Dangers in Normalizing Racism: Trump Wildly Attacks Obama

Sometimes it seems that only late night comedians such as Seth Myers have nailed Donald J. Trump’s bigotry and normalization of racism. According to Myers,

We can’t become immune to it. We cannot allow it to become normalized.

Referring to Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about Muslim immigrants to the United States knowingly protecting terrorists, Myers noted, “To be clear, this is bigotry, plain and simple.”

The tepid reporting by most cable news and print commentators of Donald Trump’s latest inflammatory comments at a rally near Fort Lauderdale, Florida on August 10, 2016 declaring that President Barack Obama “honors Isis” and is the “founder of Isis” fails to identify the flagrantly racist nature of his most recent attack. In Trump’s words, President Obama “is the most valuable player” for Isis. Even a Trump supporter on a recent CNN broadcast, admitted that Trump’s emphasis on Obama’s middle name, Hussein, in the Fort Lauderdale rally, might have been designed to suggest that Obama is a foreign sympathizer.

After reiterating his claim of President Obama founding Isis several times on August 10 including during a news interview with conservative commentator, Hugh Hewitt, Trump backtracked the next day, declaring his remarks were simply “sarcasm” and adding “but not that sarcastic to be honest with you.”

Most subsequent news accounts of the rally have carefully avoided the mention of race and launched into extensive analyses of the ways in which Obama could or could not be deemed responsible for the rise of Isis. Even Hillary Clinton’s tweets in response to Trump’s commented were understated and did not mention the racist nature of these comments. As she wrote,

No, Barack Obama is not the founder of Isis. . . . Anyone willing to sink so low, so often should never be allowed to serve as our Commander-in Chief.

Ironically, relatively few commentators and mostly those from minority groups have zeroed in on the racist nature of Trump’s delegitimization of President Obama and the ways in which Trump has galvanized the anger of blue-collar and other white workers about their perceived loss of stature in an increasingly minority majority country. The New York Times Editorial Board on August 11 did identify Trump’s “racist rage” against the president as “appealing to the mob.”

Much earlier, during the Democratic primary race, Bernie Sanders keyed in on the “unprecedented level of obstructionism” against President Obama, naming the birther issue that Trump raised as specific evidence of what he termed “a racist effort.” As Sanders keenly observed,

No one has asked for my birth certificate. Maybe it’s the color of my skin, who knows?

The delegitimization of President Obama re-launched by Donald Trump draws on consistent themes that Trump has promoted for more than five years. Trump has repeatedly blasted President Obama as incompetent, a theme frequently leveled against minorities and women as underscored in recent sociological research. The implication that Obama is a secret Kenyan-born Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists labels the President as un-American, an outsider, and a foreigner. Add this to Trump’s call for a ban on immigration of Muslim immigrants and the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants from the United States; his declaration of Mexican immigrants as in many cases drug dealers, criminals, and racists; his reluctance to disavow the Klu Klux Klan; his criticism of the mother of Army Captain Humayun Khan; and the claim that Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased due to his Mexican heritage: it all adds up to a single, irrefutable refrain.

As Nicholas Kristoff concludes after analyzing four decades of a consistent pattern in Trump’s words and actions, “I don’t see what else to call it but racism.”

Our Post-Truth Culture: Institutional and Individual Consequences

This presidential election has become the perfect storm of “post-truth” politics and racism. It is reflected by the fact that an unqualified “know-nothing” like Trump could be nominated as the Republican presidential candidate. Trump’s disregard for ethics, extreme egoism, and racist solutions to complex policy problems, which include banning all Muslims, building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and bombing our enemies into the stone age, will have institutional and individual consequences if he is elected as the next president.

In an article entitled “Why We’re Post-Fact,” Pomerantsev states:

[W]hen Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully send ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate—then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free.

Indeed, facts must not matter with the American electorate as the latest polls show Clinton and Trump very close, with 44% of the public supporting Clinton and 41% supporting Trump. What are the consequences of voters’ preference for “truthiness” over facts and feelings over reason?

