Monday, August 9, 2010

Playing The Racial Card: The Politics Of Race In America Today

David Theo Goldberg
Many thought, perhaps over-optimistically, that Barack Obama’s election to the US Presidency would signal that racism was now an historical relic in America. The Shirley Sherrod case makes palpably evident, however, a profound shift that has materialized in the politics of race in America since the 1980s. Sherrod, a government official, was excoriated by right-wing pundits for appearing in a pubic address to be endorsing discrimination against white farmers and privileging black farmers in government provision of aid. Within a few days of publication of her views, she was forced out of her job.

Politically active conservatives, overwhelmingly white, have seized on any racial reference by more liberal political figures to charge that the latter are perpetuating racism. Institutional racism is deemed mere anomaly rather than any longer a structural condition. When occurring at all, it is supposedly the expression of wrongheaded individuals. Conservative insistence on a literal colorblindness has undercut any attempts to invoke racial considerations to redress the negative effects of past discrimination.

As a consequence, racism has become less the social exclusion and humiliation of those taken to be racially different than invocation of or reference to race for social and especially governmental purpose. Any political or governmental invocation of race, for conservatives, amounts to racism, especially if designed to produce ameliorative or corrective outcomes in response to the pernicious burdens of past or continuing racisms.

More liberal proponents, by contrast, at least implicitly insist on a distinction between invoking race and expressions of racism. Underlying this distinction is the sense that to address the more pernicious and continuing legacy of racism requires racial identification of those continuing to suffer discrimination. After all, there is compelling evidence that especially African Americans, Latinos, Muslim Americans but also to some degree Asian Americans continue to face discriminatory conditions today, most notably in employment, housing access in renting and mortgages, and loans for large order purchases like automobiles, even after disaggregating for wealth and income differentials. To document such discrimination requires racial reference.

These differences regarding race and racism have been exacerbated since Obama’s election. Conservative white commentators have latched on to the use of racial expression by liberal or progressive politicians to charge racism. When President Obama chided Cambridge, Massachussets police for acting too quickly in the Henry Louis Gates arrest he was quickly accused of favoring a black man because black, and accused of racism. When National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) President Benjamin Jealous recently appealed to the Tea Party leaders to disown racist individuals in the movement, he was summarily denounced as racist for even raising the possibility. And when radical conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart released part of a videotape showing State of Georgia Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, recounting that she had once discriminated against white farmers in providing assistance to save their land, she was strongly condemned by conservatives and liberals alike, including the NCAAP’s Jealous.

Part of the conservative strategy has been to place liberal political figures on the defensive regarding race. They have sought to undercut any advantage liberals might gather by revealing ongoing evidence of racial discrimination. After all, if a black man has ascended to the highest political office in the country, what further racial barriers can there be? So the politics of race has turned to end what has been perceived as the advantages for liberals of a past politics of race. Race has always had a political register in America, and today is different only in the ring that register now assumes.

So what then the prevailing politics of race in America today?

Conservatives have sought to shift the grounds on which racial politics play out. They are not against any invocation of race, only against explicit racial reference to extend advantages especially to citizens who are not white. In part this has been done to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of so-called independent voters, largely considered white, that though they may have voted to elect Obama he really doesn’t represent their interests. And while only implicit, the innuendo is that he doesn’t represent their interests exactly on racially identified grounds. He is for affirmative action, which undercuts opportunities for them; he is for extending social benefits, which means higher taxes for them; he is for regulating small business, which means more difficult lives for them; and he is for illegal immigration—or against doing anything to stem it—which makes their lives less safe.

Shifting the point of racial emphasis—putting the racial boot on the other foot, so to speak--places liberals on the defensive regarding racial matters. The quickness with which Shirley Sherrod was forced to step down from her government job reveals just how effective the tactic has been. But even more disturbingly the shift has also licensed the possibility for conservative whites pretty much to say anything they want regarding race. They are not now in power, and take themselves literally to be in opposition, seeking to block all significant liberal-leaning legislation. Invoking race outside of governing, in civil society, even in opposition to government power, then, is fair game. Hence the proliferation of racist expression in the private sphere since President Obama was elected.

