Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Unconscious Racism of the Tea Party

Birtherism is a phenomena that can pretty well be argued as fundamentally racist.  One might say that it is simply a partisan meme that, like any other, exists primarily as a perseveration that has as its only goal to delegitimize the president.  In this way it is no different than claims that Bush was never really elected in the 2000 presidential election, or subsequent claims of voter fraud in 2004.  But whether or not you find those memes legitimate (they at least couldn't be dismissed with something as simple as a birth certificate), they also didn't exist within a larger context of racial and ethnic paranoia.

Maybe it is all just a coincidence, but birtherism is just one of many accusations that Obama's ethnic, racial and political heritage presents a real threat to White American Christianity.  Whether it is his community organizing in the ghetto, his membership in a radical black church, his Kenyan father, his time spent with Muslims in Indonesia, Hussein being his middle name, or his supposed "palling around with terrorists" and institution of a socialist tyranny, the claim is not that he is merely unfit for the presidency, but that he actually represents a radical plot to overthrow the nation's ethnic, religious and racial heritage.  Considering that this is obviously not true, the case that it is motivated from deep-seated unconscious racial bias is quite clear.  The fact that it perseveres despite all possible evidence to the contrary only reinforces it as motivated by irrational hatred.

Brendan Nyhan points to a new CBS/New York Times poll that illustrates its prevalence among American public, and especially the Tea Partyists.

Now, I’ll bet that every one of these people would say they have no racial bias whatsoever. The odd thing about racism is that people expect it to be rational, when it is totally irrational. It exists almost entirely within in the unconscious. Even among admitted racists, the biases driving their feelings aren’t rational, but driven by hidden assumptions and feelings.

So it makes sense that many people would ask themselves a rational question like “Am I racist?” or “Is racism OK?”, and answer “No”. They know it is socially taboo, and makes no rational sense. But because they haven’t done the self-reflective work of analyzing their assumptions (which conservatism actively validates), they aren't aware of the extent to which their views are motivated by racist impulses.

We’ve all seen the racist tea party signs. But I’ll bet that if you asked them if they consider themselves racist, they’ll say of course not. In their own mind, they aren’t. The views they express on their sign, whether using racial stereotypes or treating the president differently because he is black, don’t represent racism to them because that would be inconsistent with their self-identification. Yet they are obviously trafficking in racist rhetoric.

Now, one might argue that they are simply being obnoxious and, knowing full well the racist implications of their statement, choosing to ignore the hatefulness it represents; Sort of hard-core political incorrectness. But isn’t the choice to use such hurtful rhetoric a sort of apology for racism to begin with? If using faux-racist language to make your point is in practical appearance no different than actual racist language, is the difference just a matter of degree?

It is telling, in a country that has been so profoundly shaped by its persecution of African Americans, that self-identified “non-racists” would so willingly embrace the idea of openly displaying hateful rhetoric towards blacks. If our president were Jewish, would people feel it acceptable to borrow anti-semitic imagery from say, Nazi propaganda? Would we see images of a Jewish president with horns?

On second thought, after seeing the tea parties in action, I wouldn’t be so surprised. And when asked, of course they would all say they think Jews are great.

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