You May Not Be Racist, But Your Political Ideology Is
A friendly, only mildly snarky letter to a white conservative
Dear white conservative,
You’re a good person.
You haven’t a racist bone in your body.
You once dated an Asian woman.
You have black friends.
You don’t see or think about color (well, except for the part where you’re making sure to mention your friends who are black), and you treat everyone the same.
I get it.
But despite how irrelevant your black friends are to the question of whether you might be racist — after all, straight guys can still be sexist and we date, sleep with and even marry women — and no matter how absurd and even harmful the notion of colorblindness is, this isn’t really about you.
This is about your ideology.
As the saying goes, this isn’t personal, it’s business.
And since business is about the bottom line, let me bottom line it for you: Irrespective of the decency and good intentions of individual conservatives, yourself included, modern American conservatism as an ideology is either inherently prone to racism, or at the very least furthers it in a number of ways.
And when I speak of modern American conservatism, I’m not even thinking of the Donald Trump variety. The overt xenophobia of Trumpism, the racist Birtherism with which he began his political climb, and the appeals to white racial anxiety about brown-skinned immigrants and “inner-city” crime are targets far too easy to hit with accusations of racism — low hanging fruit, indeed.
No, I’m speaking even of the conservatism of many “never Trumpers,” at least in previous iterations. For it too is steeped in notions that are at least implicitly racist on many levels.
Of course, I’m aware that this isn’t how you see yourself. You would probably say, as many of your compatriots surely do, that your politics are not motivated by racism, but rather, by race-neutral matters like reducing the size of government or excessive taxation. But while I recognize that these are common concerns of folks like yourself, it is simply not the case that one can so easily separate these kinds of issues from a larger racial and even racist politic.
See, in the modern era, opposition to “big government” and high taxation is often connected to beliefs (typically erroneous) that government spending means taking from productive tax-paying whites and giving things (like health care, money or jobs) to less productive people of color. If big government and “those people” are linked in the minds of many whites, and especially those on the right (and research on this point says they are), it becomes difficult to disentangle the purely philosophical from the racial when it comes to conservative political motivations.
While conservative beliefs about the size of government are not inherently racist of course, beliefs about the role of the state are largely bound up (at least in the modern American context) with racialized notions of who deserves help from that state and who doesn’t. Likewise, views about the role of the state in everything from the economy to education to the provision of various social services is intertwined with white racial resentment at the perceived excesses of that state on behalf of people of color.
Maybe not for you, but most certainly for millions of others who use the same label to describe themselves as you do. Which means perhaps the problem isn’t about the people so much as it is the label, and what the label portends at present.
To believe as many do that people of color are largely sponging off of government (and thus, taxpayers, perceived as white) is to construct a hierarchy of value and virtue, in which whites are typed as hard-working, diligent and productive, while black and brown others are typed as less so. Ideologically, this is virtually a textbook example of racism: the belief that certain racially-defined groups are in some sense generally better or worse than others.
Likewise, if this kind of rhetoric and stereotyping leads to cuts in programs designed to provide opportunity to low-income persons, who are disproportionately of color, or if it leads to racialized efforts to limit the immigration of persons of color to the country, the effect would be racist, irrespective of the intent of those putting forward the rhetoric.
In this sense, the kind of racialized resentments and anxieties we see from so many on your side (about changing demographics, brown-skinned terrorism, black crime or affirmative action programs) can contribute to institutional racist mistreatment of persons of color.
At an even more basic level though, there appears to be an almost inherent relationship between the rhetoric of the modern American conservative movement and racism.
To illustrate the point, consider the most common conservative argument made when the subject of racism and racial discrimination is raised. Perhaps you’ve even voiced it yourself. It typically sounds something like this:
“Racism is no longer capable of holding people of color back. Everyone has equal opportunity today. Yes, there are individual racists, but as a social force, racism is essentially dead.”
In and of itself there is no racism in this statement. Indeed, you’d likely insist that if anything, this position is the ultimate non-racist or even antiracist argument, given its implicit confidence in the ability of persons of color to overcome obstacles. So far, so good.
