The 21st Century Spectrum of Racism in America

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.

27 comments on “The 21st Century Spectrum of Racism in America

  1. stan merriman

    Solidly right on. Thank you.

  2. cassandram

    Very thoughtful, Steve. The beginning of the two decade infiltration of racist thought and ideology that you note here can be marked by the Presidential campaign announcement by Ronald Reagan at Philadelphia, MS. Racism in the modern political era, you could say. In many ways, this is a continuation of the racism of the previous era — marked by Jim Crow and reduced civil rights. The difference is that now people (other than the alt-right) get that overt racism is off-putting so its codes are now communicated by dogwhistles and coded language. It is testimony as to how deeply embedded into our culture America’s Original Sin is. We hear this stuff more because it is easier to broadcast all levels of this kind of thinking.

    The sudden interest by “progressives” in white working class voters really shows how white progressives are still preoccupied with their own sense of supremacy. Because of course it would all be fixed if we make sure white people are OK first. Never mind that working class black people have been a reliable coalition partner for Dems forever and the fact that not only have they been the first line of economic devastation, but their communities have been abandoned for middle class movement (and left to those who would take resources from them) for this entire period. And yet, now that we got the voices of a few thousand white working class people above the Mason Dixon line, we want to spend time talking about “their” issues. It’s been disheartening to see how fast civil rights issues could be abandoned by some, when those civil rights issues are central to economic freedom for some of the coalition they say they belong to.

    • The sudden interest and concern of progressives with the white working class voters is really scary – especially from a group who had no problem pointing fingers and blaming everyone else but them. POC didn’t turn out! 53% of white women voters voted for Trump! Tons of blame, except for working class white men – We needed to understand them, woo them, make them comfortable. No blame placed there. I thought there was plenty of blame to go around, but that’s not what I kept hearing. And the similarities of who was saying these things is hard to ignore.

      • leninlover69

        All of the hand-wringing over the “white working class” you’re talking about has come from centrist libs. You really need to expand your horizons leftward a little bit, because the people you’re trying to cast blame on in this post are the ones with the most intersectional view of society. The term “working class” doesn’t mean white men and it never did. It means working class.

  3. anonymous redux

    it’s funny some people think this is the liberal blog around here that’s too centrist. seems to me your uncompromising position on identity politics is the more extreme one since you’re not willing look for ways to broaden the anti-trump/anti-tea party electorate and thereby gain political power that could make the things you want actually happen. you won’t do it because they won’t agree with every single thing you say. at least some bernie folks are willing to be realistic about how to win elections. flip just a few of those voters last time and we wouldn’t have trump.

    • What’s funny is how you were one of the loudest voices saying that Dems needed to drop/not mention/downplay identity politics civil rights of women, LGBT, Black Lives Matter, etc. in order to win the white working class. Stop pretending that it was us who brought up this strategy. It wasn’t. What was stunning was how quickly you guys cast blame at everyone but the white working class – who deserved just as much blame.

      There’s zero difference between the terms “identity politics” and “political correctness”. That’s Steve’s point. And one that you keep proving.

  4. leninlover69

    When progressives and leftists talk about the working class, they don’t appreciate it when liberals attach the word “white.”

  5. anonymous redux

    of course, there are extremists and there are extremists. not exactly sure what leninlover69 was going for — except a chance to use the word “intersectional.” I’m not even sure he/she understands the original posts. but I believe she thinks it should be obvious that anybody with her enlightened view of the working class could not possibly be racist.

    • leninlover69

      I’m saying that this post is based on a straw man. Leftists and progressives aren’t saying that Democrats need to become nativist or racist to appeal to white men. They aren’t saying that black women shouldn’t be leadership. In fact, some of the most important leftist voices right now are women of color. The people the OP is talking about exist, but they aren’t leftists or progressives. They are liberals. The same people that have existed as leaders of the Democratic Party since the early 90s. I do appreciate your sneer at the word “intersectional” though, I’m owned now

  6. anonymous redux

    everybody here already knows the difference between a liberal and a leftist.

    • leninlover69

      I think whether or not that’s actually true would become clear pretty quickly if Pandora would tell us who they are specifically referring to when they talk about Democrats who allegedly want to abandon every other voting bloc besides white men.

  7. anonymous redux

    she’s referring to white males; you know, bros. she perceives them as having the most influence. but I don’t think she said they want to abandon “every other voting block besides white men.” I think she just said they’re giving that particular block too much emphasis. of course if pandora were here i’d let her speak for herself!

    the liberal/left feuds internally while the opposition — in this case trump and the tea party — take over. it was ever thus.

    and were you saying there is no room for mere “liberals” in Bernie’s camp? you better hope that’s not true if you actually want to win anything.

