Jamelle Bouie argues that conservatives are simultaneously obsessed with and oblivious to race. Citing Glenn Beck’s accusation that President Obama hates white people and some conservatives’ public delight in the Zimmerman verdict, Bouie contends that conservatives have adopted a distorted and distorting understanding of racism according to which “anyone who treats race as a social reality is a racist.” It follows that:
Because Obama acknowledges race as a force in American life—and because he even suggests that there are racists among us—he becomes the “real racist,” a construction designed to give conservatives moral high ground, while allowing them to insult Obama. After all, for them, “racist” is the worst accusation in American life.
Bouie is right to criticize the naivëté about race that Dan McCarthy mentioned in his defense of Jack Hunter, which is characteristic of talk radio and other political entertainment. But he misunderstands the conceptual frame that many conservatives apply to these issues.
The background assumption in many conservative arguments about criminal justice or affirmative action is not precisely that any acknowledgement of “race as a force in American life” is racist. Rather, it’s that racism refers only to the kind of eye-popping bigotry recently on display in the film “Django”.
Conservatives correctly observe that this kind of overt hatred is rare today. They wrongly conclude from this that legacies of slavery and segregation are not relevant to modern life–and that anyone who says they are must therefore have ulterior motives.
Jonah Goldberg offers a representative sample of this view. In a post several months ago, Goldberg argued that racism “should be defined as knowing and intentional ill-will or negative actions aimed at an individual or group solely because of their race.”
Note the qualifiers: “knowing and intentional”; “ill-will”; “solely”. According to Goldberg, racism is limited to conscious malice independent of any non-racial considerations. And racism, on this definition, is no longer a big problem.
But this definition seriously obscures the role of race in American society, past and present. To mention only an obvious defect, it excludes the ideas about black inferiority that informed the “positive good” defense of slavery. John C. Calhoun was not Calvin Candy, the psychopathic plantation owner in “Django.” But it is obtuse to deny his racism on the grounds that he believed the slave system was beneficial to blacks.
In more contemporary inquiries, the restrictive definition of racism Goldberg suggests conceals systematic inequities in the economy and other spheres of activity. One need not regard every racially disproportionate outcome as the result of discrimination to understand that it is not simply a coincidence that blacks, who have within living memory been been excluded by law and custom from the vehicles of upward mobility, tend to be poorer and less educated than whites. Colorblindness on these issues is more like simple blindness.
Clumsy as it was, Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University in April was a step toward more serious conservative reflection on race. Although he relied implicitly on a definition of racism as conscious bigotry, Paul at least acknowledged that the bigotry of the past has had unconscious and enduring consequences, which have to be the starting point for arguments about policy. The task for conservatives is to make a plausible case that the policies they favor will be more effective in ameliorating those consequences than either the status quo or progressive alternatives. Until then, our black fellow citizens will be correct in their judgment that we are either hopelessly naïve or playing dumb about the unique and heavy burdens that they continue to bear.