Institutionally, the normal “self-correcting” checks and balances and separate institutions we cherish aren’t working. Pomeranstsev argues that while politicians have always lied at least they used to care about constructing a coherent and logical narrative, but not anymore.

At the individual level, the consequence is allowing a new level of racism that was unacceptable. Now we see an increase in aggressive frontstage racism as opposed to what Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin have documented as backstage racism, the sort that used to take place among whites at a fraternity party. In our new era one doesn’t have to feel embarrassed for being openly anti-Muslim or anti-foreigners.

Institutionally: Trump is a presidential candidate who makes his employees sign non-disclosure statements and says he’d consider doing the same in the White House if elected president. Does Trump believe that forcing people who work for him to refrain from later criticizing him or his actions publically would be legal in his role as president? So much for the federal Freedom of Information Act, not to mention the First Amendment right to criticize public figures without being sued for both libel or slander established by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. In Sullivan the Supreme Court established the

principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.

Not so for Donald Trump. If Trump is elected we will see more than just constitutional First Amendment protections or public policies disregarded.

Some may question how much damage electing Trump for president can do. After all, the U.S. has survived bad presidents before. Some may even argue we have a constitutional framework of checks and balances and separation of powers that will serve as self-correctors in our system. Some may even contend that electing Trump will produce a counter-leftward political movement. As a good friend once said, “If we’re living through the 1950s again it must mean we’re going to have another 1960s.” Perhaps. However, because of the lack of importance on truth in our political climate this presidential election may show us that the normal “self-correcting” checks and balances and separate institutions we cherish aren’t enough to protect us against some real damage to our ideals and institutions.

Individually: This presidential election has also resulted in increases in open racism. It seems many Trump supporters feel liberated to openly and freely harm and insult people of color using Trump as a justification. For example, Isaac Chotiner made the point in Slate that anti-Muslim attacks are on the rise. Chotiner provides one example of a woman calling another woman “Muslim trash,” and a “terrorist,” before spilling a drink on her and stating she was going to vote for Trump because he would send Muslims away at a Starbucks in Washington D.C.

Another example where perpetrators of hate crimes have specifically mentioned Trump is the brutal attack in Boston on a homeless 58 year-old Latino that left him with a broken nose, battered body, and face drenched in urine. The two brothers who committed the hate crime claimed they targeted him because he was Latino and because they were “inspired” by Trump. These examples, while anecdotal, underscore the rise in hate groups since George W. Bush left office. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center hate groups, especially “Patriotic” white hate groups have been on the rise since the start of the Obama administration, and have been ticking upward since 2015. Trump’s white-framed racist and nativist presidential campaign will have negative consequences beyond this presidential election cycle for ethnic and racial communities.

This presidential election is operating in a political climate where substance and truth matter little. If we don’t start caring about facts and how we treat our fellow human beings regardless of their religion or race it will prove to cause long-term damage to our institutions and to race relations.

“Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter”: Latest Racial Battle over Language

Once again America is embroiled in a racial shouting match. We cannot even agree on how to talk about our latest racial crisis: the seemingly daily police and vigilante killings of unarmed African Americans.

This language battle was evident last spring after a group of students expressed both their concern about racial incidents at the University of Connecticut and their solidarity with the growing Black Lives Matter movement by painting “Racism at Storrs” and “Black Lives Matter” on the opposite sides of the campus “Spirit Rock” designated for student expression.

UConn Spirit Rock

(Image source)

Unfortunately, it did not take long for someone to paint over the words racism and Black to express their view that there is no racism on campus and that only color-blind language that declares “All Lives Matter” is allowed there. That language battle is reminiscent of the one anti-racists won on the same campus in the mid-1990s over whether the word “White” would be allowed in the title of the White Racism course I have taught there ever since.

