Saturday, January 27, 2007

The New Racism: Beyond Rush

I mentioned the other day a trend in right-wing comentary, staking out positions that, if not overtly racist, at least seek to resurrect some of the hoary mythology of the era of white supremacy. As with most of right-wing race rhetoric of the past twenty years, it's all done with a certain level of plausible deniability, couched in "jokes" or abstrations that let the speakers feign indignation when the racism is pointed out; the current trend is only slightly more overt in its racism, but the underlying sentiments aren't hard to read.

It's a step beyond wink-and-nudge racism -- or, perhaps, more like that point in the winking and nudging when the winker begins nudging harder and harder.

We get it, we get it.

A lot of it is building off memes that have been floating about the right for some time now: racism is a dead letter and doesn’t really exist anymore, multiculturalism is a travesty, and efforts to defeat racism are racist themselves.

The latest in this parade is GOP presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo, who proclaimed this week that the Congressional Black Caucus was a racist enterprise:
White House hopeful Tom Tancredo said Thursday the existence of the Congressional Black Caucus and other race-based groups of lawmakers amounts to segregation and should be abolished.

"It is utterly hypocritical for Congress to extol the virtues of a colorblind society while officially sanctioning caucuses that are based solely on race," said the Colorado Republican, who is most widely known as a vocal critic of illegal immigration.

"If we are serious about achieving the goal of a colorblind society, Congress should lead by example and end these divisive, race-based caucuses," said Tancredo, who is scheduled pitch his longshot presidential bid this weekend in New Hampshire.

Why, what on earth could blacks possibly want to have their own caucus for? After all, color-blindness is not only a fait accompli in modern society, but the only people preventing us from really achieving it are minorities who insist on seeing racism everywhere! Right?

As I noted just a bit ago:
[Martin Luther] King understood that this was not a semantical abstract, a zero-sum game in which merely declaring the law color-blind would make society so. His goal was not merely an abstract notion of color-blindness, but a functioning color-blind society. He understood, naturally, that you can't simply snap your fingers, declare the laws and the government "color blind," and actually achieve it as a reality overnight.

He understood that one could not, by flipping a switch, overcome decades of acculturation that punished blacks for succeeding -- nothing attracted a lynch crowd, after all, quite like an "uppity" black who improved his lot -- and bred a culture that avoided success on white men's terms. Neither could one simply pass a law and alter decades of social mythology that held black people as innate inferiors and created layers of discrimination that persist even today.

He knew, all too well, that these conditions had created a social infrastructure that could not be changed overnight. That the whole network of connections that are the cornerstone to success in modern American society was built, like suburbs in which they thrive, to favor whites and exclude blacks. And that none of those barriers could be taken down overnight -- indeed, they would not fall without a concerted effort to tear them down, one requiring a good-faith effort on the part of every party, all aimed at creating a truly color-blind society.

Tancredo, of course, has a history of this sort of thing (remember when he called Miami a "third world country"?).

Joining him among the hard nudgers on the right was John Derbyshire at National Review, pining for the days when you could have all-white lunch counters:
One of the lesser evils of our age is the passing of "anti-discrimination" laws by legislators in democratic countries. These laws amount to systematic destruction of the principle of freedom of association. While governments should of course treat all citizens impartially, legislators have no business telling citizens whom we may do business with, rent a room to, hire, fire, or engage in any other private transaction with.

This isn't a new argument, of course -- it was the one most commonly proffered by conservatives during the civil-rights era to justify segregation in the South, including the profusion of all-white residential areas -- otherwise known as sundown towns -- and all-white organizations and facilities, such as golfing country clubs.

Nor is its revival particularly new. I've heard Michael Medved, on his radio show, rail against anti-discrimination along precisely these same lines -- though his argument was based on his ruminations about why discrimination against homosexuals should be permitted.

Derbyshire has also been leading the parade in another discussion at National Review, this one trying to resuscitate the dessicated corpse of eugenics, which morphed into an avid discussion of the virtues of said "science." Derbyshire asserted:
Private, commercial eugenics is here, though. It already has a foot in the door, & pretty soon it'll be sprawled on your living-room couch. My children (probably) and my grandchildren (certainly) will practice eugenics.

Andrew Stuttaford chimed in:
Derb, you're absolutely right that this is an issue that will soon (again) be with us, and you're also absolutely correct that the horrified cry of "eugenics" should not, as is too often the case, be allowed to conclude the discussion then and there. Of course, outside the lunatic fringe, nobody can deny that the bestial excesses carried out in the first half of the last century in the name of eugenics (or, more often, junk eugenics) were not only a disgrace, but a warning for the future. At the same time, to argue that this should make the whole science a taboo is an idea that belongs, alongside poor, deluded Wiliam Jennings Bryan, in the dustbin of history. Like almost any science, eugenics can be used for good and for bad, the question is who is to define which is which.

