Lupita's Elevation to 'Most Beautiful' Shouldn't Distract Us From Real Lack of Racial Progress
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On Tuesday, the US supreme court upheld Michigan's ban on race as a factor in university admissions. Less than 24 hours later, People magazine put Lupita Nyong'o on the cover of its "Most Beautiful" issue. And today we are left to ask: what does it mean for Lupita to be lifted up the day after affirmative action was struck down?
We live in a post-racial society, many claim. With Obama as president, Pharrell making people of all races happy, and Lupita as the new Hollywood sensation, things are clearly better for black people, right?
According to recent reports, black men are over-incarcerated and underemployed, black students are vulnerable to higher rates of suspension than any other racial group, and black women are still incarcerated at rates that dwarf their white counterparts.
So how is a post-racial narrative articulated at the same time that masses of black people are being systemically and disproportionately locked into prisons, crammed into ghettos and denied the opportunity to equally pursue a higher education? Likewise, how is Lupita's body being celebrated in the same moment that the body of black life within the West – from Harlem to Haiti, y las Ciudades to Chicago – is being colonized, criminalized and concentrated into cages of punishment and cities of poverty?
As I have previously argued, what we are witnessing "has less to do with Lupita and more to do with a larger, mythological narrative of black progress vis-à-vis black exceptionalism." The same imagination that gave rise to chattel slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow is now used to articulate a "post-racial" voice and animate a "colorblind" vision in the name of black elitism and racial exceptionalism.
The Lupita craze, then, tells us less about the person of Lupita and more about the pathology of the US, just as the supreme court decision tells us as much about the nation as a whole than it does any single state. To remix Malcolm X, Michigan is the United States, but Lupita is not (most) black people!
I agree with Lupita and her mother: "You can't eat beauty. It doesn't feed you." But capitalism can and does commodify beauty, turn it into a (profitable) "thing", and place it on the neoliberal market to be sold – just as People makes money selling Lupita's beauty with every magazine we buy.
And while that commodification of (black) beauty fuels our national imagination, the criminalization of black bodies, too, "feeds" our political economy. After all, profiting off black oppression, be it in Hollywood or by hyper-incarceration, Patsey or Sharanda, isn't new. By usurping the power to name which raced bodies are and are not "beautiful," the white Western imagination that haunts our modern moment reveals itself not as "colorblind", as many like to claim, but as blind to the realities of color – not "post-racial", but pathologically racist.
Black has always been beautiful, way before neoliberalism enabled whiteness to say so, centuries before Hollywood recognized its economic potential, and histories before People and Marie Claire magazines put Lupita Nyong'o on their covers. While Lupita's beauty is consumed the world over, whatever hope was left for affirmative action has been "eaten" by the judicial jaws of an unjust supreme court and immorally digested by an utterly unbeautiful country.
And black people, as always, are left to clean up the shit that drops from the imperial anus of white corporate America into the ghettoized toilets of terror – of stop-and-frisk and police brutality, of underfunded schools andovercrowded jails – that marks much of black life in the US.
Perhaps what is most pathological about this moment is that this nation – the same nation that kidnapped, enslaved and lynched black bodies – is the same nation that will blame its disenfranchised descendants for not attending the schools from which we are systematically barred, for living in ghettos we did not create, and for not being as "beautiful" as Lupita, or as "respectable" as Obama. The same People that named Lupita "most beautiful" arises from the same so-called post-racial politics that still reads black culture as inferior and black people as disposable.
Perhaps the US is "post-racial" after all, if by post-racial one means beyond the ability and/or willingness to talk about, let alone respond to, the realities of race and white supremacy. But one thing is for sure: even if this country is "post-racial", the US is not post-pathological.
Far from it.