What was especially sad about the most recent UConn battle over words, some two decades later, was how many European Americans, both on and off campus, supported that All Lives Matter brush over as they refused to acknowledge the simple fact that African Americans, in particular, are facing what seems to be an epidemic of killings by European-American men, both in and out of uniform. Think about it. The legitimate concerns of African Americans were literally painted over!

Driven by racism-evasive politics, the whitewashing of this nation’s serious racial crisis has also been thrust onto the national presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton was criticized for the same insensitivity by also framing the issue as one of All Lives Matter. Later, after declaring that “All Lives Matter,” Martin O’Malley–another candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president–was shouted down by African-American protestors who accused him of being indifferent to their racism-specific concern. And still more recently protestors went after Republican primary candidate Jeb Bush after he glibly denounced O’Malley’s apology as yet another example of “political correctness.”

Unfortunately, the emergence of the “All Lives Matter” slogan is much more than yet another example of color-blind ideology run amok. It officially marked the beginning of the white backlash against the Black Lives Movement that conservative media like Fox News and Republican presidential candidates like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump increasingly use to fuel their racism-driven ratings and campaigns.

This is of course nothing new: words matter in both exposing American racism and in keeping it hidden. When European Americans refer to the nation’s race relations problem they typically use vague, obfuscating, and misdirecting terms like race, the race issue, and minorities where-as African Americans and other people of color are more likely to deploy words like racism and the racially oppressed. In my recently completed study of how the social sciences in the United States mirror the larger society’s racial language I document a constant battle between what I refer to as the linguistic racial accommodation enforced by the nation’s white power structure and the linguistic racial confrontation pushed forward, whenever they can, by the racially oppressed. I found that the use of racially accommodative language like framing the nation’s systemic racism problem as its “Negro problem” or of one of simply the prejudice of a few racially-bigoted outliers is the usual state of affairs and that only when there is a successful challenge to the racial status quo is the language of the racially oppressed forced into the national discourse.

That was certainly the case in the late 1960s after civil unrest broke out in scores of American cities when a presidential commission actually identified “white racism” as this nation’s major problem. Fast forward to not long ago, nearly a half century later, when in response to Black Lives Matter protests Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders–with the help of a recently hired African-American press secretary aligned with that movement– released the most explicit “racism and racial justice” presidential platform in American history. Sander’s platform outlines his position not only on the physical violence African Americans endure but also on the political, legal, and economic violence we face daily.

It remains to be seen how long our current racial language battle will last and what will come of it. But there is growing evidence that African Americans and other racially oppressed people will no longer allow our concerns about systemic racism to be painted over by not only conservatives but by racism-evasive progressives who attempt to promote their own legitimate concerns by whitewashing those that are specific to us. Hopefully while this battle continues it will fuel an honest discussion of one of this nation’s most important social problems; one which includes a large and robust conceptualization of systemic racism which enables us to move beyond specious debates like “who is a racist?” and whether, by some strange logic, a movement that insists that “black” lives matter in the face of what appears to be an open hunting season on African Americans by angry white men with guns somehow implies that “white” lives don’t.

Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Conceptualizing Racism: Breaking the Chains of Racially Accommodative Language, will be released in November. His current book project is tentatively titled, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism.

Former Adviser Axelrod Warns White Racist Hostility to Obama Infects Politics

Ed Pilkington, chief reporter for the Guardian (US), reports:

In an interview with the Guardian before the release of his new autobiography, [David] Axelrod spoke in frank terms about what he perceives as the corrosive influence of race in the Obama era. The former White House senior adviser said that no other president in US history had had a member of Congress shout at him in the middle of a major address – as Joe Wilson of South Carolina did in 2009 with his notorious “You lie!” rebuke – or face persistent questions about his American citizenship, as Obama did from the so-called “birther” movement . … [Axelrod] warned that racial “fear” and hostility toward the first black US president has infected American politics and is partly to blame for Republican intransigence in confronting the president’s agenda. “The fact is, there are some people who are uncomfortable with the changing demographics of our country,” Axelrod said. “To those people, Obama is a living symbol of something they fear, they don’t like, and some of that has spilled into our politics.”


