Home > Political > Invisible Racism

Invisible Racism

A recent change in my schedule giving me Fridays off has led to what I think will be a good blogging routine of Friday and Saturday devoted to specific news-of-the-week topics and Sunday to a more broad, universal issue. As such I’ll close out this blogging weekend with a look at the issue of race and how it lies hidden beneath many of the opinions held by conservatives. Almost all of them will swear they’re not racists, and I believe that they believe they’re sincere about this, but on closer examination you’ll often find racism lurking just below the surface.

As any avid viewer of The Young Turks is aware, a couple of recent studies have indicated that bias against members of another ethnic group can exist subconsciously. In one study, subjects were shown videos of a hand being pricked with a needle and had their brain waves monitored to indicate the level of empathy they felt. When the hand being pricked was of the same color as the subject’s, more empathy was felt in most cases. Another study was less subconscious, as they tested whether black people have a harder time selling things online by posting ads on sites like Craig’s List or ebay in which either a white hand or a black hand was holding an Ipod to be sold. Not only did black sellers receive fewer responses than white sellers, but buyers were less likely to use their own name and more likely to express concern about making long-distance payments when contacting a black seller.

I doubt that any of the people who withheld their names or expressed concern about payments to the black sellers believe that they are racists. And I’m sure if you came right out and asked them, “Do you think white people are superior to black people?” they would say no, of course not. But there’s still no denying that racism was a factor in their behavior.

I believe that racism is also a huge subconscious factor when it comes to many people’s political beliefs. They might not recognize the racism, and they’ll almost certainly deny that it’s there, but it is there whether acknowledged or not. I’ll look at five major conservative attitudes or opinions in which racism is a factor—I’m sure you can probably think of many more.

1- Opposition to welfare

It’s a perfectly legitimate position to be opposed to welfare, but how much of that opposition is a result of an underlying psychological connection between the word “welfare” and the image of an overweight black person sitting on a couch all day? That’s the image that pops into my head when I hear that word because I grew up among conservatives who overtly associated welfare with black people. I’m sure not everyone has that association, but I can assure you from firsthand experience that a whole lot of people do.

We can argue about the underlying principles behind liberalism and conservatism all day, and conservatives can make some legitimate points about how people who refuse to get a job should not be entitled to a portion of the earnings of those who work hard, but when all is said and done I think we all feel better off with some kind of social safety-net than we would without one. Not everyone on welfare is just leeching off the system—some people are just genuinely down on their luck, and since we all might find ourselves in that position due to circumstances beyond our control (just ask a Louisiana fisherman) I think we could all agree that welfare is necessary.

But there are those who go to the extreme and rail against any government assistance programs whatsoever. Some of these people will come right out and say that they don’t want no goddamned ACORN taking the white man’s money and handing it out to black folks. Most of them won’t be so explicit, but I would definitely wager that somewhere in the back of their minds is the same sentiment. If you passed around a collection tray to help out a white family down on its luck, I’m sure they’d give without reservation. But say that the donations are for a black family and they’ll instinctively feel put off. Those black folks get enough help from the government with their affirmative action and social assistance programs, so why should they give them any more help?

2- Immigration furor

When it comes to immigration, racism is hardly hidden at all. Right-wing radio commentators don’t even bother to hide their hatred of Mexicans, cracking racial slurs and jokes whenever the issue is brought up. But there are plenty of commentators who insist that this is purely an issue of principle and that they have nothing but sympathy for Mexicans who come to this country in search of a better life.

It has nothing to do with race, they insist. It’s just that when people come here illegally, they take jobs from legal residents and enjoy the benefits of taxpayer-funded institutions including schools and hospitals. Well, most American citizens probably aren’t interested in working out in the fields or cleaning hotel rooms for a living, and even illegal immigrants pay taxes so I’m not sure how much force those two arguments have. It’s certainly unfair that some people wait years to immigrate legally while others just bypass the law altogether, and there’s no doubt that having a significant portion of illegal workers willing to work for below minimum wage drives wages down for everyone—but these problems can be addressed in a sane and rational manner.

But the conservatives’ solution to the problem is just to round up all the brown people and ship them back to Mexico if they can’t produce proof of citizenship (and then build a big fence to keep them there). You can’t honestly believe that there’s no element of racism behind the support for Arizona’s new “papers, please” legislation. If the law mandated that everyone be asked to produce proof of citizenship, support would plummet. It only remains popular because white folks know that they won’t be suspected of being illegal and won’t be harassed. They just don’t care if Mexicans are harassed, even if many of them are hard-working citizens.