But once we explore the underlying assumptions embedded in this statement, it becomes clear how what seems like a non- or even antiracist position lends itself to a broader worldview that is racist to the core.
After all, to deny that people of color face unequal opportunities in America — due either to the legacy of past racism, the persistence of racism today, or some other set of structural barriers — is to leave explanations for racial achievement gaps (in employment, education, housing or wealth accumulation) that are almost ineluctably racist.
If black folks really do have equal opportunity and yet still don’t achieve at levels comparable to their white counterparts, then there must be something wrong with them as black people. Either genetically or culturally they must be inferior to whites. There is no other possible explanation.
And indeed, this is what conservatives say.
Whether Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve, who attributed relative black failure and the group’s economic condition to biological inadequacy, or Dinesh D’Souza in The End of Racism, who blamed racial accomplishment gaps on black cultural defects, the tune remains the same: the problem is always them. The problem isn’t a history of unequal opportunity that gave some head starts and held others back, and it isn’t discrimination in the present. It’s the genes or perhaps the pathological community values of those at the bottom.
Indeed, in poll after poll of white racial attitudes, large numbers of whites (and overwhelming majorities of conservative whites) say racial disparities are the fault of blacks who, as a group, just “don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty,” like previously marginalized groups did.
Perhaps you feel that way too?
If you do, please recognize what you’re saying, in effect. Because this is what it sounds like to me:
Racism isn’t the cause of black people’s problems; it’s their own laziness.
Now, please read that sentence again, and let the irony wash over you — specifically the irony of calling a racial group lazy, but insisting that racism against that group isn’t really an issue anymore. Go ahead, reread it two or three times until the lightbulb comes on.
Of course, I’m sure you would still object to this characterization.
To ascribe black folks’ situation to behaviors stemming from cultural attributes, unlike biological ones, isn’t racism, you might insist. It doesn’t disparage black people, per se, but only the dysfunctional tendencies that are sometimes found in black communities, right? And yes, I know, I know: higher rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth, higher rates of reliance on government income support, and higher rates of crime.
I’m familiar with those songs, yes. No need to sing them again for me.
But no matter how popular those tunes might be, that doesn’t make them particularly artistic.
First, to suggest there is a set of clearly defined black cultural attributes that can explain gaps in social well-being, essentializes 40 million people and ascribes to the group the visible dysfunctions of a clear statistical minority of these.
The truth is, most black folks do not commit crime, only about 6 percent of unmarried black women will give birth in a given year, and most black folks are not recipients of so-called welfare benefits. Indeed, fewer than 200,000 black adults in the entire nation currently receive cash welfare benefits from the government. That’s out of about 30 million black adults in all. So, yeah, not a cultural norm, but thanks for your input.
Furthermore, black crime rates, out-of-wedlock birthrates, and welfare dependence have plummeted in recent years, and the gaps between black and white rates of these things have closed rapidly — indeed, far too quickly to be explained by cultural changes. So to claim these phenomena as cultural norms for blacks as a group is to engage in statistical illiteracy and grossly racist stereotyping.
Second, explanations for racial inequities rooted in cultural claims are racist because they selectively attribute causation to behavioral tendencies that can be seen across racial lines. If someone who is black does something that fits the cultural framing of those who view black culture as pathological, the behavior will be explained as flowing from the culture. But when someone who is white does the same thing, it will be interpreted as aberrant or the result of individual pathology, because it doesn’t fit a larger cultural frame about whites.
Though we heard many voices bashing black culture and communities during the crack epidemic in the ’80s and early ’90s, for instance, little of the teeth-gnashing over the disproportionately white and rural opioid crisis has centered around the behavioral rot of the “white family” or pathology of white culture more broadly. And why? Because the cultural critique of blackness is racism, rooted in group-based assumptions about the dysfunction in question, unlike the way that same dysfunction is viewed when manifested by whites.
Third, the mere fact that a group’s presumed flaws are thought to flow from cultural as opposed to genetic or biological characteristics does not acquit the belief of the charge of racism, because culture-based critiques inevitably rely on a racialized and largely static notion of culture.