In the book titled, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics (2015) Axelrod writes that

some folks simply refuse to accept the legitimacy of the first black president and are seriously discomforted by the growing diversity of our country. And some craven politicians and rightwing provocateurs have been more than willing to exploit that fear, confusion, and anger.

That is, an entrenched white anger exists on the subject of a black man – with a Muslim name – in the White House.

The white racial frame sheds much light on Axelrod’s discussion of race-involved “fear.” As Joe Feagin explains, the racial hierarchy, material oppression, and the rationalizing white racial frame are key dimensions of the systemic racism created at the top decision-making level by elite white men. Emotions play a vital part in sanctioning white privilege so that whites can discount or disregard the unpleasant truths of racism. Such perverse obliviousness rests firmly on the safeguarding of whites’ racial selves (The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Framing and Counter-Framing).

Beyond US politics, projections on the shifting demographics of race have led to clear expressions of white racial victimization, aggrieved entitlement, and aggressive white racial framing. White elite male controlled news outlets report on anticipated trends with memorable headlines like “Whites losing majority in U.S. in under-5 group,” “White kids will no longer make up a majority in just a few years,” and “Minorities now surpass whites in U.S. births, census shows.” Undoubtedly to perpetuate racist notions of the welfare state, the latter story mentions a seemingly troublesome aside: “[T]he numbers also serve as a guide to where taxpayer dollars could be going in the coming decades.” It fails to mention where taxpayer dollars will be coming from (workers of color, increasingly).

Studies also point to discomfort among whites with regard to the changing demographics of the US, as does the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to nullify strategic parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“Our country has changed,” explained John G. Roberts Jr. –- Chief Justice and elite white male appointed by George W. Bush in 2005. A well-known critic of the 1965 Act for nearly 30 years, and writing for the majority, Roberts explained, “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Roberts held that “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed. This was in spite of the fact that almost all US civil rights leaders disagreed.

Supreme Court Moves Away from Civil Rights

In her recent dissent from the majority decision of the Supreme Court regarding a Michigan constitutional amendment banning affirmative action, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic judge to serve on the Court, described the perspective of her conservative colleagues as “out of touch with reality.”



(Image source)

Recall Chief Justice John Roberts’ pronouncement in 2007 that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” in the 2007 Parents Involved vs. Seattle School District case that outlawed major avenues for voluntary school desegregation. In direct contrast to this judicial view, Justice Sotomayer wrote in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014)

Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities.” And she added, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.

We know that the promising resolution of the Brown v. Board Case in 1954 that found “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites to be unconstitutional has been eroded and successively reversed through a series of Court decisions based on what Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy refers to as principles of “constitutional colorblindness.” From a colorblind, post-racial perspective, America is viewed as having attained a state in which race, ethnicity, gender, and other ascriptive characteristics no longer play a significant role in shaping life opportunities. Consider the statement, for example, of Chief Justice John Roberts, expressing the Court’s opinion in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that determines which states and counties must follow strict guidelines that govern changes to their voting laws: “Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” A well-documented body of empirical sociological research, however, demonstrates that contemporary racial inequality is reinforced through second-generation forms of discrimination and facially nonracial, subtle practices and behaviors that are threaded through the day-to-day experiences of non-dominant groups within American society.

How did this historical shift occur in the Supreme Court’s view of Civil Rights? Legal scholar Gary Orfield points out that that the decisions of the Earl Warren Court in the 1950s and the 1960s played an important role in stimulating the Civil Rights movement, whereas decisions of a conservative-dominated Court in the later 1980s pushed the country in the opposite direction and even reached conclusions that policies designed to address inequality are unnecessary and unfair. These later decisions, he indicates, have been seen by some scholars as replicating the efforts to undermine Reconstruction civil rights laws that resulted in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision legitimizing the concept of “separate but equal.” In Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education (1996), Orfield and Susan Eaton call attention to three little-noticed decisions in the 1990’s in which the Supreme Court articulated procedures for dismantling school desegregation plans that allowed students to return to neighborhood schools, even when segregated and inferior. These decisions reinterpreted the notion of integration as a goal, reducing it to a formalistic requirement that could be lifted after a few years. Decades afterward, as reported by Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley in a 2012 report sponsored by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, 80 percent of Latino students and 74 percent of blacks attended highly segregated schools, with the percent of white students only ranging from 0 to 10 percent. In fact, eight of the 20 states with the highest levels of school segregation are in border or southern states, a significant reversal for civil rights progress.

