Monday, October 5, 2009

What’s Racism Got To Do With It?

Published: 10.06.09 at Townhall and 10.07.09 at Crosswalk.

Are those who strongly oppose President Obama racists? President Carter and Maureen Dowd think so. But President Clinton and even Mr. Obama himself don’t think so. Who is correct?

Two questions should guide us in finding our answer. First, how do we tell who is and who is not a racist? Second, what is the causal connection between racism and strong opposition to President Obama’s policies (SOTMOP)?

1. Who is a racist?

The biggest hindrance to identifying racists in America is the nearly universal suppression of racism in public. Since openly expressing racism immediately entails being ostracized, very few people are willing to do it, which means that racists quickly learn to talk like non-racists. Thus, evidence of racism is hard to acquire and often fairly thin, sometimes so thin that no amount of squinting will reveal it.

For example, Maureen Dowd recently became convinced Rep. Joe Wilson was a racist because he rudely shouted, “You lie!” during the President’s health care address to Congress. Such words do not normally indicate racism. Tens of millions of people have called President Bush a liar, and few, if any, of them are racists. But Obama is black, Wilson is white, and racism is heavily closeted in America. So perhaps Dowd is just a better detective than others. Let’s look further.

Consider language Mr. Wilson might have used to more clearly identify his views. If he were openly racist, for instance, he might have said, “You lie, you dirty, knuckle-dragging Negro!” But if he were a true egalitarian who yet believed himself to have been lied to, the most likely thing he would have said was, “You lie!” By contrast with the open racist, Mr. Wilson clearly doesn’t sound racist at all. And in contrast with the non-racist,…well, there isn’t any contrast, is there? In other words, the evidentiary difference between what Rep. Wilson actually said and what a non-racist who felt lied to would have said is zero. Nevertheless, this non-evidence is offered as indicating his racism.

All this begs the question of how Mr. Wilson could have expressed his frustration without running the risk of being called a racist by Ms. Dowd. Perhaps a real egalitarian who felt lied to by the President would have said, “You lie, you beautiful black genius!” Ironically, I suspect this too would have been taken for racism, which indicates there is no safe language for a white Congressman to use when claiming a black President lies. I’m not at all defending Mr. Wilson’s disrespectful outburst. I’m just saying that it strikes me as particularly weak evidence of racism.

2. Is racism the root of opposition to Obama?

But even if Ms. Dowd is a bit over-zealous in her racism super-sleuthing, perhaps President Carter is still right that the “overwhelming portion” of SOTPOP is still inspired by racism. In considering how to validate this claim, we yet again find ourselves hindered by the severe difficulty of separating political opposition rooted in racism from the sort that is not.

Clearly, strong animosity is possible even in the absence of racism. Again, observe President Bush’s treatment by the left during his term. Further, even when Clarence Thomas was being castigated by whites on the left, I think we were all willing to agree that this was not racism in action, but mere political disagreement. Since we have no trouble imagining liberals being so furious without being racists, it should be possible to imagine opponents of Obama being equally furious regardless of racism.

But we needn’t speculate. Everyone knows that people on the right have expressed opposition to white liberal politicians every bit as ferociously as they have toward Mr. Obama. I’m sure that Secretary Clinton, the late Senator Kennedy, and Vice-President Gore would all be eager to dispel the allegation that conservatives are uniquely antipathetic towards our President.

And even if there is racism among some or even many who express SOTPOP, the right question is whether they would be any friendlier to a white President who pursued his same agenda. No less a commentator on race issues than President Clinton himself has answered this, saying, “I believe that 100 percent of those who are opposing him now would be against him if he were a white Democrat.”

And that’s really the point. Are there any people in America who would be for Barack Obama if he were white but who are against him now because he is black? In what can only be labeled a tremendous bit of irony, for this to be true would require that the supposedly racist conservative backlash against him isn’t coming from conservatives at all. Conservatives are already disposed to SOTPOP on purely ideological grounds. If racism is creating opponents to Obama, it can only be creating them among white moderates and white liberals who would gladly follow a white President along Obama’s path, but just can’t stand it happening under a black man. Perhaps it’s just my lack of imagination, but I have some trouble believing the Tea Party protestors are secretly liberal racists temporarily cavorting with conservatives out of racial animosity toward a black President of their own ideological stripe.

I wonder whether it’s even plausible for racism to overwhelm political opinions. If this train of reasoning is true and there are liberal racists who now oppose Obama because he’s black, are there also conservative racists who would oppose a black Republican? The conservatives I know are quite fond of Clarence Thomas, JC Watts, Walter Williams, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice. Yet if any of those people became President, I shudder to imagine the opposition they would draw. Still, I doubt anyone would say it was rooted in racism. Perhaps it’s only because we’ve been so conditioned to think that liberals are incapable of racism whereas conservatives are incapable of escaping it. But with all the deep animosity people on the left have toward anyone on the right based entirely on ideology, why is it so incomprehensible that people of equally strong conviction on the right would react vehemently to a liberal President who just happened to be black?


On some slightly more careful analysis, then, things seem fairly simple. Identifying racists is difficult at best, and strong political opposition seems to be completely unconnected to the presence of racism. So maybe the best way for us all to proceed is to treat “racist” and “racism” as words which themselves have no place in civilized political discourse anymore.

And what should we do with those angry white protestors who are expressing anything but fondness for our first black President? I say we celebrate them, even if we don’t agree with them.