Examples abound: the pernicious images of the President that have pervaded protests and the internet (literally thousands and thousands of pernicious images, if you care to check, most of them with insinuating racist implication); the easy and steady invocation of the “n” word in public life (Mel Gibson not even the most recent, as evidenced by the resigning Mayor of Cobleskill, New York, who referred to Martin Luther King Day as “N . . . . . . Day” and as Obama’s CHANGE campaign as “Come Help and Get a N . . . . . . Get Elected Campaign;” the characterization by Sarah Palin’s father that she left Hawaii when a student there “because there were too many Asian Americans” living in the state; the accusation by conservative bloggers that the Obama family while vacationing in Maine visited an ice-cream parlor because its store window logo represented a black power fist holding a spoon; arguably the easiness with which conservative Republican Congressman Joe Wilson unprecedentedly shouted “You lie” at Obama on national television as he addressed a joint session of Congress on health care in September 2009; and so on.

The Sherrod case is unusual only for the apologies she received from conservatives after it was quickly revealed that the initial video release of her remarks had been edited to take the remarks completely out of context. Far from making a case for aiding black farmers while ignoring white farmers, she was showing how she had overcome these dispositons assumed twenty years ago and saw the need today to help all farmers in need, no matter their racial identity. Popular television pundit Bill O’Reilly was only the most prominent conservative to admit his too quick rush to judgment, joined as he was by President Obama and the offer of reinstatement to a promoted government job.

The disposition on the part of more radical conservative commentators to edit remarks by black liberals especially to evidence their criticism of supposedly inappropriate racial views is not new. Andrew Breitbart was invoking a tried practice at least a decade and a half old. Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism, published in 1995, is considered the bible of the new conservative position on race in America, as reflected in the very title. D’Souza’s book is replete with half-quoted sentences from black and progressive commentators on race, such as Derrick Bell, twisting their meaning to fit his thesis of generic black criminality, welfarism, and anti-sociality. D’Souza’s book is replete with half-quoted sentences from black and progressive commentators on race, twisting their meaning to fit his thesis. This perhaps is the intellectual analog of a twenty-year-old Republican political strategy. Recall the Willie Horton ad Lee Atwater unleashed to undo the Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988.

The Civil Rights Movement made the general public and politicians much more careful about easy use of racial epithets in civil society. The Reagan administration attack on affirmative action and on civil rights more generally eroded that carefulness, and the easy invocation of “n . . . . . “ as well as racial innuendo reappeared. We are witnessing today an extension, even a heightening of that trend.

Conservatives thus have figured out a partially effective politics of race that at once speaks to their principles, places liberals on the defensive, and not only gets conservatives off the racial hook for being soft on racism but enables them to set the terms of the racial debate. They can project themselves as crusaders for a colorblind America in the face of color conscious liberals.

This shift comes at a cost, though. In insisting that pernicious racist expressions are restricted to explicit invocations of race by public figures in their public function, they have licensed pervasive public expression of racist sentiment even of the crudest variety. It is revealing that very few public conservative figures have rushed to condemn the proliferation of explicitly racist expression by whites in civil society or by conservative politicians, or for that matter malicious editing of liberal racial reference to political ends.

Far from being a thing of the past, then, racism has become reanimated as a key instrument of American politics, only now to new purpose. That the notion of race can be so easily filled with new political purpose, alas, is basic to its chameleonic and politically instrumental nature. It requires particular critical attention and political commitment on all sides to face down.

There is a profound set of demographic shifts afoot in America today. At one end of the spectrum, America is aging, and 85 percent of the aging population is white. At the other end, there is a burgeoning young population, 45 percent of which are youth of color and projected to reach 50 percent within the next fifteen years. The aging white population increasingly is resistant to paying taxes, not least to fund education and welfare for the increasingly racially distinct youthful population. The less wealthy and less educated youthful population, by contrast, is ill placed to contribute to supporting the burgeoning health and retirement needs of the aging population.

The deepening racial bifurcation in the society serves only to exacerbate these divisions and tensions. Counter-critically, the aging white population needs an educated maturing population just as the youthful population would be well served by the support of the aging population of their education throughout school and college. Better educated people earn more, and pay a larger proportion of the social tax burden.

So, if there is a way out of the currently manipulated racial impasse it would be the recognition and political insistence on mutual need—ultimately to collective benefit. No political voices today have recognized this, for it requires trading short-term political benefits of racial manipulation for a coalitional politics prompted and sustained by courageous political leadership. The United States, and perhaps this is the case for contemporary late capitalist political economies more broadly, currently seem far away from that possibility.

By David Theo Goldberg

David Theo Goldberg directs the systemwide University of California Humanities Research Institute, and is Professor of Comparative Literature and Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine. He has written extensively on race and racism, most recently in The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).