Tag Archives: coded racism

Why “Racist” Is Such a Powerful Word

18 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the term “racist.” Cognitive psychologists, political pollsters, and communications consultants have weighed in about how to talk about racism and advance an equity agenda while not alienating white people by labeling them racists.  Many advise never using the term to describe people, instead suggesting we only criticize actions. Some have gone so far as to argue against using terms like racism and racist at all, calling it a losing strategy and directing us to focus on actions and outcomes that result in unintentional inequities instead.

All of that is fine to a point. I tend to think it’s a good idea to focus on actions and assume the best of people. It’s the right thing to do if for no other reason than that it exercises and strengthens our generosity. Without generosity, coalitions and alliances don’t work, and authentic solidarity across racial differences is impossible.

But even as we try to embrace the best in each of us, we ought not forget that racist actions are attached to racist attitudes. Those attitudes may be so integrated into the common sense of our society that those who harbor them aren’t doing so consciously, but that doesn’t mean those attitudes don’t exist, nor that they aren’t damaging. We need to call those attitudes out and make what’s common exotic. Unless we do, the logic of racism will continue to dictate the pace of progress toward justice, and that disparages the rights and humanity of those who are racism’s victims. It’s an approach that allows whites sensitivity to being labeled racists to dictate that racism with continue to reign.

Whites are about 78% of the American public. According to Gallup, about 19% of whites were opposed to interracial marriage in 2007. That’s a pretty small minority of whites, but in total number, that’s something like 49 million people. There are only 69 million or so non-white people living in the U.S. That means that the number of whites who oppose interracial marriage is greater than all of any one U.S. racial minority group. Why are they so afraid?

I believe what whites have to fear is white people.

When white supremacy was challenged by the racial justice movements of the 1950s and ’60s, white elites pivoted from overt racism and co-opted the language and symbols, but not the substance, of  racial justice. By doing so, they were able to position themselves as champions of a new colorblind code of civility that reduces structural racial injustice to an attitudinal problem. This enabled them to block attempts to reorganize unjust power relations while deflecting responsibility for continuing injustice on overt racists who were cast as ignorant, immoral, and backward.

This move caused whiteness to fracture. The dominant faction of elites adopted a strategy of coded messaging and avoidance of obvious racial conflict, while using overt racists as a foil against which to position themselves as racial egalitarians. When whites are exposed as racists, their anger is in part a reaction to the fear that they will be cast out of the dominant faction of whites and marginalized along with old fashioned racists like the KKK.

If you buy that, what we are up against, at least in part, is a factional fight among whites over how best to maintain supremacy. And for people of color to concede to that by avoiding direct attacks on racism is like cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

Why “Redistribution” is a Dirty Word to Republicans

9 Oct

Sorry, I couldn’t resist this bit of right wing propaganda. I wish this was an indication that they’re totally out of touch, but, alas, no. In fact, they’re just about in touch with control of the presidency and both houses of Congress.

“Redistributionist,” according to Merriam-Webster, is a term coined in 1961 specifically to refer to one who believes in or advocates a welfare state. If that resource is accurate, then being a redistributionist means being exactly the sort of person who conservatives have no use for.

But, the question remains, why does the term seem to have special power when applied to President Obama?

Neither Reagan nor Clinton nor the Bushes were labeled redistributionists to their political detriment. Yet each promised tax cuts to one or another sector of the public, then caved in to popular support for redistributionist programs like Medicaid, Medicare, welfare, and food stamps, digging holes elsewhere in our economy for future presidents to fill in order to cut taxes while continuing, at varying levels, to redistribute wealth to the poor (and finance the military).

Today, in The Nation, Gary Younge wrote a piece called What’s Race Got To Do With It? that offers an answer to my question.

In the article, Younge explains the continuing relevance of race and racism in national politics, writing,

…race is about power, and it is through power that resources are distributed. Race will disappear as an issue when racism disappears as a material force. In the meantime, it will also be a tool to leverage resentment. For example, GOP ads pitting Medicare (which Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan wants to cut anyway) against healthcare reform claim that the hard-earned benefits of working people will be frittered away on “a massive new government program that is not for you.” Such is the nature of demographics and poverty in this country that more than three-quarters of Medicare recipients are white, while more than half of those without health insurance are not. Thus the specter of racialized redistribution is invoked without being explicitly articulated.

