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Thinking about Racism as the Election Draws Near

By       Message Walter Uhler       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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Last month professors Josh Pasek, Jon Krosnick and Trevor Thompson published a remarkable paper titled, "The Impact of Anti-Black Racism on Approval of Barack Obama's Job Performance and on Voting in the 2012 Presidential Election." The paper is based upon three online surveys of at least 1,000 Americans; one conducted in 2008, one in 2010 and a third that ended in early September of this year. The surveys enabled the authors to measure the existence of both explicit and implicit racism among people who call themselves Democrats, Independents and Republicans.

Explicit racism, as measured in these surveys, is nothing like the explicit racism that existed fifty years ago. Lee Atwater, a bare knuckles campaign advisor to both President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush, explained the evolution of explicit racism this way: "You start out in 1954 by saying "n-word, n-word, n-word.' By 1968 you can't say "n-word' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites." [Bob Herbert, "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant," New York Times, Oct. 6, 2005]

However, the general move away from such repugnant racism does not mean that it no longer exists. Consider the seventh grade school teacher in Florida, who told her students that Obama's slogan "CHANGE" meant "Come Help a n-word Get Elected." Or consider the professor at a small liberal arts college who saw a poster for the College Republicans that depicted Obama as the Joker from the Batman movie, Dark Knight. "The poster was -- and is -- as undoubtedly "racial' as any picture of a black man in whiteface must be." Which is why that professor concluded: "That the white students could design and defend the poster seems not only racial, but treasonous."

Moreover, a variant of old-time repugnant racism can be detected in those Republicans who are "birthers," who believe President Obama is Muslim or who slander Obama's white mother (as does reprehensible Dinesh D'Souza) for having sex with a black man. But such people are exceptional cases, if only because their very assertions suggest the animosity of imbeciles.

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Instead, what the authors call explicit racism is better known as symbolic racism "a coherent set of beliefs including the sense that discrimination is no longer an obstacle for blacks, that their current lack of upward social mobility is caused by their unwillingness to work hard, that they demand too much of government, and that they have received more than they deserve." [Vincent L. Hutchings and Nicholas A. Valentino, "The Centrality of Race in American Politics," Annual Review of Political Science 2004. 7:p. 390]

(For example, people who believe that "discrimination is no longer an obstacle for blacks" are obviously symbolic racists, because they rely on their own sentiments about blacks, rather than "numerous audit studies [that] have documented the persistence of antiblack discrimination in markets for real estate, credit, jobs, goods, and services." [Douglas S. Massey, "The Past & Future of American Civil Rights," Daedalus, Spring 2011, p. 49])

According to the remarkable paper by professors Pasek, Krosnick and Thompson, the surveys revealed that, in 2008, "the proportion of people expressing explicit (symbolic) anti-Black attitudes was 31% among Democrats, 49% among Independents and 71% percent among Republicans. In 2012, explicit (symbolic) racism was found in 32% of Democrats, 48% of Independents and 79% of Republicans.

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Predictably, the authors concluded that "explicit anti-Black attitudes were strongly associated with lower likelihood of approval" of President Obama. Such attitudes cost him some 5 percent of the popular vote in 2008 and appears to be costing him almost as much in his contest with Mitt Romney. (Implicit racism, also found to occur more frequently among Republicans, "explained no additional variance in approval.")

Think about it. When a white person tells you he or she is a Republican, you have four to one odds that he or she is an explicit (symbolic) racist. Presumably, those odds increase greatly if the self-proclaimed Republican lives in the South and probably decrease slightly in other parts of the country. As the authors acknowledge, the changing composition of the Republican Party (presumably due to moderate Republicans becoming Independents) might explain much of the rise to 79% in 2012. But, that's simply a less offensive way of saying the Republican Party became more explicitly racist as it became more conservative.

That fact would not surprise Professor Robert C. Smith, who is the author of a book titled, Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They are the Same. According to Professor Smith, the connection between conservatism and racism in American politics can be traced back to the renowned seventeenth century British philosopher, John Locke.

Smith agrees with historian Carl Becker, who wrote, "most Americans had absorbed Locke's words as a kind of gospel; and the Declaration in its form and philosophy follows closely certain sentences in Locke's second treatise on government. Jefferson having read Locke's treatise on government, was so taken with it that he read it again and still again, so that its very phrases reappear in his own writings." [Smith, p. 28]

But Smith also demonstrates that Locke's social contract theory (i.e., why free individuals leave their chaotic state in nature to form governments) is conservative precisely because he held: "The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealth, and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property." [Ibid. p. 17] Establishing a government to preserve the status quo for owners of property is inherently conservative.

Under the influence of Locke -- who famously proclaimed the inalienable freedom God gave to all men, while hypocritically denying it to Negro slaves in the Carolinas -- white colonial Americans whipped themselves into a revolutionary frenzy over how British taxation was reducing them to slaves, while hypocritically ignoring the very slavery (justified by racism) to which they were subjecting Negroes. After they liberated themselves from such British "tyranny," Americans established a Constitution -- a new social contract -- that continued to subject enslaved Negroes to their white tyranny.

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Civil War, Reconstruction and a "Second Reconstruction" (during the two decades from 1957 to 1977 that saw the passage of seven civil rights bills) incrementally brought long overdue revisions to the social contract, which benefitted blacks. But they also provoked white backlashes. The most recent backlash occurred after the election of Barack Obama, culminating in the formation of the conservative and racist Tea Party.

Judging by their rhetoric, members of the Tea Party embrace all the elements of symbolic racism found in the surveys conducted by professors Pasek, Krosnick and Thompson. Their racist rhetoric is suffused with evidence of loss aversion, which is to say that they will fight harder to avoid losses than to achieve gains. Thus, they believe they are playing a zero-sum game in which any attempt to further rewrite the social contract is seen as another assault on whites, not on centuries of white privilege. In short, they are wallowing in white victimology.

That's what you should keep in mind when you hear them say "too much has been made of race in America and the policies pursued by the Obama administration promote the interests of poor blacks over those of the white middle class." [Clarence E. Walker, ""We're losing our country': Barack Obama, Race & the Tea Party," Daedalus, Winter 2011, p. 126]


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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)

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