Academics have long worked to dismantle the tenacious construction that is race. But outside the limestone tower, it's rare to find a discussion of race that questions its very existence. Interracial adoption, affirmative action, fair housing -- each of these topical debates rests on one common-sense assumption: that race as we know it is, for better or worse, real.
In "Coal to Cream," Eugene Robinson weighs the virtues and failings of a foreign culture that does not acknowledge race in the American sense. As South American bureau chief of the Washington Post, Robinson found himself spending as much time as he could in glamorous Rio de Janeiro. Chief among that city's seductions was not the sound of samba but the Brazilian vision of race -- or lack thereof. He discovered in a conversation on Ipanema beach that, while in America he could never have passed for white, in Brazil he didn't have to call himself black if he didn't want to. "That day on the beach was electrifying, eye-opening, liberating," he writes. "I felt as if I'd just been let out of an airless little prison cell straight into the glorious space and hot sun and cooling zephyrs of Ipanema."
Those zephyrs took Robinson across a racial Rubicon. In Brazil, the categories he had always regarded as fixed were, in fact, mutable: "I'd found a system that let people be themselves, that let people be individuals, rather than exemplars of groups." For a black American man who had succeeded in mainstream white institutions, the freedom to shed the exemplar's coil came as a huge relief.
But as Robinson spent more time in Brazil, he came to perceive an unpleasant truth about this raceless paradise: The poorest and most degraded people in the country consistently fell into the category Americans would call black, while the richest had lighter skin. His conclusion: Racial oppression exists in Brazil just as it does in other countries, but the disenfranchised are worse off there because they don't identify their oppression as racial.
Racial anger, then, has its virtues. Without it, Brazilians "had no sense of themselves as joined, embattled, mutually reinforced. Without it, they had no basis for demands, no scoreboard to tally gains and losses, no foreknowledge to cushion defeat and no suspicion to temper victory. Without it, they had no motor, no juice, no steam. No chance."
Academic theory has no place in "Coal to Cream" -- not because Robinson is unaware of academic debates but because the book primarily documents a personal experience. He does make a brief nod to the great question of essentialism -- whether characteristics are inherent in a person or group from birth or are culturally constructed: "I'm not a believer in any hereditary theory in which psychological wounds automatically get passed down through the centuries, like some kind of stigmata of the mind. But I do think that if the circumstances are conducive, the agony of one generation can echo in the next, and the next, and the next -- ever more faintly, perhaps, but still with the amplitudes and frequencies of the original."
After several years in South America and then London, Robinson and his family moved home -- to just outside Washington. His return to the States dovetailed with his embrace of his status as a black man. At the Million Man March, he found a calming atmosphere of kinship that had little to do with the media's portrayal of the event as a Louis Farrakhan rally. What impressed him was not the political agenda but something else: "We were hundreds of thousands defined as a group by our common color, but that color was common only in the loosest sense: some of us were in fact ebony, others every conceivable shade of brown or red or even yellow, a range that went all the way from coal to cream."
If that's true -- if the importance of black solidarity is about culture, not color, if community transcends physical characteristics, if skin color per se does not determine group membership -- then it's not exactly clear why Robinson still embraces the notion of blackness. Why do racial categories remain significant to him? In the end, the why of race seems as elusive to Robinson as the what he can't quite define.