3- Torture and denial of rights

In the same way most conservatives can’t or won’t put themselves in the shoes of a Mexican immigrant, they refuse to put themselves in the shoes of an Arab who might have been falsely accused of terrorism, thrown into Guantanamo for years without a trial and subject to torture. Even if the Arab in question didn’t personally commit an act of terrorism, conservatives seem to feel, they probably support those who do. After all, they were dancing in the streets after 9/11.

They just can’t seem to get past the idea that Muslim = Terrorist. As such, they’re all for racial profiling at airports, the denial of Miranda rights, and even outright torture of terror suspects with names like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab or Faisal Shahzad. Ask them if you think the same should be done with white terrorists with names like Tim McVeigh or Joe Stack.

It used to be that Americans across the political spectrum were opposed to torture because it was against the principles which America supposedly stands for. But since 9/11 there has been a massive wave of anti-Muslim sentiment and the demonization of anyone from the Middle East. We used to put ourselves in the position of the person being tortured, understanding that no matter how great their crimes might have been there’s no justification for inflicting that kind of suffering. But conservatives are either unwilling or unable to put themselves in the position of a Muslim being waterboarded. No sympathy is felt. It could be argued that anyone who carries out an attack that kills innocent civilians deserves no sympathy, but it’s hard to see anyone being tortured and feel nothing at all. I suspect conservatives would sympathize with a white terrorist under torture, whereas they couldn’t care less about a brown one.

4- New Orleans apathy

It’s been awhile since Hurricane Katrina, but immediately afterwards there was no doubt that conservatives were tripping over themselves to blame the victims. New Orleans has a high black population, and it seemed that most of the people caught in the storm were black. Why didn’t they just get out? They were stupid enough to stay behind, so they deserved whatever they got. How dare they demand that the government be quicker in its response? Can you believe the sense of entitlement of these people?

Conservatives would snicker whenever a black face came on the TV to complain about the government’s pitiful response, as if in the same position they wouldn’t be on TV complaining just as loudly. If it had been a rural town full of white folks trapped on their rooftops, however, I’ll bet they would have been just as adamant in their demands to get those people some assistance and just as outraged when that assistance didn’t come fast enough.

Today we’ve got an oil-spill threatening to destroy the marshlands that serve as a natural barrier for New Orleans in a hurricane, and still nobody cares. They probably feel that those black people who are stupid enough to still be living there deserve whatever they get.

5- Obama hatred

As anyone familiar with my blog knows, I’m no big fan of Obama, but I try to keep my criticisms based in fact. As much as the Tea Party shouts and screams about how it’s not racist and their opposition to Obama is rooted purely in policy, any actual look at Obama’s policies would reveal how hollow such claims are.

They decry him for being a socialist when all he does is bend over backwards to private industry. They accuse him of being soft on terror when he continues to fight Bush’s wars, leave Guantanamo and Bagram open, and agrees to military tribunals for terror suspects. They say he wants to take their guns away when he’s done absolutely nothing to touch the second amendment. They scream about how he’s redistributing the wealth from the rich to the poor (read: black) when all of his policies actually serve to solidify the system that funnels wealth from the lower classes to the upper.

Just admit it already. You hate him because he’s black. You can’t stand the fact that a negro is your representative to the world. Obviously, he didn’t earn the job. It was affirmative action and the liberal media that put him where he is. He’s not smart—he just reads from a teleprompter. He’s actually the most incompetent president we’ve ever had.

All of these nonsense criticisms of Obama must be rooted in something, and reality surely isn’t it. Almost nothing of substance has changed in this country since Obama took office, and yet all these people are just now taking to the streets to yell and scream in protest. As far as I can tell, the only major difference between this administration and the last is the color of the president’s skin. Sure, there are minor differences in terms of tone and substance and Obama’s policies are a bit more liberal than Bush’s, but not nearly enough to justify the over-the-top hyperventilating from the right. If we had a white president doing exactly the same things that Obama is doing, you’d have to be in serious denial to believe there would be just as much momentum behind the Tea Party movement as there is now.


To be called a “racist” is now one of the most offensive things you can be called in America, and in many ways that’s a good thing. It’s nice that we no longer live in a time when you can be proud to be a racist and celebrate your racism as a virtue. But on the other hand, it forces racism below the radar to hide in the cracks of our political discourse where it can’t be confronted so easily.

Nobody wants to be called a racist, so almost nobody admits to racism. They’ll deny it to everybody including themselves, but it can’t be escaped. So much of the feelings that lie behind conservative opinions are inextricably bound up with race whether they like it or not. I think they should have to acknowledge it.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.