In the area of public university admissions, the Supreme Court’s decisions related to voluntary forms of affirmative action have abandoned the original remedial purpose of race-sensitive admissions and reinterpreted the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in terms of protecting the rights of the majority and preventing what has been termed “reverse discrimination.” As Harvard law scholar Michael Klarman notes, the Equal Protection Clause says nothing about government colorblindness and does not even mention race. Instead, diversity has replaced affirmative action as a compelling state interest, ironically requiring universities to prove that white students and other students benefit from policies that were designed to address a long history of racial inequality.

And consider the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri that are linked to racial segregation, economic inequality, and differential policing practices. As Erwin Chemerinsky writes in an August 24 New York Times Op Ed, recent Supreme Court decisions such as Plumhoff v. Rickard decided on May 27 have made it difficult, if not impossible, to hold police officers accountable for civil rights violation, undermining the ability to deter illegal police behavior.

To what extent does the Court’s conservative drift in the area of civil rights reflect the mood and temper of public opinion? Santa Clara law professor Brad Joondeph reminds us that the Court has never actually played the role of “counter-majoritarian hero,” but rather has been responsive to shifting political tides. The creation of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in response to public protests, marches, and collective action undertaken by minorities in support of greater social equality. According to legal scholar Derrick Bell, social movements such as the radical protests of the 1960s are more likely to bring about change when they converge with other interests that may be differently motivated.

In The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-framing (2013), social theorist Joe Feagin identifies the strategies of both individual resistance and collective action undertaken by Americans of color that have created significant public pressure to address inequality. Feagin indicates that essential to many civil rights protests was a strong anti-racist counter-frame articulated by numerous black leaders and scholars. As he notes, Martin Luther King emphasized the need for collective action to overcome oppression:

The story of Montgomery (Alabama) is the story of fifty thousand such Negroes who were willing to …walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice (p. 177).

If indeed the Supreme Court mirrors strong tides of opinion within the United States, the admonition of Sonia Sotomayor not to “sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society” represents a call to action. In describing the Court’s “long slow drift from racial justice” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger identifies the importance of a renewed conversation about racial justice in order to address issues that will reach the high court. And the composition of the Court clearly matters in matters of racial jurisprudence. According to Klarman, since the Court is not always a defender of the interests of racial minorities, even the appointment of one more liberal judge could have meant that many key decisions could have been decided differently.

Recently, we have seen a few promising signals, such as the ruling of the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals upholding consideration of race as one factor among many in response to the case filed by Abigail Fisher at the University of Texas. Yet reinfusing our judicial processes with the ideals represented in landmark Civil Rights decisions will require an invigorated national dialogue and sustained attention to how the ideals of justice and equality take shape in the prism of public consciousness and are reflected in judicial perspectives.


~ This post originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Insight into Diversity magazine, and is reposted here with permission. 

American Tea Party Movement Fosters White Racial Resentment

At the National Tea Party Convention held in Nashville, Tennessee this weekend, leaders in this movement sought to turn the fringe group into a serious political force by fostering white racial resentment and suggesting a return to the Jim Crow days of literacy tests for voters.  Several news commentators, including Rachel Maddow at MSNBC (opens video) and Rich Benjamin at Alternet, have commented on the racial subtext of the Tea Party Movement, and there’s building evidence of this based on the recent convention.

