Friday, April 16, 2010

The Unconscious Racism of the Tea Party (restated)

Racism, as a cognitive process, is largely unquantifiable and unknown. It certainly isn't rational. And so while it has become entirely taboo in society to openly admit to racist views, the underlying fears, biases, memes, etc. that go into that inchoate  stew we call the unconscious are still floating around. As many liberals will point out, having themselves at some point undergone that definitional ritual of racial guilt and self-reflection, you don't just flip a switch and disapparate 200+ years of racial history - especially when race is still incredibly tied up in socioeconomics. This stuff is complicated and built into our social fabric.

So of course this is a really tricky area. I completely agree that you can separate people who are full-time KKK from those who simply hold up pictures of Obama with a bone through his nose. But what you cannot do is say these people aren't racist. And before we continue, even if such overt displays are actually somewhat rare among the tea partiers, the larger context in which they exist is heavily race-laden; witness Rev. Wright, community organizing, "Hussein", secret Muslim, Kenya, Birtherism, palling with terrorists, "deep hatred of whites", etc. And that's not even getting into the actual racial implications of progressive, redistributive programs and their emphasis on the "needy" - from which it doesn't take David Duke to make a logical connection to minorities, especially blacks.

There is a fundamental driving force behind this movement that is profoundly motivated by a sense of threat to White Christian Patriarchy. The fact that so few of them say it outright isn't because it isn't real, but because they largely aren't even conscious of it themselves. I'm sure that if you asked most of them if they had negative views of minorities they would be appalled. But yet there they are, holding a sign with an overt, inexusable expression of racial hatred. This isn't someone making an honest mistake by comparing Obama to a monkey (we've all seen the George Bush signs doing the same thing). This is over and over, examples of seething racial anxiety. The Republican staffer who ran the picture of the white house lawn covered in watermelons was very apologetic. Oh, she was very sorry if she offended anyone....

If every tea partyist was wearing a Klan robe I'd be extremely worried. But the fact that they aren't doesn't do much to explain the incredible preponderance of racist rhetoric, and I'm not sure I'm much more at ease. And to the extent that so many people are downplaying the idea that there is a larger undercurrent of racial anger (understandable as it is to close partisan ranks), one wonders how much it has do do with our comfort with anti-black hatred. For instance, if the president happened to be Jewish, and a tea partier held a sign that depicted him with horns, would we be as cautiously sanguine?

As if reading the tea leaves weren't enough, there's still a big elephant in the room. And that's that there is a very internally consistent logic between racism and basic conservative philosophy. This doesn't make conservatives racist. But there is a good chance that, by accepting conservatism's premises, in light of contemporary racial socioeconomic inequality, one could see a compelling reason to entertain racist attitudes. In the end it isn't coherent, but neither is conservatism. In fact, the denial of a racial explanation is actually one of the major arguments against conservative thought.

But honestly, most of these people have never come close to doing the heavy lifting that sort of philosophical thought requires. As many will indeed attest, they were never that interested in politics to begin with. But when the economic collapse hit they got sacred. And modern conservative thought was more than willing to soothe their confused souls and lead them right down to Washington. Although who is leading who at this point is hard to tell.

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