See, America won’t be racially healed until we’re willing to accept a world in which whites sometimes hate blacks for reasons completely unrelated to race and in which this hatred isn’t misdiagnosed as racism. The right to be hated for reasons other than skin color, as weird as it sounds, might just be the key test of a truly equal society. We’ve finally elected a black man President. The question remains whether we’ll truly fulfill this amazing accomplishment by allowing white Americans to openly and fearlessly oppose him without being called racists.


Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

This might be nit picking on my part but it really bugs me. Every time I type the name, "Obama" the good folks at Spell Check inform me that I have gotten the spelling wrong. Here are their suggested corrections:


Right. I've got a fifth suggestion for them: Ob-la-di! Ob-la-da! Life goes on - BRA!

Their suggestions for my "misspelling" of the name "Barack" are almost as amusing:

Ba rack

I just got through typing up a list of all forty-three men who have served as chief executive. Spell Check tells me that I got every name right (or, in the case of Martin Van Buren, half right) with one exception. You guessed it: "Barack Obama". The guy has been in the public eye for over five years now. He's been president for nine months! You would think they might have fixed that by now, wouldn't you?

That reminds me. Can anyone please explain to me just what the hell an "Obadias" is? It's not in Webster's Dictionary.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

Naum said...

Consider that…

* …death threats to the President are up 400% since President Obama took office

* …Joe Wilson was an aide to segregationist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, whom he irrationally defended against true charges that Thurmond was a pedophile who impregnated underage family black servant maid… …Thurmond revered and honored as a "son of the South", and Jesse Helms was a favorite, despite being an open racist…

• …Republican politics is still heavily rooted in "Southern Strategy" — take not my words, but the words of Republican ex-campaign strategists like Kevin Phillips who've written extensively on this matter.

* …I guess you can choose to view conservative resistance as fairly typical—and fairly innocuous—fear of change (ha!), or you can actually examine what those fears are based upon, and you will see many of those fears are not only about preserving the status quo, but about preserving a white status quo and white power and control over society. If that’s not racism, I don’t know what is. If you are arguing that fear of a complex and uncertain multiracial future is not racism, then what was experienced during and prior to the Civil Rights movement isn’t racism either…and I think most of us agree that it is.

* …much of the opposition to Civil Rights based "States Rights" was a smokescreen and the same characters carrying signs equating Obama to Hitler were the same ideologically leaning folks who fought in defense of segregation (including many fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, etc.…)

* …just examine the composition of those protesting — by and large, it's 99% white nativist, fearful over shifting nation demographics and who prize a return to those segregated days of yesteryear, and while it may not be publicly acknowledged, really do believe in restoration of "white [supremacy] culture"…

Naum said...

Another take on the matter

Watch out Dems -- the Town Hall protesters are not accurately described as “racists”. They are xenophobic “nativists” and Dems will shoot themselves in the foot – and screw themselves in 2010 – if they don’t see the difference

Confusing this culturally conservative, politically reactionary “nativism” with “racism” against African-Americans is not only sociologically inaccurate but politically counterproductive. It provokes a sincere, self-righteous indignation on the part of the protesters and their sympathizers because they genuinely and correctly feel that in opposing Obama they are not actually thinking about the traditional racist stereotypes of African-Americans – they know in their hearts that the color of Obama’s skin or possible loyalty to his “brothers in the hood” is far, far, far down on the long and bitter list of objections they have to him and everything he represents.

Just consider how utterly stupid and idiotic conservatives seem to serious Democrats when they smugly tell each other that progressives and Democrats are all really “fascists” because they support a variety of mild social-democratic polices. Within their closed ideological bubble the conservatives feel quite certain that they have achieved a deep psychological insight by recognizing that latent Adolph Hitlers lie just beneath the surface of everyone from Teddy Kennedy to Robert Redford and Jane Goodall. They actually sit around and pat themselves on the back for their penetrating aptitude at psychological analysis.

This is exactly how stupid progressives and Democrats appear to culturally conservative Americans when they label as “racism” beliefs that these Americans know are in reality vastly different and more complex. It makes Democrats appear to be trapped in a smug, self-satisfied ideological bubble just as pathetic as the fevered alternative universe of the delusional right.

Let’s be clear. This is not the same as saying that genuine anti-black racism doesn’t exist. It most certainly does. It extends far beyond the “official” racist websites and organizations to significant sectors of the Deep South Republican Party that are still in thrall to segregation-era political dynasties. In addition, many fundamentally racist attitudes – such as the 1970’s-1980’s notion that all Blacks were “welfare cheaters too lazy to work” — have been transferred onto Mexican and other Latino immigrants – supporting the idea that they come to the US to freeload off welfare, for example. Specifically anti-Black Racism is also alive and well –just look at the myths about Blacks causing the housing crisis or that portray ACORN as a cross between the New Jersey mafia and the Nazi Gestapo — but this racism not at all subtle, subliminal or covert. It’s a definable and measurable social reality.

The reality is that the threat Obama poses to the world and culture of the protesters and the wider circle of people who sympathize with them is far more extensive and profound than any “hate whitey” bias or goal of advancing African-American interests against those of whites. Obama’s America is multiracial and multicultural. It is young, educated, urban and tolerant. The “real America” of the protesters, in contrast, is culturally conservative, racially homogeneous, small town and stubbornly committed to traditional views. The extremism and desperation with which the protesters threaten to literally secede from the union or launch a violent revolution to restore the lost “real America” paradise of the past is a measure of how deeply they sense that in the long run the odds are stacked against them.

It is easy to view the demand to “give me back my country” as nothing more than a racist resistance to a Black chief executive. But it is not. The protesters real enemy is the complex and uncertain multiracial and globalized future that Obama represents and which they desperately wish to hold at bay.