There’s an old adage that goes something like this: in America, everything is about race, even when race has nothing to do with it. Ever since the colonial era, Americans of all stripes have dealt with the race issue because it’s been a crucial element in determining what it means to be an American from day one. Race was, of course, the major factor that drove America’s original sin of slavery (it’s rumored that early drafts of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence read: “All men are created equal, except for those dusky fellers picking my tobacco.) But long after slavery’s demise, race still lingers in American political discourse and, if you believe Jonathan Chait, race has been the defining theme of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In a simultaneously contentious, frustrating, and illuminating piece for the New Yorker, Chait performs some impressive mental gymnastics in order to argue that race — particularly the politics of white racial resentment towards African-Americans — is the core theme that has shaped modern conservatism while also arguing that liberals are wrong to call conservatives racists for opposing Barack Obama’s policies. You got that? Chait admits that “at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical,” but warns of “an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination” that is both politically wrongheaded and factually untrue.
Plenty of otherwise like-minded commentators have taken Chait to the proverbial woodshed for his Charlie Brown-style wishy washiness on the race issue. Salon’s Joan Walsh, for example, chides Chait for pointing out recent Republican efforts to restrict minority voting rights and refusing to expand Medicaid — measures that disproportionately target black Americans — and then having the gall to chastise liberals for “mostly telling the truth about all of those things, while occasionally exaggerating it.” Meanwhile, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie characterizes Chait’s piece as “a story of mutual grievance between Americans on the left and right, with little interest in the lived experiences of racism from black Americans and other people of color.”
So is Chait wrong to worry about all characterizations of conservatism being reduced to mere anti-black (and anti-Latino) racial resentment? The short answer is “Yes;” the long answer is “No.” As has always been the case in American history, the issue of race is monumentally complicated, with multiple streams and rivers that flow into a much bigger — and much muddier — racial pool.
Chait is correct that being politically conservative in America doesn’t make you a racist in the most visceral, black-hating, pointed hood–donning sense, but he’s also wrong to claim that liberals start out with “a sound analysis of Republican racial animosity” but then extend this analysis into “paranoia.” This is why every issue in America comes down to race — even when it doesn’t.
Allow me to explain a bit further. What Chait, and so many others before him, always seem to stumble on is defining what they mean when they use the term “racism.” In his book Racism: A Short History, the eminent historian George Fredrickson defines racism in both broad and specific terms. Generally, racism is “the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or ‘people’ toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes.”* Specifically, however, racism differs from more standard human conflict via the crucial additions of difference and power. Together, these two components create “a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable.” Fredrickson writes that, “racism expresses itself in the practices, institutions, and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates.”* In other words, racism doesn’t just create racist individuals; it also creates racist societies.
Chait is looking for examples of conservatives playing the racist role, as defined by Fredrickson, by explicitly enacting practices that mark blacks as different from, and less powerful than, whites. Thus, what he’s really trying to pin down is to what extent the U.S. is, or isn’t, a racist society — one in which whites still actively discriminate against blacks. Liberals say that it is; conservatives say that it isn’t. The answer, however, is “yes:” the U.S. has been, and continues to be, a racist society. But — and this is crucial — the U.S. isn’t as racist as it was thirty, fifty, a hundred, or two-hundred years ago, and it’s getting less racist every year. The problem is that racism, being so entwined into the fabric of American society, won’t just disappear over night, and before it dies entirely, it devolves into a less-potent — but no less influential idea — which I call “racialism.”
I didn’t invent the term “racialism;” it’s been bandied about for years by various types of academics looking for a way to describe racially tinged ideas that didn’t seem to fit into the full-on “racist” category. For my purposes, racialism is the belief that racial differences exist, and it constitutes the various ways, both positive and negative, that Americans have tried to shape and influence social and political policies in accordance with that belief.
Here’s an example of how racialism differs from racism. Growing up in Northeast Ohio’s Rust Belt, I often heard a racially insensitive joke that went something like this: Q: “What’s the difference between a large pizza and a black man?” A: “The large pizza can feed a family of four.” Anyone whose ever paid attention to the American welfare debate knows why this joke is supposed to be “funny:” it invokes long-running stereotypes depicting blacks as lazy, shiftless, and unwilling to work for themselves. Those stereotypes, in turn, go all the way back to the era of slavery, when whites deemed blacks as “inferior” and in need of the guiding light of white control. In modern political parlance, the “lazy black” idea fueled Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story and continues to drive conservative hostility to welfare programs that allegedly benefit blacks at whites’ expense.
Any white person I knew who either told or heard that joke would deny that they were racists, and in terms of the popular understanding of what racists do, they’d probably be right. They would never join the Ku Klux Klan, harass black people, or do any of the other nasty stuff that racists are supposed to do. But a good many of them think that, due to “cultural” reasons, blacks are lazy, prone to criminality, and abuse welfare programs paid for by hard-working (read: white) taxpayers. But they’d be the first to tell you that they aren’t racist, even though you’d never hear them talking about all the rural, white Americans on welfare.
The thing is, you don’t have to be outwardly (or even inwardly racist) to “get” that joke. It invokes historically entrenched cultural ideas of alleged differences between blacks and whites that are still ingrained in American society, even if most white people would rightfully (hopefully?!) be repulsed by what the “black man/large pizza” joke connotes. In other words, racism has so significantly shaped American culture that its shadows, in the form of racialism, can appear everywhere, even when the elusive original source of the shadow is unseen or outright rejected.
If, like me, you’ve never been black, then there’s no way for you to experience the unique feeling of being black in America as filtered through the lens of non-black others. We can’t feel racialism because, thanks to the birth lottery and the trajectory of modern American history, we’ve never been judged on our skin alone. We can’t know what’s it’s like to be assessed, ridiculed, reviled, feared, and defined solely based on something as mundane as pigmentation. But if you’re black in America, you know racialism exists even when hardcore racism is waning — and you know, as does Jonathan Chait, which political party has racialism as an unspoken part of its platform.
Conservatives have long scored political points by assuming, correctly, that a good many white Americans who would never join the KKK or lynch someone nonetheless know what’s implied by the “black man/large pizza” joke. In criticizing liberals who label those who practice, and respond to, dog-whistle politics as racists, Jonathan Chait is trying to grapple with how the legacy of racism could still be so influential in the era of the first black American president. In one sense, he’s correct that not all conservatives are racists, but by downplaying the importance race plays in shaping the politics of the modern American Right, he’s missing out on how the long shadow of racialism still casts over the American body politic.
* See George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1, 6, 9.