Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The New Racism

I am writing a 2 part series placing the Tea Parties in historical perspective for Global Comment. In writing the first, I came up with the term "The New Racism" to describe conservative talking points on race in a post-civil rights era. Essentially, the code words such as "property rights," "individual responsibility," and "personal choice" that run through current conservative rhetoric:

While most Tea Party leaders dismiss the extreme racist rhetoric and signs as a few whackos, they certainly embrace what I call the New Racism. By this I mean the subtle shift in language necessitated by the Civil Rights Movement that the Right employs today to defend white privilege without resorting to overt racism.

Historian Kevin Kruse, in his excellent book on white resistance to civil rights, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, demonstrates that as traditional racism increasingly became unacceptable in American political discourse, Atlanta whites began using code words to express racist sentiments in ways that would attract larger numbers of voters made nervous by civil rights. Terms like “law and order,” “property values” and “individual rights” become synonymous with unofficial segregation and anti-black attitudes.

The New Racism profoundly changed American society. By campaigning on a platform of white rights veiled by the New Racism’s language, Ronald Reagan succeeded in pulling white voters from the industrial states of the North. These so-called Reagan Democrats wanted to keep their schools and neighborhoods white and to reject school desegregation.

Kruse points out that it’s hardly a coincidence that Newt Gingrich comes from the Atlanta suburbs. The Contract with America was an exercise in the New Racism, ensuring that the government did as little to break down white privilege as possible.

By framing health care as a privilege rather than as a right, the Tea Party suggests the same language used by opponents of school busing and welfare: that those who deserve don’t need government help and those who do need government help don’t deserve it because they don’t work hard enough. That most of the “undeserving” just happen to be black and brown reinforces what they already think about nonwhites.

With a likely fight coming over immigration, watching the Tea Party negotiate race will be fascinating. At the movement’s heart is a desire to keep America white-dominated. The claim that President Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible for the presidency comes from this sentiment. Tea Partiers simply cannot accept the idea that a non-white could lead this nation.

Immigration strikes straight to the heart of the Tea Party’s cultural concerns. Can their leaders keep the rhetoric within the boundaries of the New Racism, using “law and order” rhetoric to paint Latinos as gangsters who threaten our (white) neighborhoods or will anti-immigrant fervor lead to openly racist attacks?
I certainly didn't write any of the books that led me to this term, but I do think it's quite useful. Progressives have struggled to fight against the New Racism's power, which appeals to white privilege without directly addressing race. But those who coined these terms had race in their minds and those who responded to them did too. Ronald Reagan sure did when he gave his famous states rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where the 3 Freedom Summer workers were murdered in 1964. Newt Gingrich sure did when he wrote the Contract with America.

The New Racism manifests itself in many ways--school choice, the obsession with property values, including the rise of Neighborhood Watch in the 1980s; the differences in prison sentences for those convicted of possessing crack as opposed to cocaine, etc.

We've lost an understanding of what racism means in this country. We've forgotten that it's race hate combined with power. A white person being harassed in a black neighborhood is not experiencing racism--that person can call the police and get a response. My students refer to anything other than whatever they think of as Martin Luther King's dream as racism. Like with so many other words, conservatives have won the rhetorical war. We need to define racism as what it actually is and reclaim the rhetorical ground on moving toward real equality.

Maybe this term will help us do that.