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The Subtlety of Racism


You don’t have to wear a white hood to have views that are significantly animated by racist beliefs and fears–and saying that a lot of the hysterical protest on the right (stylized as a desire for ‘small government’) is significantly animated by racist beliefs and fears is most decidedly not to say that “limited government sentiment is automatically a form of subliminated racism.” Much of it is so animated, but that doesn’t mean that each person with such ‘limited government’ views is a racist, let alone has a penchant for white-hood wearing.

Here’s a question: what proportion of the people clamoring about ‘limited government’ at these rallies seem to have no problem with–indeed seem to much support–federal programs that they think benefit them and people like them (Medicare, Social Security, federal spending that provides jobs in their community, such as on defense, etc.), but are rabidly opposed to things that they think will go to people unlike them? I think an answer to that question would go a long way to answering how much of the protest is animated by racism.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Wouldn’t you need to actually know the answer to that question in order to make the claim being made here? I’m pretty sensitive to the issue of racism, but so much of this rhetoric is utterly circular. I’m not sure I get the point.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  2. roger flyer wrote:

    some -ism, fer shure

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  3. Bobby Grow wrote:


    Do you think that you’re a racist? Do you think there is anyone who isn’t a racist? And if someone isn’t a racist, how would they know that?

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 4:30 am | Permalink
  4. erin wrote:

    Racist may need some definition. I think perhaps the historical meaning of the term is that racism=prejudice+power of dominant status. Prejudice, I believe, is human nature. That tendency in the dominant class is racism. Everyone has blood on their hands, some just have more power implicitly or explicit in society that backs their prejudice.
    So the discussion shouldn’t revolve around whether or not anyone is innocent or guilty but rather who is confessing their prejudice and trying to be a neighbor to others. I think Halden’s point demonstrates a justified mistrust in the innocence of just talking about governing principles and structures in US in a manner disconnected from race as if there were not a profound history of self serving, racist (prejudice) governance. And it is the nature of the power of dominance that its discourse can occur in such a way that the inequity is hidden from those who do not suffer from it. So for a great many white folk, race never has anything to do with the issue, but for non-white folk it can have everything to do with it because they can see how the system more readily benefits the dominant group. So I think Halden asks an important moral question for the US- the discussion about big or little government seems awfully tied to a concern that people unlike me are getting benefits.

    wow. coffee’s kicking in, sorry.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  5. David wrote:

    It seems to me entirely possible that the same people who are opposing Obama in his health care reform would probably have opposed any president (black or otherwise) who attempted such a thing; that doesn’t mean that opposition to Obama isn’t racist, just that it isn’t necessarily so. I think that it is possible to rationally disagree with someone over something and yet at the same time to allow that disagreement to be coloured by irrational prejudices – that doesn’t mean that the disagreement is itself irrational, just that it isn’t wholly rational. For example, was widespread opposition to Margaret Thatcher in the 80s really sexism: of course not; but that doesn’t mean that sexism didn’t play a part in that opposition. My point is that I don’t buy into the idea that racism is the underlying logic behind opposition to Obama, even if that opposition is in part motivated by racism.
    The trouble with wheeling out the race-card is that there is no answer to it, no amount of denying will prove that opposition to Obama isn’t racist, because of course they would deny it. The only way out of it is to counter opposition rationally: racism is not rational and cannot be countered rationally.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  6. james wrote:

    This is arguing in bad faith. The descriptions of the programs as “those helping them” and “those helping those unlike them” don’t relate in the slightest to the programs. Medicare, SS, and defense are for the “common good” (debates over defense contract largesse is generally very contentious). We all do or will benefit from them. But note these same protestors supported partial privatization of SS and opposed the Medicare D expansion because of the poor fiscal shape of these programs. When Bush caved on both, they were angry.

    The proposed health care reform likewise will supposedly benefit everyone EVEN THEM. (Medicaid already helps those whom you presumably mean are not like them.) The question is precisely if anyone will net “benefit” after paying for the program and how will the 2019 trillion dollar deficit be lowered while doing it.

    This is a fiscal argument not racial. They love JC Watts, Walt Williams, Thomas Sowell etc. But these black men are dismissed as either outright uncle Toms’s or just supporters of white supremacy which just shows who the racists are and how the debate is conducted in bad faith.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  7. Andrew wrote:

    Wonderfully worded, Erin. Maybe I should be drinking coffee.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  8. james wrote:

    This is a middle class entitlement open to everyone. We have subsidies for the poor already. How is race and dominance relevant here? Isn’t economics still required in school? Or is it just lumped briefly into the racial studies class?