  8. Steve Newton

    I always love–not being either–these fine distinctions between “leftists,” “liberals,” and “progressives.” Certainly you will enlighten us all (the unwashed) with precise definitions. Then we can bow down to the superior heuristics of intersectional erudition.

    In the meantime if you claim that many self-identified “progressives” did not engage in post-election caterwauling about the lack of attention paid to her he white working by class, then you’re either not exceptionally attentive or your professed intersectionality includes pragmatic tendentious discourse (in English: you believe the end justifies the means and will therefore consciously distort to prove your point).

    I will, however, take what I can get: your tacit agreement that all other parts of the spectrum except your own pristine area are accurately described herein.

    And if you don’t believe that both the progressive movement and progressive theory doesn’t have its own history of race based paternalism to contend with, then you don’t know your movement’s history either.

    • leninlover69

      The “fine distinction” is capitalism. It’s not that complicated. You can apparently read a thesaurus, why don’t you use that big brain of yours to read some Marx.

      I think the whole post is asinine, but until you actually start pointing me towards leftists saying that the Democratic Party needs to realign itself towards the interests of *specifically* white working class men, then that particular section is just based on a false premise. Seriously, cite some sources.

      I’m also not arguing about history here. I’m arguing about your critique, which is that leftists, today, in America, harbor racist views. This is incorrect.

      and LEARN HOW TO THREAD COMMENTS oh my god

    • While I agree with the general proposition, I disagree with your assessment of the left’s form of racism.

      Some of us talked during and after the campaign about the lack of an economic message and the fact that the Democratic message ignored the economic issues of the working class. Since the black working class either voted D or failed to vote, the analysis rather naturally focused on the white working class, which voted for Trump in greater proportion than for Romney. Does not visiting Wisconsin count as “ignoring the white working class”? She lost votes among both blacks and whites relative to Obama.

      What the leftist critics here say — whatever they call themselves — is true, whether you understand that or not. The so-called “Bernie Bros” who are so disparaged here are saying that a working-class message helps everyone outside the upper income levels, which are disproportionately white. That’s not a call to ignore non-white non-males. It’s a call to a platform that includes them, too. Yes, white males have fewer problems than everyone else. I fail to see how telling them that wins their votes.

      Is there liberal/progressive racism? Sure. But I tend to judge politicians on their intentions and their integrity. I’d rather have people like Eugene Young and Cassandra Marshall involved in running the city than most of the old-style pols of any race who run it now.

      Finally, I wonder whether racism really has gotten worse in the last 20 years. I think another part of it is that your perception of it has grown. Indeed, the younger generation just coming to adulthood is far less racist than (in my case) we its parents, at least in the more cosmopolitan precincts of the country.

      Look at the political situation of African-Americans, even in backward Delaware, over the past 20 years. Chip Flowers got elected, without the help of the African-American lobby OR the Democratic Party. African-Americans have been elected downstate, and by both parties.

      IMHO, what has changed over the past 20 years is the willingness of the police to kill African-Americans literally because of their skin color — they scared because their victims are black. That juries find this a valid reason to exonerate slaughter is shocking. By many economic measures, African-Americans are suffering the same way all people without post-secondary education are suffering, only more so, as usual.

      PS: People who say “charter schools are public schools” are trying to make the point that we, the public, can stop them any time we gather the support to do so. Plus, I have found plenty of black parents are willing to overlook the white-flight aspect of charters in favor of the local control they think it gives them.

  9. I actually visited to post this all-too-familiar example of what this post is talking about.

    The racists are a minority, but they are a loud, obnoxious one.

  10. Steve Newton

    @leninlover–first, I didn’t mention “leftists.” You did. I stuck with liberals and progressives. But if you’re still hung up on reading Marx without having advanced to Braudel, Wallerstein, or Picketty, then you’re statistically inconsequential and probably don’t actually understand capitalism in the first place.

    @alby–your observation about perception vs reality possibly has merit but I think you’re wrong. I’ve spent the past thirty years closely associated with two organizations with very high minority populations–the US military and HBCUs–and the perception there is nowhere near as hopeful as you seem to believe.

    As for Chip Flowers or even Lisa Blunt Rochester let’s take a wider perspective. The first Black candidate to run for statewide office in modern DE was Cecil Wilson who ran for Insurance Commissioner in the mid-1960s. Since then how many Black politicians have been governor, lt gov, attorney general, congressman senator, speaker, president pro tem, treasurer, or insurance commissioner? In this most Democratic of States why is it so rare to find Black politicians in positions of institutional power? Does anybody really want to argue that there haven’t been qualified individual?

    During the same period Delaware has re-segregated Wilmington schools and one only has to raise the merest specter of “city kids” being bussed into “our neighborhood schools” to find race at the heart of the argument. Has everyone forgotten the furor over Lancaster Court kids attending Cooke Elementary?

