Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shapes of Racism

In Kentucky's Democratic primary election yesterday, according to the exit polls conducted by CNN, 21% of the voters reported that race was important to them in making their decision and of those 81% voted for Hillary Clinton. More than one out of every six Democrats polled in Kentucky were comfortable telling a complete stranger that the fact that they voted against Barack Obama at least in part because of the color of his skin. And those were the ones who had no problem admitting it. Racism is alive and well and receiving both fuel and oxygen.

What is interesting are the tactics used to conceal it. No longer are open and explicit racist statements acceptable in most mainstream outlets (rightwing talk radio is different because they have created a discourse space in which it is acceptable, indeed they hope to have it pointed out allowing them to play the victim card demonstrating that the PC police are trying to deny them their freedom of speech).

The standard move is to use the sort of dog whistle coded racist language perfected by Ronald Reagan. When Reagan referred to welfare queens" or "state's rights," no one had any doubt what it was he was talking about, but you could never point to the explicitly racist content. The meaning was clear, but required what philosopher H.P. Grice called a conversational implicature, that is an inference from the listener to unpack the meaning of an utterance.

This has been the sort of move used by the Clinton campaign, for example, when referring to working class and lower middle class white voters as "hard-working Americans." This distinguishes this group of white voters from their African-American economic peers, an inference that is unpacked in part with the stereotypical racist presumption of the laziness of oppressed minority groups.

We must be careful to distinguish between descriptive statements that include race. These are not necessarily racist. Race is a sociological factor and discussing the way that factor plays out does not make an utterance racist. Take Obama's comment about the bitterness of white working class voters. In this case, we have a discussion that involves race and class and discusses the complex interrelation among them, policy positions, and voting patterns is a perfectly legitimate topic of conversation.

In this way, some of the comments made by Geraldine Ferraro were on the acceptable side of the line. One could argue that in light of the history of racism in this country, there is a reticence in certain parts of our society to be seen to be critical of rising African-Americans and that the overwhelmingly positive treatment that Obama was receiving in the media was in part a result of this. Maybe it is true, maybe it isn't. We can look back to the Democratic Senators' squeamishness during the Clarence Thomas hearings as evidence that such a thing could be operative here, but whether it is or not is an empirical question that requires support.

But when Ferraro took the next step and argued that he is in the position he occupies because of his race, implying that he shouldn't be leading in the race for the Democratic nomination and is only there because of the treatment he receives because of his race trading on historic antipathy in parts of the white community to affirmative action programs, now what she is doing is diminishing the man on the basis of race, and that statement was explicit and open.

We see more egregious examples of racism from the right. Michael Medved, for example, argues that

The idea of a distinctive, unifying, risk-taking American DNA might also help to explain our most persistent and painful racial divide – between the progeny of every immigrant nationality that chose to come here, and the one significant group that exercised no choice in making their journey to the U.S. Nothing in the horrific ordeal of African slaves, seized from their homes against their will, reflected a genetic predisposition to risk-taking, or any sort of self-selection based on personality traits. Among contemporary African-Americans, however, this very different historical background exerts a less decisive influence, because of vast waves of post-slavery black immigration. Some three million black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean arrived since 1980 alone and in big cities like New York, Boston and Miami close to half of the African-American population consists of immigrants, their children or grandchildren. The entrepreneurial energy of these newcomer communities indicates that their members display the same adventurous instincts associated with American DNA.
The move here is a classic example of what I have termed the "cage and frame" rhetorical strategy which is frequently used by conservatives.

Cage and frame is the trick wherein one takes a set of questions that one does not want discussed and puts them in a cage, allowing out only one sacrificial question, a question carefully selected to be easily framed in a way that generates loud, divisive debate. In this way, there appears to be open conversation despite the fact that the real questions never get considered.

Conservatives work very hard to make sure that all questions about the sociological factors leading to social injustice never get asked. This is the reasoning behind the "personal responsibility" canard. What we see from Medved is a longstanding conservative move dating back to the Social Darwinists of the 19th century wherein the conversation is kept on the biological level. It is racist bait and switch. The real questions of social structure and remedies to unfair distribution of wealth and power need never be asked as long we stay focused on questions of heritability.

Further, it allows the racist to falsely hide behind the sort of legitimate natural and social scientific questions about the role, function, and ramifications of race. By couching it in biological terms, the racist can claim to merely be looking at the science and that is objective, non-racist. By allowing only an empirical question out of the cage, the racist motivation behind the strategy can be concealed.

A third rhetorical strategy of contemporary racists is to conflate racist and non-racist notions, thereby hiding the racism behind the innocent. In a recent piece by Kathleen Parker, we see this move.
"A full-blooded American." That's how 24-year-old Josh Fry of West Virginia described his preference for John McCain over Barack Obama. His feelings aren't racist, he explained. He would just be more comfortable with "someone who is a full-blooded American as president."

Whether Fry was referring to McCain's military service or Obama's Kenyan father isn't clear, but he may have hit upon something essential in this presidential race. Full-bloodedness is an old coin that's gaining currency in the new American realm. Meaning: Politics may no longer be so much about race and gender as about heritage, core values, and made-in-America. Just as we once and still have a cultural divide in this country, we now have a patriot divide. Who "gets" America? And who doesn't?

The answer has nothing to do with a flag lapel pin, which Obama donned for a campaign swing through West Virginia, or even military service, though that helps. It's also not about flagpoles in front yards or magnetic ribbons stuck on tailgates.

It's about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots. Some run deeper than others and therein lies the truth of Josh Fry's political sense. In a country that is rapidly changing demographically — and where new neighbors may have arrived last year, not last century — there is a very real sense that once-upon-a-time America is getting lost in the dash to diversity.

We love to boast that we are a nation of immigrants — and we are. But there's a different sense of America among those who trace their bloodlines back through generations of sacrifice.
Did you catch it? Let's play that old game from Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others: "heritage, core values, and made-in-America" and "blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values" It's not racism, it's about commitment and hard-won values. Racism is bad, virtues are good, I use virtue referring terms to justify my racist views, therefore my racist views are not racist.

It comes in all shapes and sizes, folks, from open and explicit to hidden and coded. One could even say that it mutates as it replicates, but that would be to use a cheesy genetic metaphor and no one giving a legitimate argument would stoop to such nonsense.