Jonathan Chait has written a great article about the way that liberals and conservatives look at racism in this country, 12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but I’m going to talk about just one aspect.
The truth is that it is hard for me to talk about racism because I’m well aware of my own racist thoughts. These aren’t rational and I work very hard to fight them. To the racist, every crime committed by a member of a minority group is more proof that “those people” are no damned good. The non-racist may have that initial reptilian brain impulse, but he fights it with his higher brain functions. Statistics are a powerful tool in this regard. You are a racist if your response to a black man saving a kitten from a burning building is, “Well, that’s the exception that proves the rule!” I’ve seen this again and again. When people are racist, they create a filter where all data against their prejudice is discarded as exceptional and all data for their prejudice is accepted as reinforcing.
But except on the edges of society, explicit racism is a thing of the past. As Chait discusses, first it was thought that it was right and fitting that blacks were slaves because they were inferior. Then that was wrong, but it was right and fitting that blacks be legally separated from whites because… Well, actually, I don’t really know why. Now we are at the point where blacks are economically separated from whites because, well, the supposed free market cannot be denied. It’s all the same. It’s all racism.
I am economically poor. But I’m still a walking and talking billboard for white privilege. Given the life I’ve led and the person I am, if I had been born black, I would most likely be dead. And I certainly wouldn’t have what I consider a near idyllic life with thousands of readers and work I find profoundly stimulating—not to mention the many great things in all the other parts of my life.
So I’m not going to sit here and talk about how I understand the plight of the black man and how I’m “evolved” on the topic. I try to be a better man. Always. That, to me, is what it means to be a liberal. I want to fix social injustices and I do what I can. And I want to remain open to social injustices that I’m currently blind to. That is probably the hardest thing.
The conservative way of looking at the world is not the opposite of this—although it is with a small minority that unfortunately seems to be growing in this country. The conservative outlook is that the way things are is just perfect. Of course slavery was wrong. Of course Jim Crow was wrong. But how could anyone think that voter ID laws are racist? How could anyone think income inequality was racist? Because to the conservative, social injustice is always something that used to exist. It never does exist.
Jonathan Chait quotes an interesting statistic, “Republicans, by a 60-40 margin, now believe discrimination against whites has grown to be a larger problem than discrimination against minorities.” So it isn’t just that racism has been solved, now it’s turned around and the whites are being oppressed. That’s not normal, of course. Left alone, conservatives would just think that minority groups have nothing to complain about. It is the Rush Limbaughs, the Michael Savages, the Sean Hanitys who have pushed this idea. And this is more in line with lynching mentality, because otherwise, how do you explain this:
There are only two ways that this disparity in wealth can exist. Either we still live in a racist society with a legacy of slavery. (Part of the money my family has comes from the fact that 150 years ago they owned property, they weren’t owned as property.) Or blacks and Hispanics really are inferior to whites. So unless conservatives are going to accept this latter contention (and most absolutely will not), then they must admit that we live with racism today. And it isn’t against the oppressed while folk with all their wealth.