Of Race, Racism and “Flattering” Whites

In order to move forward in the push for national health care reform, what we need is less pointing out racism and more flattering whites.  At least, that’s what some are arguing.

The racial politics around President Obama and the health care debate continue to rage on without an end in sight.  Political conservatives remain stalwart in their assertion that the vitriol directed at President Obama would be hurled at any president who advocated such reform, regardless of race; while many liberals continue to assert that the sharp rise (400% by at least one report) in death threats against President Obama have less to do with health care reform and much more to do with the color of his skin.    There does seem to be a growing consensus – or perhaps, weary defeat –  among white liberals that efforts to call out the racism among health-care-reform-naysayers is futile.

Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about.   Lincoln Mitchell, writing at the Huffington Post, calls the whole thing “pointless” :

My point here is not that the attacks on Obama are not racist; it is pretty clear that some are racist. However, it is far less clear what supporters of the president gain from making this argument. It is extremely difficult to convince somebody that racism exists when they don’t want to see it. Moreover, nothing would change if this effort were successful. The right wing and much of the Republican Party have made it clear these last few months that they will stop at almost nothing to cripple the Obama presidency, which indicates that even if they were persuaded that they were racist, they probably wouldn’t stop.

In another instance, Hastings Wyman, in a piece at the Southern Political Report (via @BlackInformant), writes that President Obama declines to point out racism because he is politically savvy enough to know that “white voters like to be flattered, not accused.” Wyman goes on to say:

Whether it’s making a heart-felt address to the nation on race as he distanced himself from his long-time preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or backtracking on black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gate’s dispute with a white Cambridge police officer, Obama has consistently taken the high road where charges of white racism are involved. Who knows what his opinion is about such issues in the deepest recesses of his soul, but his political skills are very much in tact. He knows that getting the left — including African-Americans — highly and publicly incensed about white racism is a losing strategy, at least in terms of current political battles.

What both Mitchell and Wyman seem to be saying here is that whites – who obviously hold the power in this society – are put off by being called out on their racism, so better not do that if you want to win their votes or persuade them to support health care reform.  A better strategy is to soft-pedal the mention of racism, even flatter whites for their magnanimous support of an African-American president, and then we can get on with other business.

It’s important to point out that this sort of strategy from Mitchell and Wyman (and others) is rooted in the white racial frame that Joe has detailed in his recent book, and that Joe and Adia discuss in their new book, “Yes We Can? White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Campaign.” When Mitchell talks about “Americans” he’s referring to “white Americans.”   When Wyman refers to Obama has having “taken the high road where charges of white racism are involved,” he is subscribing to a white point-of-view.  The high road, within this frame, means not calling out white racism when it exists, but instead deflecting, ignoring, minimizing.  The key to all this is, as Wyman notes earlier in this piece, flattering whites.  That need for flattery, that desire to always be right when it comes to matters of race and never be responsible for wrong-doing, that too is a kind of white racism – classic white liberal racism.

Jeremy Levine, writing at Social Science Lite, makes the sociological point that:

To discuss and analyze race is not to revert to an either/or, racist/not racist false dichotomy. Race matters as an everyday reality of inequality, yes, but it’s not as simple as the White Racist Meme suggests. Race matters because it’s always mattered. But racism matters in increasingly complex ways.

Indeed, racism matters in increasingly complex ways in the current era.  But, I would argue, that it does not make whites any less culpable for perpetuating – and benefitting from – systems of racial inequality.  And, if that makes some whites uncomfortable, well so be it.

Critics like Mitchell and Wyman seem to be making an old point:  “sure, there’s racism, but what can you do about it?” As if racism were like gravity – a law of physics that cannot be altered by human behavior.

This is simply false.

Racism was created by human beings (relatively recently in human history), and it can be dismantled, done away with, abolished.   But not if we keep ignoring it and flattering those who perpetuate it.


  1. Kristen

    Thanks for this post, Jessie.
    This same argument was made following Hurricane Katrina, that it was useless political strategy to cite racism as a factor in the victims’ dire situations. On one level, I concede the point – as long as whites are the dominant group in numbers and in power, any approach that seems to criticize whites as a group will result in extreme resistance and backlash.
    But, on the other hand, those who argue this point often use it against ANY commentary on racism, inside the political arena or out. For example, a social commentary blog site like this one; while many of the posts discuss political issues, bloggers here are mostly academics, not politicians. So, maybe it’s a useless strategy for the Obama administration to call out racism, but in my view that reality just means the responsibility for raising the issue rests even more heavily upon the world beyond politics.
    And those of us who teach about systemic racism who’ve seen lightbulbs go off for (often white) students know quite well that it is indeed a fruitful endeavor.

