Saturday, April 30, 2011

Carnival of Racism

After decades of accusations of racism, conservatives have gotten pretty fed up.  Their views on a variety of economic and social policies are often attacked by liberals as being informed by racial bias.  Yet it is extremely rare for a conservative to openly admit to racist feelings, the only ones openly doing so found in white-supremacist groups or on the "racialist" fringe of academia. 

That racism correlates with conservatism is an empirical fact.  Aside from psychological research findings, the prevalence of racist political expression amongst conservatives is well-known.  The Southern Strategy, Willie Horton, Welfare Queens, the Macaca Moment, just to name a few, along with countless others leading up to the modern "carnival of racism" surrounding the Obama presidency - birthers, racist posters and emails, intonations of "Hussein", and "secret Muslim" conspiracies.  While many of these expressions are controversial, in that they are often denied as racist either in intent or content.  But taken in sum, along with many other instances, there is undoubtedly a tendency on the right to appreciate racist expression.  To be sure, white-supremacist and racialist movements are otherwise entirely conservative.

Racial prejudice is usually impossible to prove, as it draws from multiple cultural patterns and themes, and almost every modern expression of racism is categorically denied. People simply never admit to racist expression.  To take two recent examples of undeniably racist expression, the authors claim complete innocence.  In 2008, a California Republican women's group included in a newsletter to its 200 members this image:

The president of the group apologized, yet denied any racist intent:
"I didn't see it the way that it's being taken. I never connected," she said. "It was just food to me. It didn't mean anything else."

In 2009, the mayor of Los Alamitos, CA sent out this image in an email:

The mayor issued an apology, yet, again, intent was denied. 
"He said he was unaware of the racial stereotype that black people like watermelons."
What seems more likely, is that the mayor, along with many others in the country, are simply unaware of their own unconscious racial bias.  This becomes a big problem, because if we are ever going to root out this unconscious bias, especially when it correlates with certain political views, we must first acknowledge that it exists.  Yet every time we see evidence of it, excepting maybe the most explicit displays, it is denied or discounted.

Here’s a thought experiment. Assuming racism correlates with conservatism, think of what those expressions might be. Then ask whether the people involved admitted they were being racist. I challenge you to find a single instance of someone admitting it. So now we have a phenomenon: large numbers of people engaged in racism who refuse to admit it.

The next step is to ask how much of this phenomenon underlies conservative beliefs that impact racial issues. Imagine a republican voter who never actually emailed watermelon or fried chicken jokes, or who went to a birther rally, or held a poster of Obama with a bone through his nose, or intoned “Hussein” when saying his name. Yet at some level they appreciated the sentiment behind those stereotypical and prejudiced attacks. So, when thinking about immigration, Islamic rights, welfare, or affirmative action, or whether poor minorities are disadvantaged while rich white people are privileged, and thus should be obligated to pay more in taxes, these racist appreciations – likely unconscious and not understood – of course would affect other wise “rational” decisions.

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