Guest post by Steve Newton
I suspect this post will upset and anger a lot of people. My thesis is simple: over the past two decades there has been a steady infiltration of racism and racist thought into the entire American political spectrum, and that until Democrats (especially) understand the enormity of what’s happened, they won’t be able to combat it successfully. In order to make that point, I need to demonstrate just how pervasive racialized thought has become at all points along the spectrum, to the point that there are now points upon which the Alt-Right and the Liberals/Progressives actually touch.
Here is my spectrum (and, yes, I’m aware that it’s not perfect, and I am aware that there are exceptions to it—but give the concept a few minutes to sink in as a whole):
The Alt-Right version: White civilization is being extinguished— This one’s easy because it can be publicly labeled despicable, and to most people it is limited to surefire nutcases like Richard Spenser or David Duke, etc. It’s so clearly “beyond the pale” that most people feel relatively safe ignoring the true crazies or dismissing them as “homegrown terrorists” without taking the time to realize that their presence (largest since the last KKK resurgence in the 1920s) and their ideas (echoes already in major K-12 textbooks and in conservative think-tank papers) are slowly gaining acceptability in civic discourse, with the most skilled practitioners conflating them (and thereby co-opting) the “defense of Western (white!) civilization.”
The Religious Right/Social Conservative version: There were Black slaveowners!— This one’s a new favorite of the people who cherry-pick quotes to “prove” that our entire Republic is based on evangelical protestant Christianity, and that we need Bibles back in our classrooms (hello, Kentucky!). The variations go from “A bigger percentage of Free Blacks owned slaves than White people” [an utter, outright lie] to “Why don’t White people ever get the credit they deserve for ending slavery?” to “I didn’t personally own any slaves, so why should I feel guilty about slavery?” Racializing attacks like this are one argument in the same bundle with “teach the controversy” [Creationism vs Evolution] and “government schools are indoctrination camps for liberal ideas” [because they don’t teach the “real” history of the US]. This is part and parcel of a much larger anti-intellectual, anti-science movement, but the racial element has become deeply internalized.
The Libertarian version: Taxation is Theft— I mention this one not because the Libertarian Party is politically consequential, but because it’s important to note how all the creeping spectrum of racism is infiltrating everywhere. A decade ago Libertarianism and the “Liberty Movement” was about smaller, less intrusive government, smoking weed, and the 2nd Amendment—today the rhetoric has been taken over by “taxation is theft” [which is really anarcho-capitalism, not libertarianism] and the idea that people either bootstrap themselves or get left behind. The racial implications here are subtle but pervasive—any form of public assistance/safety net (which is almost always directed toward minorities) is repackaged as stealing from the “productive” in society and as socialist/communist. You are beginning to see open references to the merits of Social Darwinism in these discussions. I recently read a detailed account by a poor, single mother whose newborn required several hundred thousand dollars worth of surgery to survive, who wrote a post about how lucky she was to have Medicaid to save her daughter’s life—she was almost immediately bombarded with comments asking her why she thought she had the right to steal from other people’s children to save her own, and noting that people like her daughter “needed to make better personal choices” [as newborns!] or, better yet, “deserve nothing but a bullet.”
The Conservative version: I’m Colorblind!— “I don’t see race” (Tomi Lauren). I’m not personally a racist, I just want to see everyone lifted out from under the unfair burdens of government spending and taxation, so that everybody can rise on their merits [bootstrapping] without Government interference. And I’m willing to help all the [Black] poor people get ahead by paying them less [reduce minimum wage; enterprise zones; repeal right to work; end job training programs] so that they will learn the virtues of hard work and self-sacrifice that I was born knowing. Oh, and by the way, “White Privilege” is just something made up by liberal elites to expunge their own guilt at their failed policies—it’s just another way of trying to make people who worked hard on their own to be successful feel bad about themselves and justify new taxes to support the lazy [Black people].
The Center-Right version: All Lives Matter (and it’s a sad fact that Black people are so violent)— The original Civil Rights movement [like feminism] was about laudable goals like voting rights and ending segregation. Now that we’ve done all that, these people want more—they want “special” rights and considerations, and they’ve become so radical that they are attacking the people and institutions that make our country great [like law enforcement]. How come nobody covers it in the lying media when ravenous cannibal hordes of urban Blacks kill white people? How come nobody talks about Black druggies shooting our cops? What about Black on Black violence? There’s this nice African-American couple that lives down the block (no, I don’t personally know them well, but he’s an engineer of some sort and his kids are well-dressed and respectable)—how come the. majority of Black people can’t be like them? Cause, you know, and I hate this fact (but I know it’s a fact) that Black people do more drugs and commit more violent crimes, and I’m sorry more young Black men are in prison than in college, but it’s really their choices that got them there.