Tom Tancredo, former Representative (R-Colorado), was the initial speaker at the convention.  Addressing the overwhelmingly white crowd, Tancredo said, “It is our nation.”    Tancredo repeatedly referred to President Obama by his middle name, Hussein, and said he was thankful Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona lost the 2008 presidential election because Obama has mobilized an uprising.  “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House,” he said.  The kinds of literacy tests Tancredo suggests were once used in the U.S. under Jim Crow to keep blacks from voting.  These racist laws were overturned with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965.

The big news story out of the convention was, of course, the keynote speech by Sarah Palin. Rich Benjamin is spot on when he writes in his analysis of Palin:

“Packed beneath her beehive is a spitfire brew of optimistic, yet aggrieved, whiteness. Palin embodies a bizarre, sometimes alluring, combination of triumph and complaint that many Caucasian Tea Partiers identify with through and through.  Deciphering the racial codes on the movement’s ubiquitous placards does not require a doctorate in semiotics. One popular sign shows the president’s face and a caption: ‘Undocumented worker.’ Another combines Obama’s image with this caption: ‘The Zoo Has an African Lion and the White House Has a Lyin’ African!’   Aside from the festive, ad hominem attacks against President Obama, the Tea Party’s leaders and its rank-and-file rarely mention race in debate, instead tucking it just under the surface of ‘nonracial’ issues like health care reform, public spending, immigration, and pointedly, taxes.”

There is evidence that these sorts of subtle racial cues matter in political elections.  A study by researchers Valentino, Hutchings and White published in American Political Science Review (2002), 96:1:75-90, suggests that subtle racial cues in campaign communications may activate racial attitudes, thus altering political decision making.  In an experiment, they tested whether subtle racial cues embedded in political advertisements prime racial attitudes as predictors of candidate preference by making them more accessible in memory. Results show that a wide range of implicit race cues can prime racial attitudes.

Such research lends support to the critiques by news analysts on the Tea Party Movement’s attempts to gain political support by fostering white racial resentment.

Stealing the Language of Empathy and Anti-Racism

Justice with a swaggerOne striking thing of late is how the words “racist” and “ racism” often appear in the media without reference to the white racism underlying this society. The language of anti-racist analysis and action is now taken to serve conservative political ends (Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya).

In a recent column, Leonard Pitts, a leading media commentator, argues the naming of Judge Sotomayor “racist” by conservatives like Gingrich, Tancredo, and Limbaugh is about much more than political mudslinging:

This is part and parcel of a campaign by conservatives to arrogate unto themselves and/or neutralize the language of social grievance. . . . They made “liberal” such a vulgarity you’d never know liberals fought to ban child labor, end Jim Crow or win women the right to vote. Having no record of their own of responding compassionately to social grievance . . . conservatives have chosen instead to co-opt the language of that grievance.

A very good point. They are not only co-opting and weakening the language of social grievance, but also intentionally taking the focus off the central reality of whites’ continuing racial oppression.

Over at the Dailykos blog, George Lakoff, influential linguistics professor, accents related points about conservatives appropriating the language and idea of “empathy”:

The conservatives are reframing empathy to make it attackable. Their “empathy” is idiosyncratic, personal feeling for an individual, presumably the defendant in a legal case. With “empathy” reframed in this way, Charles Krauthammer can say, echoing Karl Rove, “Justice is not about empathy.”

Lakoff ties the conservative attack on empathy as personal feelings to the attack by Gingrich and others on Sotomayor as “racist”:

[In their view} because of her personal feelings for her own kind — Latinos and women — she will discriminate against white men. It is to support that view that the New Haven firemen case keeps being brought up. The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor. In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the “liberal elite” as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes. Empathy is something they need. The racist card is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women. The racist attack has a political purpose, holding onto conservative populists.

