So Gerard Alexander writes this Washington Post editorial in which he begins by listing a bunch of racist acts by conservatives, and then denies that conservatives are racists by the simple expedient of changing the subject.
I actually find this editorial really confusing. I’m pretty sure nobody takes the strawman position that most of the editorial attacks, namely that all conservatives are racists. It’s easy to think of non-racist conservatives. Richard Nixon, for example, was an asshole but at least supported civil rights. It seems highly unlikely that William F. Buckley, Jr., or most of the prominent Republicanish judges (Richard Posner, Antonin Scalia, Alex Kozinski, etc.) are racists. Certainly the black folks in the Bush Administration (Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice etc.) aren’t racists. The list can go on.
But can Alexander really deny that the acts he lists right at the beginning of his editorial are racist? Really? Let list them.
- The Arizona immigration law. Basically requires cops to interrogate Latinos. There’s a bunch of the-lady-doth-protest-too-much stuff in there about not racial profiling, but does anyone want to make some wagers with me about any reliable statistics that eventually come out of this about the relationship between skin color and getting interrogated? Or speaking Spanish and getting interrogated? In fact, who wants to put 20 bucks or so on the proposition that if/when statistics come out (which admittedly is likely to be never), the coefficient on getting interrogated if you speak Spanish and/or appear Latino is larger than the coefficient on getting interrogated if you’re an undocumented immigrant (or even a legal immigrant)?
- Glenn Beck’s hijacking of the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech for a bunch of white conservatives to talk about Jesus and the military and how great our country is. Not racist in itself, but highly disrespectful to King’s legacy.
- The controversy over a Mosque in the former location of the World Trade Center. Manifestly, patently racist, or, at least, anti-Muslim, which is just as bigoted, albeit directed at religion rather than race. (And how convenient that it’s directed at a religion strongly associated with an ethnicity.)
It just goes on. So how does Alexander turn this list of infamies into a scold against the liberals? Well, here’s how:
As Dan Carter, George Wallace’s biographer, put it, “The Wallace music played on” in “Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, in Richard Nixon’s subtle manipulation of the busing issue, in Ronald Reagan’s genial demolition of affirmative action, in George Bush’s use of the Willie Horton ads, and in Newt Gingrich’s demonization of welfare mothers.” More recently, it continues through inflammatory campaign ads (“Harold, call me!”), offensive tea party signs, Rand Paul’s unusual-because-explicit skepticism about the Civil Rights Act — all the way to calls to end birthright citizenship for the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants and to keep Muslim worship well away from the nation’s hallowed ground in Lower Manhattan. In this interpretation, core conservative principles — limited government, tax cuts, welfare reform and toughness on crime — actually have race at their heart.
Do you see the move here? He’s attributing an argument to liberals that we don’t have. He’s handing us the inference from a bunch of patently racist things to the racism of “core conservative principles.”
But nobody actually says “tax cuts are racist because Ron Paul doesn’t like the civil rights act.” We do say that many of these “core conservative principles” are motivated in part by racism — think of how many racial associations are wrapped up in this “welfare mothers” business — which, whether Alexander likes it or not, is one of the big political tropes trotted out by supporters of “welfare reform.” Or think about how “toughness on crime” often becomes “toughness on crimes committed by poor black people, and ignoring crimes committed by rich white people,” or even explicit racial profiling. But this isn’t some kind of ambitious inference from isolated behaviors of conservative racism to the general proposition that conservatives are racists, to the claim that those particular policies are racist. Rather, the inference is from the direct evidence that those policies are motivated by racial animus (“welfare mothers”), or are implemented in highly racially disparate ways (“toughness on crime”) to, well, the fact that those particular policies — the policies that the evidence is about — are racist.
Thus, Alexander’s whole argument just misses the point. All his stuff about white southerners not driving Republican victories might be true. It doesn’t matter. The liberal claim that the opposition to the mosque at ground zero is racist doesn’t depend on Nixon’s southern strategy having worked. It depends on the fact that the only conceivable motivation for not wanting a mosque there is animus toward Muslims. Direct evidence that the policies themselves are racist. Not indirect evidence that conservatives in general are racist. Which, again, is a position that no level-headed liberal holds.*
Nor is this the only confusion in Alexander’s argument. Here’s what he says in particular about welfare “reform:”
In the decades that followed, the conservative policy platform became the new focus of liberal cries of racism. Critics such as Thomas and Mary Edsall interpreted the Reagan agenda’s major elements as indirect attempts to maintain white privilege: Tax cuts denied resources to a government that could be an agent of social change and lift up the underprivileged. Calls to limit government, especially federal power, stood to do the same. Reagan’s attacks on “welfare queens” emphasized negative images of minorities and ultimately helped end an entitlement for the neediest. Campaigns against crime refreshed stereotypes of threatening African Americans and imprisoned millions along the way. Criticism of affirmative action assaulted a major mechanism of workplace advancement for minorities and women.
These policy positions remain central to the conservative domestic agenda, but calling them racist, the third assumption, presumes something very strange: that conservatives do not mean what they say about them. Welfare reform is deliberately anti-black (or anti-minority or anti-poor) only if conservatives secretly believe that welfare actually does help its beneficiaries and are being deceitful when they argue that long-term dependency devastates inner-city communities.
But this betrays a complete ignorance about how racism works. A policy doesn’t need to actively constitute an attempt to hurt black people in order to be racist. Rather, the “welfare reform” movement trades on (appeals to, generates support by referring to) racist beliefs about black people — that black people are lazy, that black welfare mothers have lots of babies just to get money from the government — and that it’s the duty of the morally superior (white) majority to put a stop to it. You can hold those beliefs, and be racist because of it, even if you also hold the belief that ending welfare will be good for those receiving payments.**
There’s more. He defends the Arizona immigration law on the grounds that “shared cultural content” is necessary for civic virtues, and points to worries about even legal immigration and the concern for assimilation. But the same people who support the Arizona immigration law also support things like ending birthright citizenship, which can only impair the efforts of immigrants to assimilate. Moreover, this “assimilation” business is very hard to distinguish from simple cultural prejudice, which in turn is very hard to distinguish from racism. (The experiences of the Jews in Europe come to mind.)
Finally, there’s this:
The planned Islamic center near Ground Zero raises alarms, in part, because the insensitivity of its architects to 9/11’s emotional legacy suggests their deeper distance from American sensibilities.
Having a mosque there constitutes “insensitivity” to this “emotional legacy” only if the “emotional legacy” includes not liking Muslims. This is also the classic defense of the racist business owner: “I don’t hire black employees because they scare my customers away. It’s a shame that my customers are racists, but what can I do about it?”
* Well, many of us — myself included — believe we’re all subject to unconscious racism, and that the institutions we all participate in are themselves warped by racism. But no sane liberal believes that all conservatives are racists in the way that, say, Strom Thurmond was. And that’s the strawman position that Alexander seems bent on foisting on us.
** I vaguely recall some research from quite a while ago showing that the American public had a grossly distorted view of the relative numbers of black and white families on public assistance, incidentally — thinking that many more black people and many fewer white people than actually the case are on the dole. Does anyone have a reference to that?