This is along the traditional argument one hears from National Review writers, including XX back in 2000, to wit, that eugenics and racism are perfectly acceptable as private practices:
The tragedy of that story lies not in the science behind eugenics, but in the politics: It is the coercion that was wrong.

Actually, it's important to understand that the state coercion was wrong, but so was the "science" of eugenics -- in important ways that have to do with the nature of science itself. That is, its "data" and underlying observations were predicated on biases that rendered its outcomes in a predictably biased fashion; which is to say, it was less a science than a reinforcement of bigotry dressed up in academic clothing.

Eugenics was no more a serious "science" than phrenology, which posited that the shape and features of the human skull could reveal all kinds of behavioral tendencies. (Indeed, phrenology drew much of its data from eugenicists.) So at least a portion of the tragedy has to do with the lives that were ruined by the choices made for them by well-meaning people misinformed by a bogus non-science, within the public and the private spheres.

What Derbyshire and his Cornermates thereafter describe as "eugenics," that is, mate selection and prenatal genetic manipulation, is simple genetics. And all of the ensuing discussion, insofar as it recognizes that there are real limits to what can be accomplished through mate selection, is more usefully described within the very real science of genetics and not the pseudo-science of eugenics.

What's especially ironic is that all of this discussion is being raised by people with a record of attacking multiculturalism -- which, historically speaking, was the response to white supremacism and eugenics and became the worldview that replaced them. What we've been hearing, in a steady drumbeat from the right, is the notion that "multiculturalism is a failure" -- though notably, while unsparing in their critique, they have been discreet about what they would replace it with.

Now, evidently, we're finding out: a "new eugenics," to go right alongside a new kind of racism. It's all justified, you see, because multiculturalism has failed -- all it's done, they tell us, is make us more ethnically divided.

Nowhere in the discussion, of course, is even a glimmer of recognition that white people invented this ethnic balkanization over a century ago, instituted it for the better part of that century, and only recently have begun taking steps towards dismantling those institutions – many of which indeed persist well into this century. Nowhere is there a recognition of their own culpability, and responsibility to deal with minorities in good faith, instead of attempting to strip them of what few advances they have made in the intervening years.

The "multiculturalism is a failure" meme began to morph during the Katrina disaster, when it again became fashionable for right-wing talkers to indulge in overt race-baiting, associating poor blacks with criminality and thuggishness while excusing the Bush administration’s non-response -- and then, when called on it, to charge their accusers themselves with "race baiting."

We’ve also had people like Shelby Steele arguing that not only is multiculturalism a bad thing, but it's produced "white guilt" that is keeping us from "doing what we need to do" to win wars in places like Iraq and Vietnam. Steele doesn't spell out for us "what we need to do," but presumably it entails eliminationist violence of the kind that was featured in so many previous American victories over brown people.

Arguments like Tancredo's and Derbyshire's, of course, are only slightly more polite reformulations of a core attitude among conservatives, one that Michael Savage's rant about civil rights finally laid out in explicit terms:
But basically, if you're talking about a day like today, Martin Luther King Junior Day, and you're gonna understand what civil rights has become, the con it's become in this country. It's a whole industry; it's a racket. It's a racket that is used to exploit primarily heterosexual, Christian, white males' birthright and steal from them what is their birthright and give it to people who didn't qualify for it.

Take a guess out of whose hide all of these rights are coming. They're not coming out of women's hides. Are they? No, there's only one group that's targeted, and that group are white, heterosexual males. They are the new witches being hunted by the illiberal left using the guise of civil rights and fairness to women and whatnot.

Conservatives who pooh-pooh the growing prevalence of this kind of talk like to suggest that it only lives on the fringes, that the American right now is racially enlightened and truly color blind – that this rhetoric is just entertainment, and doesn’t play out in the real world.

So then, why do we also keep reading about college students seemingly inspired by the spread of attitudes like Savage's?
DALLAS - Authorities at Tarleton State University said they plan to investigate a Martin Luther King Jr. Day party that mocked black stereotypes by featuring fried chicken, malt liquor and faux gang apparel.

... Photographs posted on social networking Web site showed partygoers wearing Afro wigs and fake gold and silver teeth. One photo showed students "mocking how African-Americans do step shows," Elder said. In another picture, a student is dressed as Aunt Jemima and carries a gun.

Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and John Derbyshire are constantly talking about how young people need role models. Obviously, they're doing a bang-up job of that all on their own. Moreover, I think we can assume that they're leaving an impression on more than mere college kids.

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