I have been reading Ian Haney Lopez’s excellent Dog Whistle Politics. You should expect a quote and a review of sorts coming in the next few days. But I want to talk about the issue of racism in a more general sense. The truth is that I’m feeling a bit full of myself reading the book, because what he argues in great depth with an amazing amount of documentation is what I’ve been writing about here a lot—especially recently. Racism ain’t what it used to be, and more to the point, racism has never been what it used to be.
More and more, I’m exasperated at people who freak out when someone makes a racial slur. And sometimes these things are just a question of ignorance and don’t necessarily show any racism at all. I especially feel that when someone makes the mistake of talking about the “Jewish lobby” as opposed to the “Israel lobby.” Does this mean the speaker is antisemitic? Not this alone, that’s for sure. Israel is the only explicitly Jewish nation on the earth. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s come to mean a lot to people when it usually doesn’t. To me, the word “Zionism” throws up red flags, unless someone is explicitly talking about the history of Israel; when the word is used in a global sense, it is almost always antisemitic.
Regardless, all this focus on the words people use strikes me a way for public discourse to deny modern racism. The truth is that if some racist uses the n-word commonly in public, he’s going to be shunned by most people, and marginalized. That’s great. But when we are talking about politics, this kind of person doesn’t matter. What does matter is that David Duke can put away his Ku Klux Klan robes, not use any of the forbidden words, and fit easily within the Republican Party. And that brings us to Lee Atwater.
Atwater, of course, was the man who used Willie Horton so effectively for Bush the Elder against Michael Dukakis in 1988. And he is the man who explained how racism changes over time. He said (and I know most of you know the quote):
That’s why a couple of times I’ve gone ballistic on David Weigel, most notably in, Dave Weigel’s Racist Apologetics. The point is that politicians like Paul Ryan say things that are the newest form of racism, and Weigel is there to say, “No!” Because that’s what is so great about modern racism: you can always claim that you aren’t actually being racist.
But here’s the key: this has always been the case. When there were literacy tests, they were given with a nod and wink. The people promoting them would say, “This isn’t about race! This is just making sure that only ‘educated’ people vote.” And there were plenty of people who took that argument seriously at the time. But now, it retrospect, everyone sees it for the racist policy that it was. And people make the same kind of case about statements regarding young men in the inner city, but in another 40 years, that too will be seen as clearly racist as if the n-word had been used. And lest you think I’m reaching, what are Voter ID laws if not a new kind of poll tax? And Paul Ryan supports Voter ID laws.
David Weigel is not the problem, however. The problem is everywhere in the media. And this is why the media go crazy when someone uses an explicit racial slur. It doesn’t just indicate that there are still good old fashioned racists out there, it damages the pretense that we are post-racial. But it’s one big fiction. Racism still exists—it will probably always exist. And if Paul Ryan’s budget ever became the law of the land, it would have gotten popular support not because people were saying, “Let’s get those darkies off welfare!” It would have gotten popular support because in the minds of even many people who would be harmed by the budget (and not necessarily consciously), it was those minorities who were disproportionately being harmed. “And a byproduct of them is: blacks get hurt worse than white.”
That’s modern racism and that’s what we should be talking about. But instead, we go out of our way to deny it. And history will not look back fondly on us.