One of the most interesting—and perhaps bedeviling—linguistic transformations in American politics is conservatives’ recent adoption of anti-racism vocabulary. Even more interesting is that they have done so in ways that, when used in the past by liberals, led conservatives—with some justification—to accuse their opponents of “playing the race card.”
When George W. Bush nominated the extreme right-wing judge Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2003, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) warned progressives that rejecting this one nominee “would be to shut the door on the American dream of Hispanic Americans everywhere.”
Later, in Bush’s second term, when he put Alberto Gonzales up to be attorney general, Grassley’s colleague, conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) took the same tack and declared, “Every Hispanic in America is watching,” as if heritage were a more pertinent question for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer than his views or ability to do the job. Similar claims were also made during the nomination hearings of African-American Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State and Italian-American Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court.
Yet when Gonzales’ tenure proved a casastrophe to the point of becoming a national punch-line, Rush Limbaugh took it a step further by lashing out and saying that Gonzales was “under fire by white liberal racists in the Senate.”
Conservative claims such as these represent exactly the kind of “If you disagree with me, you’re a racist” moral bullying that so many people rightly criticized in liberals for so many years ago. It reduces a complex individual to single characteristic and privileges that characteristic above all others. Ironically, it is a deeply racist way of looking at things, which is one reason it can be so infuriating. (Another is that even if one supports affirmative action, some jobs are just too important to be subject to it.)
The grand-daddy of this kind of rhetoric reappeared this week when Clarence Thomas began promoting his million-dollar memoir and reiterated his accusations that liberals and champions of civil rights are no better than “high-tech lynch mob”—failing to notice just who it had been who defended blacks against real lynch mobs in the south.
He spends particular time in his memoir discussing the harassment brought forward by Anita Hill during his 1991 confirmation hearings. He calls Anita Hill a “combative left-winger” who was “touchy” and prone to overreacting to “slights”—much the same language that racist whites used to use about blacks.
Hill’s account of her relationship with Thomas has been corroborated in many places, including the well-researched book by Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer. And David Brock has admitted that his version, which tracked that of Thomas, was made up from whole cloth. Still, the myth persists and the tactic continues to be effective.
No less frequently, the conservative attitude toward continuing racial discrimination on the basis of race in America can be summed up with one phrase: “Shut up already.” (The Bush administration has actually redirected much of the work of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division to cases of alleged religious prejudice—almost always involving members of its fundamentalist base.)
A typical example of the right-wingers’ attitude toward continuing bias can be found in a column by U.S. News and World Report pundit Michael Barone, who wrote, following the 2004 election, that he was “struck” by how black Americans were “motivated not by ideas about how to change the future, but by something like nostalgia for the past.”
Barone noted that the 88-11 percent margin for Kerry over Bush among black voters, in the 2004 National Exit Poll was roughly equivalent to the margin by which blacks favored Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964 and every Democratic candidate since. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, and Barone notes, “That was a big issue, then….But the Civil Rights Act has long since become uncontroversial, racial discrimination disapproved and integration of schools, workplaces and public accommodations widely accepted. Yet 40 years later, the image of the Republican Party as unsympathetic to equal rights for blacks seems to persist. Black voters seem still focused on a moment in history 40 years ago.”
Like so many conservatives and media pundits, Barone seems to think that racism in our society is an issue that belongs in the past now that the Civil Rights Act has become part of law. That’s that, and black Americans and other minorities need to get with the program and stop whining so much.
As educational scholar Richard Rothstein explains, “The premise that racial discrimination has been erased and that the remaining reason for differences in the relative earnings of blacks and whites is a difference of skills has become an article of faith among conservatives.” Princeton sociologist Doug Massey also notes, “Strong social scientific evidence exists showing that relatively high rates of discrimination persist in markets for housing, lending, and employment by far the most important markets for achieving socioeconomic mobility in the United States.”
Yet even when confronted with the evidence, conservatives somehow imagine their own experiences as somehow more significant. When Bill O’Reilly faced a scholar on his own program who was able to cite studies of systemic prejudice against Blacks and Hispanics in the United States, the host retorted: “I don’t believe it. I think your documentation is anecdotal. … It doesn’t matter whether they’re studies or not. It’s anecdotal.”