The Middle-class Suburban version: Charter schools are public schools!— The public school system has failed by trying to integrate the inner cities with the suburbs, bringing my kids down without doing any favors for those poor (ahem, violent, druggie, and generally Black) kids. So we need to disassemble it and use innovation to rebuild it, with merit-based charter schools (how colorblind can you get? Merit has no color!), and a whole raft of inner-city charters where we can put all the promising little Black children together so that they can learn to excel (don’t call it ‘segregation’—how can it possibly be segregation when all the little crabs have school choice?). I believe in public education, but not at my child’s expense, which is why we need to make certain schools exempt from rules like providing school lunches or having to pay back transportation money they didn’t spend (if those people in the city really wanted their children to go to suburban charters they’d have made the choices necessary to work out the transportation issues). The thing here is that it is a real short jump from dismantling a public school system based on the premise of educating ALL children as an ideal to dismantling the idea of having basic health care available to ALL children/people. And you’re not going to get some kind of new consensus for Medicare for All or other extended social programs if you’ve decided that “Education for All” is a losing proposition. (Two notes: (1) this is where you find States that just cut their education budgets by tens of millions of dollars while eliminating estate taxes for the wealthy and (2)—truth in advertising—this is where I lived, unconsciously, for.a long time.)
The Liberal/Progressive version: We failed because we didn’t offer enough to the white working class— This is the one that’s really scary (or should be) for liberals and progressives because the fact that it is even on the table is an indication that your movement has been co-opted and is in danger of extinction. It literally means that uppity Black people (especially uppity Black women) should be taken out of visible leadership positions, that they should stop talking about racism or social justice or police brutality or inner cities or educating poor kids and start talking about the issues that matter to White voters because White voters really are America (or are at least what winning elections is about, and if we don’t win we can’t change anything). But, of course, if we win on those terms, nothing will change, will it? It’s about giving up the moral position of being crusaders for what you believe is right in order to win power so that you can “Slowly” do what’s right—eventually, when the country is ready for it—but not now, because it’s too politically costly. … It’s about the intellectual and moral hollowing out of the liberal/progressive tradition.
As a bonus point: we live in a country now where mainstream center-right political figures can get away with saying, “You become a racist when a liberal loses an argument to you.” And since everyone knows that liberals are always wrong, there really isn’t any racism in America any more, just people who who are proud of their heritage, and what’s so wrong with that?
Look, I know this is difficult to swallow, because to admit that the past sixty years hasn’t even come close to eradicating racism, and that the past twenty years has seen a huge resurgence of it—even as the nation elected its first Black president—is a hard sell. But the reality is that we are currently living in a country that has moved substantially further along the racist spectrum in the past twenty years than most people would like to believe, and even fewer are willing to talk about because it will endanger their relationship with those long-perceived as either allies or at least honorable opponents.
But let’s reality test here: the new version of the GOP nationally has committed itself to supporting HBCUs. Let’s leave aside whether they’ll actually come up with the money and discuss the rationale of the approach. Two reasons for conservatives to support HBCUs come out clearly in Heritage Foundation literature: (1) they see Black students attending HBCUs as more conservative than those attending other schools, and therefore as a good recruiting ground for Black conservatives; and (2) they see HBCUs as a way to educate high-performing Black students in STEM areas outside of the elite research universities (“where they wouldn’t make it anyway”) and thus as a mechanism for exempting those universities, eventually, from any requirement to use race at all as an admissions element by saying, “We’ve got perfectly good HBCUs for you, instead.” This has already been trial-ballooned by Betsy DeVos as an exercise in “school choice.”
I wish I had a magic proposition for reversing this trend. I don’t. All I can say is that the first step in dealing with any problem is to acknowledge the problem exists, and to define it. Then at least you’re out of the denial stage. And the denial stage is continuing to believe that what’s going on in conservative (Trumpist) politics is NOT about race, because it couldn’t have occurred without a steady definition of “racism” and the infiltration of racialized thought into nearly every facet of American politics.
The second step is to realize that this didn’t just come out of nowhere: there has always been a strong racialized strain in American politics and society, and as demographic trends change (and whites, especially Protestant Whites) realize that they are losing their hold on the society just through actuarial means it would be insane not to expect them to fight back. In their “history” they built this country, and they see it being taken away from them. So they’ve started to fight, tooth and nail, to keep it on their terms.
It is also important to recognize that a lot of really good people—from all walks of life and all parts of the political spectrum—have been caught up in this rhetoric, and that—for the most part—yelling at them won’t work. The tendency to need to shout comes from the short-term tendency to see the need for a win in the next election to “save the country.” This is, to my mind at least, wrong thinking. Yes, there need to be election strategies, and candidates, etc., etc., but there also needs to be a realization that this war has been going on in America since the early 17th Century—racism has won a major battle over the past twenty-odd years, but not the war.
But in order to win a war, you have to know what war you’re fighting.