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Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution. (Book Reviews).

By Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn

On the surface, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn's assertion makes sense: a therapeutic approach to race relations has trivialized the issue while we lose the goal of achieving institutional equality. She cites 50 years of examples of encounter groups, black psychotherapy, sensitivity trainings, and cultural etiquette books that arose to manage tensions in the postwar integration era. She writes that 12-step programs, the recovery movement, and inner child workshops became indiscriminately mixed up with "the racial struggle," much to that struggle's misfortune. She tracks the meteoric rise of corporate diversity trainings, considered a matter of economic survival but proven ineffective in improving race relations on the job, and examines "re-evaluation counseling," a therapeutic model that she names a "stealth" strategy--on the surface egalitarian but truly controlled by one man. Oh, and she doesn't like identity-based education either. Her chief objection to therapeutic anti-racist culture is that "the desired goal was no longer civic equality and participation, but individual psychic wellbeing--more nebulous, open to interpretation, difficult to achieve, and controversial than the universal guarantees of political equality sought by the early civil rights movement." All this therapy led to new racial rituals and taboos, especially the white guilt, harangue/flagellation ritual, and the focus on identity, "distracting [the movement] from the serious task of institutional innovation, economic reorganization, community-building and moral rehabilitation."

But it turns out that black power activists are the real hijackers of the revolution. All that remained of the civil rights struggle was for Americans to get along with basic mutual respect, but the merger of black power and therapy enabled identity politics, in which "the idea that blacks should separately free themselves to discover and create their own identities 'to become empowered' replaced the moral universalism of the civil rights crusade." While LaschQuinn acknowledges that "obsequiousness on the part of whites does not really threaten the fundamental structures of work or society," she seems to find those structures in good shape, offering no suggestions about what would actually threaten them. She's suspicious about why blacks keep harping "about our collective 'silence' regarding African American history, universal images and attitudes of white superiority, and lack of black role models, despite the tremendous advances in racial attitudes, the new visibility, and the truly stunning achievement of blacks in every arena imaginable." Despite its provocative title, this book does not reflect on that complex relationship between individual transformation, the shaping of a culture, and the structures of society. It doesn't bring to relief that tough web of privilege, power and punishment, woven along the lines of racial identity, hard to see if you look person by person, but held in place by each one's thoughts and actions nonetheless. A less apparent sort of racism perhaps than the Jim Crow lynch mob's, but no less damaging.
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Author:Sen, Rinku
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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