Indeed, the only prejudice that these conservatives recognize is the one they perceive to be system-wide against themselves. Again, O’Reilly provides a picture-perfect illustration of the purposeful know-nothingism that he and so many right-wing blowhards have made their personal calling cards. During the same broadcast, while continuing to dismiss the relevant social science research as “anecdotal,” O’Reilly did complain that when he first “was in [news] corporations,” the executives allegedly decided they were “not gonna let O’Reilly anchor” because he “was from Levittown [New York], a working-class Irish—they call them shanty Irish—background.” According to O’Reilly, “they” decided to give “anchor” positions to “Stone [Phillips] or Forrest [Sawyer],” which was “bigotry against” O’Reilly because he was “better than those people.”
Of course, as Media Matters reported in discussing O’Reilly’s recent dinner with Rev. Al Sharpton at the Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s, O’Reilly admitted that he “couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship.” O’Reilly then helpfully added: “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.’” Later on, he clarified the news, saying that African-Americans are “finally” beginning to “think for themselves.”
You’d never know it from Bill O’Reilly’s goofy condescension/victimization, but as both individuals and corporations grow more sophisticated in their ability to mask deliberate racial discrimination, the phenomenon becomes harder to demonstrate as a matter of law, or even journalism. Almost every day, those of us who are impressed by evidence find ourselves confronted by extremely worrisome examples of pervasive racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States.
Without the continuing power of institutional racism, Florida conservatives would never have been able to disenfranchise black voters during the 2000 elections by, in Doug Massey’s words, “systematically allocating older, error-prone voting machines to black precincts; by illegally purging black voters from registration rolls through a variety of ruses; by systematically blocking the access of African Americans to polling places through police activity; and by blanketing black precincts with direct mail and fliers announcing that it was illegal for anyone arrested for a ‘crime’ (as opposed to convicted of a felony) to vote and that ‘illegal’ voting would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law (thus frightening many would-be voters).”
Another example of the continuing power of both personal and institutional racism is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, staffed by Bush appointees. The Commission found that the Kodak Corporation was paying black workers less than similarly situated whites, promoting them less frequently, and either harassing or firing them should they complain.
Sure, Kodak may have been an exception to the rule, but a black job seeker might well consider that such treatment is the norm rather than the exception. Author Andrew Hacker notes that studies comparing black and white job seekers with identical résumés who apply for publicly advertised jobs have found incontrovertible evidence of “systemic discrimination that cannot be attributed to differences in skills between comparably educated blacks and whites.”
One study, undertaken by the Urban Institute in Chicago and in Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s, spent the time and money to train applicants for jobs with nearly identical résumés to present themselves in exactly same way in their interviews. The result: Black males were three times as likely to be rejected as white males.
Other studies have found that among applicants who were offered jobs, whites were offered higher salaries. And another study discovered that whites’ applications were more successful than blacks’ even when the whites had criminal records and the otherwise identical blacks did not. And when we read a story about say, a sorority at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, ejecting every single black, Korean, Vietnamese, and overweight member from their group residence, does anyone really think that racism plays no significant role in the lives of its potential victims?
Even these stories appear rather mild when compared with one that took place in September 2006 in the town of Jena, Louisiana, which I wrote about last week.
What’s more, take a look at some of the “anecdotes” rejected by the likes of O’Reilly. Black median family income, which is now 62 percent of white income, is up only slightly from 58 percent 30 years ago. The median net worth of black families is still only 8 percent of whites’. Black families are more than six times more likely to file for bankruptcy than whites, and far fewer are covered by employer-sponsored health care or private pension plans.
Lest the reader think the problem lies with blacks per se, we should note that while net worth increased 17 percent for white households from 1996 to 2002, it increased only 4 percent for Hispanic homes to about a mere $7,900. This is a better outcome than that for blacks, whose average net worth actually fell by 16 percent during the period to roughly $6,000. But it doesn’t bespeak anything remotely representative of the American dream of equal opportunity for all either.
Is racism really over? Is it time for blacks to throw their lot in with the likes of their putative champions on the right?
Politically speaking, as The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson points out, “Black America has never been monolithic in its views, but black Americans do vote almost monolithically for liberal candidates. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case if Richard Nixon hadn’t built an electoral strategy on a race-based appeal to Southern whites—and if every conservative presidential candidate since Nixon hadn’t followed suit.
Harry Dent, the author of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” happened to pass away this week. Reflecting on his new mission in life, Mr. Dent acknowledged in a 1981 interview with The Washington Post that he had regrets: “When I look back, my biggest regret now is anything I did that stood in the way of the rights of black people,” he said.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.