Center for American Progress

Racism Is Impossible to Prove, But History Provides Insight

Racism Is Impossible to Prove, But History Provides Insight

Amid charges of racism and reverse racism, only time will tell how history will judge today’s political figures.

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President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the economy at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Virginia, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the economy at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Virginia, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Aaron Blake, a reporter who covers national politics for The Washington Post’s blog “The Fix,” noted in a recent column that President Barack Obama has recently begun to personalize congressional Republicans’ steady opposition to his policy proposals. In a series of recent speeches, the president has gone beyond the typical give and take of partisan sniping to hint that something darker and more sinister may lie behind the hard time that many Republicans in Congress are giving him.

“He has suggested on multiple occasions that Republicans aren’t just opposing him out of partisanship, but out of personal animus or spite,” Blake wrote in a post with the headline “Obama’s new argument: Republicans are picking on me because they don’t like me.”

At the heart of the president’s argument is his presumption of conservative motives. And let’s be frank about it, even if the commander in chief won’t: There’s an odor of racism that fouls the air around much of the conservative opposition. This view is shared by a great number of progressives, including some prominent figures who have dared to express it, including former President Jimmy Carter, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC.

And, of course, conservatives are loath to agree. Right-wing television talking head and syndicated columnist George Will dismissed the racism charges in a recent appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” saying that liberals overuse claims of racism because he thinks they have nothing else to offer society. “There’s an old saying in the law,” Will said during the broadcast. “If you have a law on your side, argue the law; if you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. If you have neither, pound the table. This is pounding the table.”

Proving racism is, in a practical sense nowadays, impossible. Legislators can claim with popular support to be taking a principled stand against, say, the Affordable Care Act or curbing federal spending without ever talking about how their positions disproportionately affect communities of color. Then, if challenged, they claim to be victims of reverse racism.

I believe that’s a dodge, a way of avoiding the unpleasantness of being called a racist and slinging that muddy clump back at the person who tossed it first. But what if I’m wrong? Who can say with absolute authority what feeling or reasoning flows through the hearts and minds of the Obama administration’s opponents? What if their claims of pure racial motives, so convincing nowadays to those predisposed to believe them, are accurate?

History has a way of providing insight, if not perfect answers.

In early 1938, a backbench Democratic senator from Mississippi named Theodore Bilbo made his mark on Washington, D.C., by leading a delegation of fellow Southerners in opposition to an anti-lynching bill. Such legislation, urged on by leaders of the NAACP and other civil rights activists of the time, had failed repeatedly since the early 1920s, but it was expected to pass this time.

It didn’t. Sen. Bilbo and his confederates engaged in one of the longest, hate-filled filibusters in Senate history. At one point, as historian Robert L. Fleegler wrote in the spring 2006 edition of The Journal of Mississippi History, Sen. Bilbo declared from the Senate floor:

If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and the outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon white Southern men will not tolerate.

In his day and in his home state, Sen. Bilbo was a hero to many of his constituents. He was seen as a principled leader who represented the will of his electorate. By today’s standards, however, he was a straight-up, fire-breathing white supremacist—a racist. It is because of legislators such as Sen. Bilbo that the Senate apologized in 2005 for its repeated failure to pass anti-lynching legislation.

History has harshly judged Sen. Bilbo. His rancorous words and behavior seem absurd from today’s point of view—and, to be fair, were much more severe than the veiled racism that some accuse modern conservatives of employing. But as I listen to the ping-pong political debates that bounce from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, I wonder how history will ultimately judge the actions and inactions of our modern-day leaders. Will these politicians and pundits seem just as absurd a century from now? What’s more, judging by their words and actions, I’m little convinced that today’s legislators even care about what future historians will say of their brief moments in office.

But rest assured that in due time, whether any of us live long enough to see it, the truth will one day be clear for all to know.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050. Orlando White, an intern with Progress 2050, contributed to this column.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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