    • leninlover69

      Hey Steve, I wrote a rebuttal to your piece because I had a lot of time on my hands being statistically inconsequential

      • I just finished reading your piece, and I must compliment you on your talent of putting words into people’s mouths. Here’s an example:

        “So what is the cause for this supposed closeness between left and right sides of the political spectrum? According to Steve, it’s happened because over the past twenty years American politics has gotten racist. Apparently this did not happen when slavery of black people was legal, or when the country was divided in two in a war about whether or not slavery of black people should remain legal. Or the entire rest of American political history, which I’m not going to list because I don’t need to. No, this is specifically a phenomenon dating back to the impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton. The structural problems with this argument are numerous, and unsurprisingly, it completely falls apart before Steve even makes it to his thesis about how people that like universal health care hate people of color.”

        How you came to these conclusions is a mystery. Steve never claimed that racism just came into being in the last twenty years. He was specifically addressing what has happened in that time frame.

        And, where do you get this gem? “The structural problems with this argument are numerous, and unsurprisingly, it completely falls apart before Steve even makes it to his thesis about how people that like universal health care hate people of color.” Again, Steve said no such thing.

        I haven’t even addressed the words you put in my mouth – “I think whether or not that’s actually true would become clear pretty quickly if Pandora would tell us who they are specifically referring to when they talk about Democrats who allegedly want to abandon every other voting bloc besides white men.”. I have never said any such thing. You really are an amazing strawman builder.

        • leninlover69

          I’m responding directly to the text in my piece and I think it’s pretty clear where I got everything. As for the last one, when I mentioned you I meant Steve, and I was referring to this passage here:

          “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).”

          • Nope. You’re not responding directly to the text; you’re making things up.

            Show me exactly where you get this: “The structural problems with this argument are numerous, and unsurprisingly, it completely falls apart before Steve even makes it to his thesis about how people that like universal health care hate people of color.” I have no idea how you got there.

            And Steve defined the time period he was discussing – no need for you to pretend that since he didn’t include the entire history of racism that he didn’t know it existed. I’m finding your strawman arguments extremely tiresome.

  11. Steve Newton

    Thanks pandora but I didn’t actually feel the need to go read what Karl Marx fanboy wrote. He hasn’t presented an actual argument yet, just been insulted that I didn’t give Marxists a pass on racism. Like I even care whether Leninlover and his two friends in the basement do that passes for thinking.

  12. Clearly, Steve, your essay hit a nerve. And if I understood your introduction, you were drawing from your own thoughts and experiences as well as observations. I certainly recognize bits of myself in some of your profiles — I was aware of the inherent racism in of those attitudes, but others, so much. As you say, the first step to solving the problem is to acknowledge it. Racism in America won’t be solved on a societal level until a ciritical mass of people solve it for themselves at an individual level.

  13. “Yes, white males have fewer problems than everyone else. I fail to see how telling them that wins their votes.”

    That’s really the crux of the issue in my view. The liberal complex spent considerable time and effort on the “privilege” meme, informing some truly poor people, that they were still better off than others (as if that were a revelation of some kind – there is always someone worse off).

    Let me try and say it another way, they highlighted and deepened divisions among various segments of the population instead of creating a shared vision and aspirations. Trump and the GOP did the same thing. Only their voters didn’t stay home.

    Regardless of one’s beliefs regarding the white working class or whatever you want to call them, Trump gave them something to vote for. All the liberals did was tell them they should be repentant for their privilege.

    “We Are Stronger Together” was a fairly lame rallying cry, but it is was and is the truth. The Democrats, were not united because they are and remain guilty of division politics. In general, the Democrats courted the M&Ms (minorities and millennials.” They can spin it however they want, but they left out a large segment of their historical constituency. Whether they learn from this remains to be seen.

  14. @Steve: Yes, there have been many steps backward over the past 20 years, as well as forward. My observation would be that the retrograde movements are centered in older generations. The younger generation is where I find my hope.

    As for your contention that there should have been African-Americans in positions of power before the current crop, you are no doubt correct that there were people who were capable of doing those jobs. The trick is getting them to devote themselves to politics and public office. People like the late, lamented Jim Gilliam Jr. thought they could bring about more change in the private sector.

    Look at Delaware’s white elected officials. Do any of them strike you as the cream of the crop?

    • snewton929

      @alby: Look at Delaware’s white elected officials. Do any of them strike you as the cream of the crop?

      Point to you. But in a way that makes it worse.

      • Yes, it does. Chip Flowers and Lisa Blunt Rochester might not be the best and brightest of their generation of African-American politicians, but it seems to me (if only to me) that they are a giant step up from Theo Gregory, Charles Potter and other longtime Wilmington pols.

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