  2. Chris Osborne

    A distressing (and depressing) common denominator between those who call for silence on the issue of racist animus towards Obama and those who think the right-wing should be called out is that each side sees their approach as the means to defeat the racists and as a way to victory. The predictive call in fact is much more difficult than this; and the outcome is potentially bad under either scenario.
    Being silent about racism against Obama, as some liberals advocate, indeed will not get the right-wing to shut up. Sadly, neither will calling them out; and the right-wing will hit hard no matter what. Calling the right-wingers racist in fact will not lead to their conversion to a Left approach to the race issue but will simply make them dig in their heels still more. Their response has already come out–the argument that the Left is simply playing the race card to silence any criticism of Obama whatsoever; and this slogan will quickly resonate among all people on the Right. White voters will indeed retaliate at the polls against either incumbent or challenger candidates who bring up the racism issue. This is just a simple fact; and indeed the phenomenon of racist opposition to Obama may even worsen as more Whites rush to defend their conservative brethren from being “picked on” by the Left and “monolithic leftist minorities.”
    Thus the outcome can only be “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Ignoring racism in hysterical anti-Obama sentiment won’t get the Right to shut up. But they’re also fully prepared to continue to hurl brickbats at those who do bring up the matter, will continue to argue that the Left has a hidden agenda of silencing all criticism of Obama (to the applause of their compatriots), and will refuse to change their ways. All that is left may just be to polarize the country between Right and Left, because we won’t be seeing any political conversions from the Right. Obama’s defenders will just have to be prepared for a rhetorical war without end, as the Right simply will not cease and desist; and nothing can make them do so.

  3. Jenni M.

    Politically speaking, I see a couple of benefits of staying the course. First, forcing the Right to continue digging their heels will mobilize some of their base, but also continue to potentially expose how hard-lined many of them are to “reasonable” people. Inevitably, there will be more “leaks” of the really extreme stuff (White House watermelon patch, back to Africa kind of stuff) – it at least makes it harder to pretend these are just “rotten apples” when the examples remain plentiful and uncritiqued from within the party. I’m not saying the cart will tumble and the revolution will arrive, but I always remain hopeful! ;o)

    I think another benefit of the open critique is that it at least widens the range of dialogue. We all know strong critical race critiques will be dismissed by most, but they open the way for possibly less radical, but at least meaningfully progressive critique to seem more legitimate.

    I think one of the main problems is that most people offering critiques just aren’t terribly good at it. We obviously need to do better than just “this stuff is racist” – I think Tim Wise is the master here – his stuff is readable, grounded in a strucural analysis, and exceedingly sharp in highlighting the discursive frames (including pointing out key places where frames fail and hypocrises are evident). He still gets regularly dismissed, but the dismissals are usually very clumsy, and thus revealing to at least some (as Kristen said, some people’s light bulbs get flipped). Public sociologists, myself included, need to take a page from his book.

  4. Jessie Author

    Good discussion here, folks ~ thanks for your comments.
    I’m still mulling over this realization that hits me at various points – the notion that whites want to be flattered about how well they (we) are doing around race. My partner is fond of reminding me, “You forget, no one is going to thank you for pointing out their racism to them.” I’ve been doing this awhile and it still comes as something of a surprise to me each time. “Oh, right – no one (white) wants to talk about this stuff.”
    I grew up talking with – and arguing with – my father about racism. He was deeply committed to racial segregation, yet there were these ‘key places where the frame failed’ – as Jenni put it – that I tried, unsuccessfully, to point out to him. Sometimes I think that this experience gave me a slightly different take on talking about race than many whites in the sense that I want to talk about it.
    I just think that you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. I’ll admit I’m still at a bit of a loss about how to persuade other white folks to see things this way, to want to talk about race, to begin to acknowledge their/our own racism and culpability in racial inequality, or ‘get people’s light bulbs flipped’ to badly paraphrase Kristen.
    /random Friday a.m. musings.

  5. Chris Osborne

    In making my last remarks in this discussion, if Tim Wise’s purpose is to–over the course of time–win over more Whites to a Left view on race he has already been defeated, as each side of the race relations debate has an “Unpopular Achilles’ Heel” (with its’ opposition) which it simply cannot escape. The Colorblind Conservatives cannot escape the reality that they hold to the sanctity of the free market and propose to do absolutely nothing about wide income, assets, and opportunities gaps along racial lines–as well as underrating how much racial discrimination subverts an actual functioning of a meritocracy. On the other hand, race relations advocates arguing from a Left perspective cannot escape that this entails redistribution and transfer from Whites to close these gaps, thus Whites will absorb losses at the practical level under such a scenario (in the same way that a genuinely progressive income tax would not be a “win-win solution” for the rich).
    Thus while refutations of Wise usually turn out to be feeble because they cannot make a viable denial of income, assets, and opportunities gaps or make a viable denial of discrimination, neither can Wise effectively deny that a Left approach on the race issue won’t entail redistributive and transfer costs to Whites. He has pointed out that the White poor would benefit under a more generous social welfare regime, but the poor are not the norm in White America. The White middle class is the norm; and as it has more wealth than its’ minority middle class counterparts, it would have to absorb transfer losses.
    A female Afro-British (and separatist) blogger on race relations issues once wrote a piece called “The Limitations of Tim Wise (which appears to be gone from the internet, unfortunately. As something of an aside, she often links to author Junius Ricardo Stanton–another separatist).” While she agrees with Wise’s analysis of contemporary issues, where she parts company with him is the idea that Whites will be willing to close racial disparities once they become informed of these. She believes by contrast that they will in fact battle to hold onto their various “edges.”
    Right-wing editorialist Jonah Goldberg has been rather shrewd in subverting the idea of interracial dialogue (which he opposes) in arguing that these have an expectation of either only leftist views being allowed expression or of only leftist conclusions being allowed to be reached. Thus I suppose a mutually honest interracial dialogue would only expose our numerous lines of disagreement and irreconcilable differences. As we look to the distant future as minorities together become a majority of the U.S. population and increase their political empowerment, Whites will likely respond to their gradual political displacement with bitterness, nostalgia for the past when they had full hegemony, and generally “raining on the parade” of a new race relations order. So although we will see noteworthy practical change, Dr. King’s Dream of a multiracial utopia governed by some type of socialist consensus will never be achieved. A new race relations settlement will be filled with an ongoing bitterness, as is the historical/current one.

