This essay explores some of the reasons for the continuing power of racial categorization in our era, and thus offers some friendly amendments to the more optimistic renderings of the term post-racial. Focusing mainly on the relationship between black and white Americans, it argues that the widespread embrace of universal values of freedom and equality, which most regard as antidotes to racial exclusion, actually reinforce it. The internal logic of these categories requires the construction of the “other.” In America, where freedom and equality still stand at the contested center of collective identity, a history of racial oppression informs the very meaning of these terms. Thus the irony: much of the effort exerted to transcend race tends to fuel continuing division.

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