Jon Meacham, in a recent discussion of his book on George H. W. Bush, referenced the 1988 presidential race and the Bush campaign’s deplorable use of white fears and Black stereotypes. He was firm in his condemnation of the tactics, but was firmer in his denial of any racism on the part of Bush. He used, as so many denialists have before, the ridiculous line “he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.” That’s scant relief for the victims of racism. He, for his own ambition, was willing to stir racist fear and resentment against you that had dire consequences for you and all other African Americans. His campaign affirmed racist imagery and validated racist public policy. But since it’s not personal, George Bush is somehow off the hook. I stirred up the mob but didn’t personally participate in lynching.
In a review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Jason DeParle approvingly notes that the book takes care “not to call anyone racist.” If there was ever evidence of the racist dimension of right-wing politics, this book is the mother lode. The antipathy towards the federal government is explicitly tied to federal programs that supposedly help Blacks. There is no principled commitment to small government or lower taxes. They just don’t want tax money—and, in their view, their tax dollars—going to people who don’t deserve it. Who deserves what is determined by race?
Hochschild’s “deep story”—the narrative she develops to explain her subjects’ politics––is that there is a line and these white people have been waiting patiently in it, abiding by the rules, doing all the right things. But they see people of color cutting in front of them–––line cutters––and taking what rightfully belongs to white people. These line cutters are aided and abetted by the federal government. Barack Obama is Line-Cutter-in-Chief. Hence, birtherism. He had to have cheated his way. He cut in line. He isn’t even an American.
The deep story is a deeply racist construct. Why are people of color behind whites in the line? Arguably, African Americans have been waiting patiently in line longer than anyone else in America––and, always pushed to the back. Whites are and have been at the front the line for hundreds of years––and, they want their self-designated front-of-the-line place preserved and protected.
As DeParle notes, “None of Hochschild’s characters appear to have been directly hurt by competition from people of color.” And they want to keep it that way. That is the heart of the matter. White people don’t want to compete with people of color. Their whiteness alone should guarantee their place. While they have not been directly hurt, they correctly perceive they must maintain the inherent value of whiteness.
But nobody here is a racist.
Donald Trump has brought racism to the forefront of the political debate. Cable news has daily discussions of racism and its impact on the campaign. Fox News adds to the discussion with its own daily blanket denial of the existence of racism––except, so called “reverse racism.” But every channel, every commentator somehow finds a way to never find a racist in all the discussion of racism. There is racism, but no racists. Racism to our national news narrators is an abstraction. They dare not directly state that any person appearing on their programs is a racist. It would not be polite. White people cannot look each other in the eye and talk about being racist.
The governor of Maine wanted a duel with a state legislator because the legislator said the governor made racist comments. The failure of white people to openly challenge white racism––even as Trump dumps it in their laps––is why it continues to distort our politics, prevent rational public policy debates and poison our national life.
First, we should stop using the term racist for name calling, as personal slur, a sign of an individual failing, or a mental disease. Racism to its victims is personal. To its perpetrators it is anything but personal. It is an impersonal social construct that advantages white people. It is put in place, and maintained, through hundreds of public policy decisions. White people don’t have to wear hoods and burn crosses. They just have to vote, and the political process delivers. (The frustration is that the political process hasn’t stroked white racism’s tender feelings enough. Trump, by being openly racist makes them feel empowered.)
Racism is a public policy problem and we should not empower racists in the public policy debate.
Second, racist politics has its big winners and they have no interest in stopping it. While corporations boycott states on the basis of discrimination against the LBGT community, there is no corresponding commitment to boycott on the basis of racist discrimination. Its OK to take away voting rights from Black people. No corporate protest.
Racism plays a unique role in American politics. Anti-LGBT and anti-women politics has its place in the Republican coalition. Anti-gay marriage voters turned out in 2004. And the anti-feminists of the traditional right are always a vote motivator for the base. Race, however, is at the core of the Republican coalition.
In the immediate post-World War II period, Republicans and the business community had a problem. The New Deal had unleashed the federal government to restrict, restrain and regulate corporate power while at the same time providing support for countervailing institutions such as unions. In the two party alignment of the time, the average white man would say “Republicans are for rich people.” That was the deep story. Republicans could win elections here and there, but without a change in the story they could not change the trajectory of politics set in motion by the New Deal.
By 1968, the deep story was changing. It went from the “Republicans are for rich people,” to the “Democrats will move the N-words next door to you.” The change in the deep story changed the political alignment in the country. These were George Wallace Republicans. White voters of the New Deal coalition faded away. Country club and country bar coalesced, and it became the Republican coalition.
As long as the business community is willing to indulge racist politics for its own purposes, racism will persist.
Third, there must be some social sanction against racist politics. Our national narrators have to challenge the individuals who engage in it. The perpetrators have names and faces and they regularly appear on cable news. Nobody says a word. “We are all friends here” just doesn’t work.
Finally, white people of good faith in politics and the media have to take racism seriously. It is not a side issue. It is a central issue.