  6. Kristen

    Hi Chris,
    I think you’re right – practically, it’s a lot to ask of the white middle class to embrace redistributive measures (although the white middle class is a grossly inflated group – a great many whites who think they’re in the club are actually closer to poverty and wouldn’t necessarily lose financially if things were equalized a bit, depending on how it were done).
    However, when we look at this issue of why the hell would whites and middle/upper-middle class America support the reduction of white privilege or more social support programs for the working class/poor, we tend to overlook the great American value of “equality and justice for all” and focus solely on self-interest. Don’t we also have a collective interest in continuing to build a better society, where we look out for each other, and no one suffers, and no one has to walk past a person begging for change on the street? This value may be often subsumed by the self-interested value, but it’s there.
    Similarly, for white people, I think a large number are in fact very uncomfortable with the current state of racial inequality. Of course, ideologically and rhetorically, they’re very confused and self-interested when it comes to racial issues, but I believe that there is potential for whites to realize they can benefit from supporting justice for people of color – and not from a place of sympathy but of collective interest. (Do I spy a pie in the sky? Perhaps, but a long eye on the future and some healthy optimism is what keeps me doing this work.)
    A great documentary that illustrates this is Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible. Tim Wise, Peggy McIntosh, and other white antiracists appear in the film and discuss the psychological burden of whiteness in a white supremacist society, and how damaging it is to a white child’s psyche to learn racism subtly and overtly. Not to equate whites’ suffering with people of color’s, of course, but it’s a point that needs making – ultimately racism hurts everyone, including those who receive some major privileges from it.

  7. Jessie Author

    Chris said:
    So although we will see noteworthy practical change, Dr. King’s Dream of a multiracial utopia governed by some type of socialist consensus will never be achieved. A new race relations settlement will be filled with an ongoing bitterness, as is the historical/current one.
    Kristen said:
    Similarly, for white people, I think a large number are in fact very uncomfortable with the current state of racial inequality. Of course, ideologically and rhetorically, they’re very confused and self-interested when it comes to racial issues, but I believe that there is potential for whites to realize they can benefit from supporting justice for people of color – and not from a place of sympathy but of collective interest.
    I think these two statements sort of sum up two – although, certainly not all – of the views about white people that we come back to again and again on this blog. Is it, as Chris suggests (following Derek Bell’s analysis in some ways), hopeless to think that a majority of whites will ever really embrace and participate in Dr. King’s dream of racially-diverse civic engagement?
    Or, is there as Kristen suggests (following Dr. King’s assessment), a dissatisfaction among whites about the immorality of racial inequality that can be mobilized into real, effective action to end systemic racial oppression?
    Personally, I go back and forth between these two points of view. But I think that politically it’s important to hold on to a hopeful stance, to borrow a page from President Obama’s rhetoric. Or, in the words of Dr. King, to “refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… “

  8. Jenni M.

    I appreciate your summary here, Jessie – and agree – whether it’s here on the blog, in everyday conversations with people, or within academia or activist circles, this is where we tend to arrive on the status of things.

    I tend to believe that in *practice* things will continue to follow pretty much as they have – social structure is semi-permanent – the deep structure of white supremacy, though a “shape-shifter” so to speak, tends toward reproduction. And whites have little MATERIAL incentive to work toward social justice for people of color, when and if they even concede to the existence of systemic racism. But I am 100% with you that *politically-speaking* it is very important to remain hopeful. And one of the thoughts that I cling to most stridently (because our work is often so discouraging and depressing and difficult) is to imagine what the world would be like without us “raging against the machine” so to speak? How much worse and more oppressive might the world be without the active resistance? How much more complete the false consciousness?

    And, of course, as a white person my privilege always includes the choice to care about these matters at all. I take that very seriously, and so feel I must stay in the fight for those who don’t have the privilege of that choice. I think, too, of people who’ve been at this battle for far longer than I and somehow remain hopeful. Who am I to throw my hands up in the face of that? And I take heart that we never know when and where the “pocket of potentiality,” no matter how small, might emerge. There may be no straight line to justice, but I remain committed to the project!


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