He also makes a very important point that by constantly repeating the comments on her as “racist,” liberal Democrats and other liberals are reinforcing this theme in the public mind. That should be replaced with a reframing that positions Gingrich and company as extraordinarily racist and anti-democratic, using that type of language. In addition, Lakoff suggests liberals, both Democrats and others, must speak about real empathy that links to social justice:

They need to point out that empathy leads one to notice real social and systemic causes of our troubles and to notice when and how judicial decisions and legislation can harm the most vulnerable of our countrymen. And finally that empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness — which are necessary components of justice.

Pitts and Lakoff are on target in tying these white-racist attacks on empathy and the language of anti-racism to a much larger reactionary political agenda. The attacks are not only on real multiracial democracy, but on organizational and individual efforts to break down systemic racism–that is, to probe deeply the systemic realities of racial oppression and to increase organizational efforts to overturn that system.

Recurring racial discrimination targeting Americans of color requires a breakdown of normal human empathy among whites. Racial oppression not only severely distorts human relationships but desensitizes the minds of racial oppressors. Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of the exploited others. The psychiatric term “alexithymia” describes individuals unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, other people. Hernan Vera and I have suggested going way beyond this individualistic concept to a concept of “social alexithymia.” Essential to being an oppressor in a racist society is a significantly reduced ability, or an inability, to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by racial oppression. And this involves many white individuals acting collectively both today and historically.

Since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, most whites have revealed a rather high level of social alexithymia, the sustained inability to relate to suffering of those oppressed. For centuries, systemic racism has both required and constantly bred a lack of empathy and recognition of the full humanity of Americans of color. Today, most whites still do not “see,” or do not wish to see, the impact of institutionalized racism or to recognize its determinative role in everyday life. A substantial majority persist in denying that white racism is systemic, commonplace, and devastating for its targets.

Today the challenge for those seeking to expand antiracist strategies includes the creation of widespread conditions where a great many whites will have to confront the catastrophic reality of the pain that the white-imposed system of racial oppression has caused Americans of color, especially including those with whom they come into daily contact.

It is this aggressive move in the direction of increasing real collective empathy and new invigorated organizations to expand that collective empathy that white conservatives and reactionaries seem most worried about.

Race and the Republican Party: The Elephant in the Room

The GOP - It's a party, alright.Recent political news has focused extensively on whether modern times are sounding a death-knell for the Republican party (Creative Commons License photo credit: makelessnoise). After bruising losses in the mid-term elections of 2006 and in the presidential election of 2008, near record-low numbers of individuals who identify as Republicans, and an extraordinarily popular Democratic president, many commentators and pundits have questioned whether the Republican party is facing a crisis of being. Even some Republican leaders have acknowledged the peril they face as a party, giving rise to debates over whether they should become more moderate and create a “bigger tent” that includes a broader coalition of supporters, or stick to their principles and align themselves even more strongly with their remaining conservative base.

In my mind, these debates reveal a major problem for the Republican party and highlight the ways in which narrow racial framing is limiting their future opportunities and success. When Republicans debate whether to “stick to their guns” (pun intended) or establish a “bigger tent,” they are thinking short term and avoiding some very real racialized realities that have an impact for their future and ultimately their continued existence. This is perhaps unsurprising for a party whose only engagement with racial issues over the last half century has been creating coded language to justify their opposition to civil rights advancements (“states’ rights,” “urban crime,” “welfare queens,”), or appealing to racialized fears (Willie Horton, fabricating links between immigrants and swine flu, blaming “unqualified minorities” for the housing crisis) as a way of maintaining and consolidating reliable votes. So it’s not especially shocking that Republicans would be oblivious of what—and who–they are ignoring when they think only in terms of going more moderate or staying conservative.