When conservatives like yourself insist there is something dysfunctional about African American culture, you typically discuss these presumed shortcomings as if they are deeply ingrained collective traits. So when you (or again, others wearing your uniform) argue that black folks suffer from a “short-term orientation,” and a desire for “instant gratification” (apparently problems for poor blacks but not wealthy white derivatives traders), the presumption is that these pathological tendencies though not biological, are nearly as immutable as if they were.
But do you see what that means? This is a biologized notion of culture, which should therefore be understood as no less racist than the once-accepted practice of measuring the skulls of whites, blacks, and Asians to determine intelligence.
I gotta say though, even when conservatives try and sound like you’re not biologizing black cultural defects — so for instance, even when you try to suggest the problems in black communities stem from the welfare state or a broken political system — you come off sounding pretty racist.
For instance, the claim that the black family has been rendered dysfunctional by modern welfare programs (a common conservative argument) is racist in that it presumes African Americans are too weak to remain stable and self-reliant in the face of such programs, whereas whites are strong enough to do so. After all, in European nations that are overwhelmingly white, safety net programs are far more extensive, and yet they fail to generate the kinds of pathologies conservatives would attribute to welfare provision here. Why? The only possible answer, given the conservative position on the harm done by welfare programs, is that blacks have something uniquely wrong with them, which renders them pathological in the face of efforts that have no such impact on others.
Likewise, when some of y’all insist that black folks have been rendered dependent by the “Democratic Party plantation,” you’re implying that African Americans are so craven, so naive, and so fundamentally ignorant, that they either cannot perceive their group interests, or are willing to blindly trade those interests for a couple hundred bucks a month in SNAP benefits. Anyone who would so demean black intelligence and the ability of black people to discern the basic reality of their lives will be hard-pressed to find escape from the label of racist, and with good reason.
And finally, the practical consequences of blaming culture for racial disparities are likely to be no different than were those assumptions rooted in biological theories.
If one believes blacks as a group are less hard-working, less honest and less intelligent — no matter whether one ascribes these traits to genes or cultural values — it is unrealistic to believe that such a person would treat individuals from that group equitably. The odds are better that they would engage in what social scientists call “statistical discrimination,” which means assuming that any given member of a group is likely to manifest the tendencies that you consider the group itself to ordinarily manifest.
Indeed, leading conservative scholars like Heather Mac Donald actually argue in favor of statistical discrimination when seeking to rationalize racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies by police. Her entire corpus of work on the subject takes as its jumping off point the idea that it is rational and acceptable for police to disproportionately stop and search even innocent blacks, due to aggregate crime data demonstrating higher crime rates among blacks and in black communities.
That such a practice is illegal and a violation of the constitutional rights of black people is of no consequence to Mac Donald. Nor is the fact that the fundamental premises upon which she bases her arguments are intellectually bankrupt. But certainly if we codify the legitimacy of cultural critiques of the black community — which are central to her position — it is precisely this kind of discrimination, indeed racism, which we’ll be seeing more of in years to come.
So, although individual conservatives like yourself may not be racist in the traditional sense, the ideological viewpoint to which you are wedded leads almost inevitably to racist conclusions.
If racial disparities are not to be explained by unequal opportunity — past, present or a combination of the two — then the only remaining rationales for them would be those that, by definition, blame the persons at the bottom for their condition. Either their genes, their values or their cultures are somehow defective compared to the genes, values or cultures of the dominant group.
And it is highly unlikely that a person could believe in this worldview and yet treat others fairly. If you were to think that “the problem facing black people isn’t racism, it’s their own laziness, criminality, or misbehavior,” you would have a hard time convincing me that you’d be able to treat any given black person equitably in job interviews, classrooms or when encountering them in a law enforcement context.
Having already admitted adherence to an argument that essentializes black people as a mass of pathology, you would be incapable of treating anyone from the group as anything but an exemplar of that pathology.
That is racism, by definition. And it is literally embedded in modern American conservative thought.
And if you insist on still cleaving to that ideology, now that you know, then maybe it’s not just business after all. Maybe it is personal.
I guess that’ll be up to you.