American Racism

American racism is getting more coverage on the mainstream news than it has since the Civil Rights era.   And, that’s not surprising given antics like this image included in a mailing from the Chaffey Community Republican Women, a regional arm of the GOP in California (more on the story and image source here).  For her part, the group’s president, Diane Fedele, draws on the rhetoric of “race-blindness” to defend her actions.  She reportedly said that she received the illustration in a number of chain e-mails and decided to reprint it for her members in the group’s newsletter because she was offended that Obama would draw attention to his own race. She said she doesn’t think in racist terms, pointing out she once supported Republican Alan Keyes, an African-American who previously ran for president. She continues this “race-blind” rhetorical strategy when she says:

“I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,” she said. “It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.”

Now, the somewhat encouraging news is that lots of people are pointing out this overt racism and calling it what it is, including those on rather mainstream (albeit left-leaning) blogs and cable news networks.

However, the way stories like the one about the circulation of this image of “Obama bucks” are overly focused on individual racism, rooted in psychological explanations.  For example, Fedele made the top of Olbermann’s “Worst Person” list on his nightly broadcast, as have others in this political season who’ve been guilty of engaging in the most overt racist tactics.  And, in a perfectly fine piece at the Huffington Post, Peter Wolson has a thorough discussion of the psychology of “othering.”   I don’t disagree with either of these. Indeed, I welcome more discussion of American racism in as many venues as possible.  The problem with these is that the focus on the individual and psychological aspects of racism within a larger political discourse of “race-blindness” elides the way in which racism is systemic, built in, institutionalized, and structural.

The focus on the individual expressions of overt racism and the psychological roots of such expressions also forestall any sort of discussions about responses to racism by society as a whole. To illustrate this, note the contrasting response to individual racism in Denmark recently.  A 33-year-old woman was convicted under Danish laws against racism after posting racist remarks on her personal web page (she was given a fine).   Unfortunately, in the U.S. we seem reluctant to adopt such a societal-level response to overt expressions of racism, even in this political season and even when many, many people see such expressions as wrong and immoral.   Instead, there is a knee-jerk, libertarian response to any call for accountability under the law for such expressions in the United States.  In point of fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of decisions that restrict certain types of racist speech that don’t make a contribution to the public sphere.    Yet, prominent figures such as Rush Limbaugh, get away with what amounts to enciting racist hatred with their speech, such as this recent tirade against black children allegedly “raised as militants.”

Identifying individuals who engage in overt racism is important, and understanding the psychology of such expressions is valuable, but coming to terms with American racism takes much more than that.  And, dealing with it will require a broad-based political will and systemic social change.   We’re not there yet.