The racial issue that I refer to is this. All demographic data indicates that within a mere 30 to 40 years, this country will no longer have a clear white majority. What we are headed towards, whether Republican elites like it or not, is a nation that is mostly multiracial and where whites are irrevocably becoming a numerical minority. I don’t think many Republicans have really taken that fact in, perhaps because it is hard to imagine in a nation that has been run by a white majority for centuries. But it’s happening, and evidence of the implications of this were even present in the last election. While some commentators like to pretend that Obama’s election is indicative of the fact that we’re past “all the racial stuff”, the reality is that most whites did not vote for Obama. It took a multiracial coalition of African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, and a small but important minority of whites to get Obama into the White House. Ultimately, however, he won without the support of most whites, because there are finally enough Americans of color to have a significant, determining impact on electoral outcomes. Had Obama not had the foresight to appeal to a broad variety of racial groups, we would be dealing with President McCain and Vice President “I Can See Russia From My House” right now. Republicans would do well to think about how this dynamic plays into their “more moderate or more conservative” dilemma.

What I think it means is that if they want to “stick to their roots,” that in itself needs to involve a fundamental paradigm shift. Of late, the Republican roots haven’t just been small government and tax cuts, those roots have also included appealing to white racism and demonizing groups of color. Even though he broke with his party to champion immigration reform, McCain paid the price for his party’s thinly veiled anti-Latino/a sentiment when they went decisively for Obama. If Republicans want to stay relevant in an America that looks less and less like their base, they need to consider strategies that will endear them to the voters they’ve been excluding from that base. Suggesting that these voters carry swine flu or are responsible for the housing crisis is not the way to do this.

This does mean Republicans will have to make some changes that will probably be painful for them. They can’t just do what has been comfortable in the past, like appealing to those charming folks who show up at their rallies with sock puppets that suggest Obama looks like a monkey. If Republicans want to stay a viable political party, it is time to drop the racist ideology, language, and imagery that has too often been a part of their “core values.” This alienates voters of color that they will need if they want to win at a national level. If Republicans really believe in small government, they should think about how they can make that commitment appealing to growing, important sectors of the population whose primary concerns may be to immigrate safely and easily, find work, go to good schools, and get affordable health care. If they really want low taxes, they should consider how that can win them votes from the many black women who work in low-paying jobs and struggle to find affordable child care. Instead of working themselves into a frenzy over the president’s preference for Dijon mustard (I’m talking to you, Sean Hannity!), Republicans would be better served putting serious thought into how those core principles they tout can be put to use to attract segments of the electorate that they have derided, but now need to reach, if they want to remain relevant. This may well lose them the base they have cultivated, but it might buy them a newer, more expansive base that can actually get them elected. In an America that is growing increasingly multiracial, there is no other way to win at a national level. Unless Republicans acknowledge this (other) elephant in the room, they will continue having the wrong discussion and missing the big picture.

The Nation’s Agenda: Left Blindness on Racism

This is a brief letter that the savvy scholar of US racism, Steve Steinberg, had published in The Nation just recently. It shows how the left itself has trouble with thinking beyond the white racial framing of things.

His letter was in response to this article in the December 29, 2008 The Nation.

Colorblind? Your lead editorial, “The First 100 Days” [Dec. 1], issues a welcome list of ambitious initiatives that would “get a real start on repairing our nation,” including a renewed war on poverty. No mention, however, of race and racism, despite the fact that a mobilized black community provided the margin between victory and defeat. A colorblind approach will not address the distinct problems African-Americans confront: occupational apartheid that leaves almost half of black men in cities like Chicago and Washington without jobs; the evisceration of affirmative action by all branches of government; mass incarceration that exceeds 2 million, two-thirds of them black or Latino, often for violation of drug laws; rampant discrimination in housing; a scurrilous lack of enforcement of civil rights laws, especially Title VIII. Can we “repair our nation” without confronting the legacy of slavery? Is the colorblind left going to participate in the charade of using Obama to sidestep racial issues? And is the Democratic Party willing to risk a backlash from blacks who feel betrayed by the election of “the first black President”?  ~ Stephen Steinberg

The Spirit of Justice

Racism usually seems to be the elephant in the room that whites of all persuasions cannot see, or do not want to see (Creative Commons License photo credit: kimberlyfaye). Where is the concern with racial justice going to be put in this new administration? In the goals of progressive media and organizations?