This is the racist appeal of the GOP claim that Obama is a redistributionist.  It’s a coded racist message that fits in very nicely with Romney’s famous behind-closed-doors comments indicating his belief that 47% of the people will vote for Obama because they have a victim mindset and won’t “take personal responsibility or care for their lives.”

Even within the suffocatingly narrow confines of the debate over entitlement programs being waged in this year’s presidential election, Republican’s have found a way to drive a racial wedge, suggesting that resources “earned” by our (white) elderly is being challenged by the man Newt Gingrich indelicately referred to as “the food stamps president.” And they are doing it by telling a lie that President Obama is stealing more than $700 billion from Medicare to finance the Affordable Care Act. In effect, taking money from a program that mostly serves whites and using it to finance a program that will mostly serve people of color.

Putting to one side the false notion that the only people served by either program are direct recipients for a moment, this lie is a play on race. It is an appeal to fear, not just that Medicare benefits to the elderly will be cut, but that this is happening because your Black president is choosing non-white people’s needs over your own at a time when “those people” are growing larger in number, not to mention more addicted to entitlements, everyday.

Dog Whistle Racism

9 Apr

Liberal pundits are buzzing over Mitt Romney’s latest strategy of playing the old, “I know you are, but what am I?” game. In response to criticism that he’s too out of touch, not to mention odd, to relate to working class voters, Romney is accusing President Obama of being “out of touch.

Romney has even gone so far as to suggest that the President spent too many years (three) at Harvard, Romney’s own alma mater (which, BTW, he attended for four years), sharpening the point being made by other Republican candidates in the race that Obama is a privileged outsider.

The liberal pundits are going after Romney hook and nail. After all, Romney is the son of a man who was the President of American Motors and Governor of Michigan.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Romney made a career as a businessman that has made him one of the super rich, and then became the Governor of Massachusetts. One could grow up on Fantasy Island and be less out of touch than Mitt Romney.

Romney’s wife Ann, who many say is the “better Romney,” recently had this to say about their wealth: “…I don’t even consider myself wealthy, which is an interesting thing, it can be here today and gone tomorrow.”

That not just odd, that’s downright callous. Moreover, it seems reckless. Why in the hell is Romney making himself  out to be so out of touch he doesn’t even know what it means to be out of touch?

Many pundits have suggested that he is following the Karl Rove strategy of taking your own greatest weakness and turning it against your political opponent. Probably the most famous example of this strategy at play was George W. Bush’s success in blunting the strength of John Kerry’s heroic war record as an exaggeration, when Bush himself had famously hid out in a cushy job in the reserves. By doing so, Bush took away a key strength of Kerry’s campaign strategy and turned it into a weakness.

I’m sure deflection is part of the game being played here, but I have a suspicion we’re witnessing dog whistle racism. Dog whistle racism is when folks use coded messages meant to trigger a racist reaction among those trained to recognize them without using explicit racist language. Kinda like dogs can be trained to respond to whistles only they can hear.

Consider the audience Romney is appealing to in this primary race. The Republican base is overwhelmingly white and has been subjected to coded and not so coded racist messaging for decades. They are conditioned to hear the cues and react.

Among the cues is the notion that educated and successful African Americans are all or nearly all beneficiaries of Affirmative Action. And to race-sensitive whites, Affirmative Action is all about denying opportunities to white people in order to bestow exclusive privileges on people of color, especially Black people.

And consider this: according to a March 2012 Pubic Policy Polling survey of Republican primary voters, only 33% of those polled in Tennessee think Barack Obama was born in the U.S. compared to 45% who don’t. 40% of Georgia primary voters think Obama was born in the U.S., and 38% don’t. In Ohio, 42% think Obama was born here, while 37% do not.  Nationally, 77% of Republican voters approve of interracial marriage compared with 88% of Democrats and 89% of Independents.

So why is Romney, who has had a very difficult time relating to the Republican right wing base, saying that the President is “out of touch,” elite and privileged? It’s not too far a stretch to suggest he may be exploiting racism in the Republican base and basically saying, I know you don’t like me, but that guy, he’s not one of us. And if you look at the overall Romney campaign message, Obama is not just out of touch, he’s dangerous.

%d bloggers like this: