and how we might move forward toward a better state.

Omari Scott Simmons is the Howard L. Oleck Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law.

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