Jonathan Chait has been writing a lot about race this week with having finally seen 12 Years a Slave and now with Nelson Mandela’s death. I wrote a very positive take on one of his articles only yesterday, Liberal and Conservative Views of Racism. But I think he is a bit confused today, Why Conservatives Got Segregation Wrong a Second Time in South Africa. He’s prevaricating terribly. He really doesn’t want to come out and say that conservatives are racists, but he ends his article simply enough, “And a failure to grasp the historical character of racism is not merely a recurring problem for conservative racial thought, it is its defining quality.”
The word “racism” has gotten to be almost useless. In the minds of most people, it conjures up southern bigots lynching a black man who whistled at a pretty white girl. But that’s really not what I mean by racist anymore. We live in a racist society where blacks especially are an underclass. The conservative animosity toward them is not based upon race a priori. The great conservative myth is that hard work and intelligence will allow anyone to thrive in this great nation of ours. If blacks as a group are not now doing as well as whites, it must be because they don’t work as hard and aren’t as intelligent. So it is not that conservatives want to keep minority groups down; it is that their own mythology leads them to the conclusion that minority groups keep themselves down. Thus, in a meritocracy, it would be wrong to do anything for them.
Conservatives believe in the existing power structure, whatever it might be. This is the basis of Corey Robin’s work. What defines conservatism is its reaction against liberation movements of subordinate classes. I write about this all the time, but not in such highfalutin language. Simply: conservatives think that the way things are is the way things ought to be. Anything that might drag the rich down (e.g. taxes) or raise the poor up (e.g. public education) are theoretically repugnant. It is not, as is often claimed, that conservatives think the free market will make a more equitable society; they think the free market will make a more moral society.
Hence, conservatives are racists as long as blacks do not succeed as well as whites in this economic system. This, in itself, would not be so bad. But what passes for the “unfettered free market” in conservative thought is nothing but ossified privilege. They already think that the society is nearly perfect. Thus, giving no-bid contracts with no accountability to the rich just makes sense. If the poor were deserving of government largess, then they would already be rich. And it isn’t just the rich themselves who deserve this special treatment; their children do too. If conservatives really believed in the survival of the “fittest,” they would be in favor of a high estate tax. Instead, they want no estate tax at all.
So let me be clear. Conservatives don’t want to lynch blacks. But they most definitely think that poor blacks and poor whites alike are inferior. And given the statistics, there must be something wrong with the blacks. But that doesn’t make conservatives hate them. They just don’t care. And in particular, they don’t care enough to address gross inequalities in healthcare and education and criminal “justice.” Because in the conservative brain, the only social ill is that the rich are not rich enough and the poor make too much noise.