In this article, I’m talking about individual racism—the feelings that we all have toward others who we don’t see as our tribe or whatever. I focus on African Americans, because I think that’s the biggest problem in this nation and the biggest problem for me, having grown up among a lot of whites and Latinos, but very few blacks. What I am most definitely not talking about here is the much more important issue of systemic racism and the way that our country in various ways keeps down the African American community especially. For that, I would refer you to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ excellent article, The Case for Reparations.
I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about Ronald Reagan over the past couple of months. And I have to admit, he does come off as a decent guy. His big problem was that when he saw things for real, or at least placed in a narrative he could understand, his impulses were distinctly liberal. Unfortunately, he was an ideologue. And not a very smart one. What’s more, what people now remember about him was all the radical ideology and absolutely false ideas like it was his buildup of our military that caused the Soviet Union to fold. But he did a lot of good in one way: he helped to lessen the threat of nuclear weapons. And that’s great.
But I still have a problem with the personable guy who everyone loved. And it all comes down to an issues that I’ve been thinking about a lot more over the last couple years: racism. But not just racism in a general sense, my own racist tendencies. I think anyone who claims that they aren’t at all racist are just lying—most likely to themselves. And the bad thing about that is that what we all need to do is fight against our racist tendencies. And that’s the thing about Reagan. Everyone admits that he was not a racist. But I think that’s just based upon the old definition of racism that really isn’t the way this disease usually presents itself. Of course Reagan didn’t use the n-word and of course he had friends who were wealthy and successful African Americans.
But just as I’m sure of that, I’m sure that if he found himself walking down a lonely street and saw a young black man approaching him, he was at least a little more anxious than if it had been a young white man. But it is primarily conservatives who won’t admit to this kind of thing. And I think it is because they think they can wish the problem away. Tim Wise tells an incredibly affecting story in his book, White Like Me. He’s on an airplane and he sees in the cockpit that the two pilots are black. And he starts to panic. “Oh my God! Black pilots! Are they any good?!” Now Wise spends his entire working life thinking about nothing but this kind of stuff. But still, that panic hit him, even though it was just for a moment. Then his rational mind came in and he realized that the fact that these black pilots were flying for a major airline indicated that they were almost certainly two of the best pilots flying.
So I don’t blame Reagan for the reactions that he certainly had, just as I don’t blame myself. I try to use all of these instances as learning experiences, just as I would like to think that Reagan did. These reactions come from deep down in our brains and we don’t have as much as control as we believe. Plus, they aren’t all bad. Having a tribal identity has a lot of good aspects to it. But it is mostly bad in the modern world. And it is mostly just our evolutionarily developed fear of anything that is different. The truth is that like most white people, most of the people I know are white. If I had more black friends (and that starts to get into the whole issue of systemic racism), these lower brain reactions would lessen at a much faster rate than they have with my very active efforts to think like a human and not like a reptile.
What I come back to again and again with Reagan, however, is how he used dog whistle politics. At the beginning of his 1980 general election campaign for president, he went to the Neshoba County Fair, just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi where the KKK notoriously murdered three civil rights workers in 1964. And he told the crowd:
That’s not just an appeal to Jim Crow; that’s an appeal to slavery; that’s a not at all subtle argument against stopping the southern states from seceding from the nation. It is one of the most vile things I’ve ever heard Reagan say.
And his states’ rights speech was hardly some outlier. Remember the “welfare queen”? The truth is that Reagan never used that term. You could possibly say that had no racist content. But during his 1976 bid for the Republican nomination, he talked about a woman from “Chicago’s South Side” who was arrested for welfare fraud. That signals about as clearly as you can that he’s talking about a black woman. He said:
It turned out the woman was not quite the criminal mastermind Reagan indicated. She was only charged with $8,000 in fraud and was convicted and given a prison term of 2-6 years. But Reagan wasn’t talking about that. He was implying that (1) all people on welfare are black and (2) they are all committing fraud.
So okay, Reagan was nice to black folks he met. But he pushed an ideology and policies that were extremely racist. And it is so much worse than that.
He wasn’t just hurting the African American community in the myriad ways that his ideology harmed them as a group. By using that kind of dog whistle politics, he was hurting everyone—regardless of their race and regardless of where they land on the racism number line. Because he was pushing fear and intolerance. He was making racism more acceptable. And he was making America more divisive. And he was making Americans more fearful. And he was doing it only in the service of gaining political power.
Of course, he’s not alone. When Bush the Elder ran for president, his most effective weapon was the infamous “Willie Horton” ad. And it continues to the present. Let’s not forget Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamp president.” The fact that Bush and Obama increased the food stamp rolls by an equal amount didn’t matter. Nor did the obvious reason that the economy had suffered through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Mitt Romney didn’t use the term, but used the issue against Obama. And why? It’s meaningless. It makes more sense to talk about unemployment or job creation. But “food stamps” skews black in the minds of most Americans, even though it most certainly doesn’t in fact.
I feel like I’m a victim of racism in the sense that I have some automatic reactions to different races that I’m not in control of. (One odd bit of this: I like the Japanese more than the Chinese more than the Indians, which is bizarre because I’ve only ever had close friendships with Indians.) And the more racist someone is, the most of a victim he is. When I see white supremacists, a small addition to all the harm that they do to our people and our culture, is the harm they do to themselves by living small, pathetic lives where they never have the pleasure of reading James Baldwin.
I will end with a question and my answer—but I’m interested in others’. Is the most important thing about individual racism just actively hating or feeling superior to other races? I don’t think so. I think those reptilian brain reactions we have that we struggle to control actually have a more pernicious effect on all of us. And politicians who use these individual weaknesses to gain power are the worst racist we have. And it doesn’t matter how nice they may be to individual blacks or how much money they may raise for the NAACP.