One of the subtexts running through the current meta-debate between the Left and the Right is a constant volleying back and forth of accusations and refutations of racism. The Left accuses the Right of racism for a variety of reasons that I partially capture below. The Right indignantly denies it, retaliating with accusations back, insisting that “playing the race card” is the real expression of racism.
Personally, I think this discussion is generally overdone and often distracting, but the thread of validity in the criticism by the Left of the Right, and the reinforcement of irrationality and counterfactuality in the Right’s response, motivates me to give it a comprehensive treatment.
First, it is important to explore the concept of “racism” itself. If, by “racism,” we mean only explicit, overt, self-conscious antipathy toward members of another race, then I’d say that only a small minority of politically active people of either major partisan camp are “racist.” The vast majority denounce such crude racism, and the extant but dwindling population of such unreconstituted racists in the population at large are not a significant political force anymore.
Before I turn to the more implicit forms of racism that I think do continue to play a significant, if not central, role in political affairs, I’d like to emphasize that I think that the ideological thread most prominent in right-wing thought isn’t racism proper at all, but rather what I’ll call “quasi-racism,” an intense in-group/out-group bias, informing a set of beliefs and positions that are very tribalistic, and very dismissive of “the other.” The antagonistic attitude toward numerous non-racial outgroups (though sometimes with strong racial associations), such as gays, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, foreigners in general, the poor, atheists, and, basically, anyone who isn’t perceived to be an in-group member, is one of the most prominent defining characteristics of modern right-wing thought.
Explicit racism, however, is not absent from the right-wing echo-chamber. On a Facebook thread following one posting of the statistic that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be the instrument of the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense, for instance, one commenter responded to another by referring to “a group of n*****s raping your boyfriend” (the point being that you’d want to have a gun handy in that apparently representative scenario). On another thread at another time, a southern Tea Partier included among the problems besetting us “ungrateful blacks.” These are not isolated examples: While such explicit expressions of racism are not the norm, they recur at a constant rate on such threads, always, of course, by right-wing commenters slipping over a line many others approach without crossing.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, there was a Facebook wall post of a news story about a trio of ”scary” black violent offenders, apparently being used to make the argument that it is understandable that armed vigilantes should go out in their neighborhoods and pursue unarmed black teens walking home from the store –even if the price of such “liberty” is the occasional shooting death of one such unarmed black teen– because, in their unself-aware but deep-rooted world view, it’s rational to be afraid, it’s rational to presume that a hoodie-wearing black teen walking through your neighborhood is up to no good, and so it is, implicitly, rational to provoke a deadly encounter with said black teen under those circumstances.
In other words, the right-wing insistence that it’s a non-issue that their ideology can lead to instances of overzealous vigilantes pursuing and killing unarmed black teens walking home from the store is an astounding illustration of an underlying –and effectively racist– defect in their ideology. (The contention that it’s a non-issue because it was allegedly self-defense on the shooter’s part neglects the fact that the alleged need for self-defense was indisputably created by the decision to go out with a gun and pursue the arbitrarily “suspicious looking” unarmed black teen in the first place.)
These same people champion Jim-Crow-like voter suppression laws (on a discredited pretext and repeatedly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional), use code words like “Chicago politics” and “ACORN” and other allusions to blacks-as-inherently-corrupt, advocate discrimination against Muslims (and denial of their first amendment freedom of religion rights), frequently vilify and denegrate Hispanics, want to deny civil rights to gays, and, in general, are committed to a tribalistic orientation to the world, in which the small in-group of overwhelmingly white, mostly male, almost exclusively Judeo-Christian bigots opposes the rights and aspirations of the myriad out-groups surrounding them, denying the reality of a legacy of historical injustices and of current inequities, fighting for a regressive, aggressive, compassionless, irrational, barbaric society, in which those who feel well-served by the status quo (or, more precisely, by the status quo of a previous era) fight to recover an archaic -if all too recent– social order more preferential to their in-group statuses.
And they do so by disregarding fact and reason; by dismissing as bastions of liberalism precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information (which, as a liberal, I take as a complement and as an affirmation of how much more rational our ideology is than theirs); by selecting, revising, and ignoring historical data to serve their fabricated ideological narrative; by ignoring the weight of professional economic theory and analysis (prompting the free-market-advocacy Economist magazine to label them “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical”); by cherry-picking, reinterpreting, and selectively disregarding constitutional provisions and phrases in service to that same ideological narrative; and, in general, by defying fact and reason in service to ignorance and bigotry.
Whether we emphasize the racist overtones, the more explicit in-group/out-group tribalism in general, or just the prevailing ignorance and brutality of their ideology, the final evaluation is the same: It’s a perfect storm of organized irrationality in service to implicit and explicit inhumanity. And it’s not who and what we should choose to be as a people and a nation.
So, how much racism is there on the far right? It’s a moot point; the racism is enveloped by so much more that is the very cloth from which racism is cut that the accusation of racism is too narrow a focus and too much of a distraction. Emphasizing the broader irrational inhumanity that defines this ideological camp both captures and goes beyond the identification of the racist overtones within it.
(For more on these themes, see The New Face Of American Racism, The Tea Party’s Neo-”Jim Crow”, The History of American Libertarianism, The Presence of the Past, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, and “Sharianity”)