    The racial issue is the supposed sublimated racism of opponents against Obama not the design of actual health program. One thing is for sure, we need some equal opportunity with the ‘insanity’ tag.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    You know, James, if you had your own blog, you could say whatever you want there and tag it in any fashion you like.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I think this is a helpful post. In pondering these issues over lunch, I happened upon a helpful thought experiment: the instance of a explicitly racist individual making a criticism that was in a direct sense racially motivated, but nonetheless correct. Let’s say hypothetically that Joe Wilson is in fact a racist and at the time he made his remarks, was driven to make them due to a bout of racist fury and that he even said “boy” after them, but that Obama was in fact lying. This illustrates clearly the important point that while the discussion of racial motivations is in fact important, motivation has no bearing on the truth or falsity of a claim. Thus it is important to distinguish between two different instances of racism: claims that are not objectively racist but that are in some sense motivated by racism in the person making the claim and claims that are objectively racist, i.e. turn on the use of “race” in an illicit fashion. There are factual claims of this sort (members of X race are inferior at activity Y, simply due to their race) as well as ethical claims (members of X race do not deserve Y simply due to their race).

    Pointing out instances of the latter in political debate is absolutely essential. Pointing out an instance of the former is of less obvious utility, other than to demonstrate that people are racist at times, a claim that could be made of anyone at anytime, depending on a largely sliding scale of what constitutes “racist,” and then subjecting to often arbitrary and irrational penalties. This is not to say that racism of this sort is a neutral issue, simply that the two instances of racism I’ve outlined are frequently conflated.

    If Joe Wilson were to suddenly become the leading advocate for Obamacare, for racist reasons (whatever they might be), the merits of Obamacare would remain unchanged.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  11. james wrote:

    But then Hill wouldn’t look so reasonable.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    That would be a tragedy.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    I need all the opportunities I can get to appear reasonable.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  14. Theophilus wrote:

    This more or less supports my theory that a lot of “racialized” speech is actually cultural. A lot of the criticism of George W. Bush by northerners and West Coasters was deeply coloured by derogatory “redneck” stereotypes that fly under the radar of those looking for racism because both rednecks and bicoastals whites are, well, white. (Ironically, the Bush dynasty is from Connecticut, not Texas.) A while back I read a book called “The Redneck Manifesto” by Jim Goad, that basically suggested that historic white elites have been playing poor whites and blacks against each other for several hundred years in North America, while they themselves benefit from exploiting both. It certainly struck a chord with me – people willingly jump on racist comments, but if the demeaned “other” is poor Southern whites, nobody hesitates to lay on the prejudice and bigotry thick and strong.

    Anecdotally, as I’ve been paying attention to my own snap judgments, my initial views of a person are more often coloured by the person’s accent than by the person’s skin colour. I instinctively perceive a black person who speaks with the same Canadian accent I use to be just like me, while someone who speaks with an American “ebonic” accent, or an African accent, will be perceived to be different – as will a white person with a Southern drawl.

    But then if we all just agree that “race” is a social construct, this all makes sense.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  15. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    This was the most sensible post in the lot. Deeply disappointed by many of the responses on this thread. Seems like white people cannot talk about race without being complete imbeciles. James’ post below is a case in point.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  16. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Bill O’Reilly just came out in favor of a public option. I have yet to see any conservative go nuts over it…

    If the loopy Mimchael Steele out in favor of it too, Limbaugh, Beck and all the loony toons on the right will throw a fit.

    This is driven by race to a large degree.

    I am not in favor of the Democrats’ plans for healthcare. I think mandating insurance is a terrible idea. I have not had it for 6 years. My wife does, and she fights with them every time something comes up, cause they never want to pay. It’s pathetic. Insurance is a scam, and these plans do not address the root issue that we don’t have health care, we have a medical industry. There is a huge difference between them. (I go to a Mennonite run clinic where there is health care and insurance is not an issue. People can pay their bills by volunteering at charitable organizations even.) The Democrats are not addressing the profit motive, they are not addressing the capitalist greed that drives this system.

    So while I am not jumping for joy at the thought that in the next few months I might have some government mandate imposed on me, I definitely do not want to be associated with the right wing libertarian types.

    I am an anarchist, and that means socialist. That is the difference between those racists in the Republican and libertarian camps and real anarchists who oppose state and capitalist expansion.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

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