Faking a Post-Racial America: The Big Racial Con

The common and recurring attacks on President Obama on and off the internet, including by many Tea Party folks, are often extreme and intensive, more so than for any president anyone can probably remember. Some attacks are openly racist, yet are not summed up as indications of no-post-racial-America and persisting systemic racism by mainstream media commentators and, indeed, many academic analysts.

One reason is what I call the Big Racial Con. A majority of whites today have learned how to be socially correct on racial matters much of the time in public, but still engage in or support blatantly racist activity in backstage settings with friends and relatives. These whites will often say their harsh attacks on President Obama have nothing to do with white-racist framing of him, that they have “policy differences with Obama.” My colleagues and I provided the empirical evidence on the scale of backstage racism numerous times on this blog, and in many research books.

Recently, I ran across an article by Carlos Dews, English professor at John Cabot University in Rome, written for Aspenia, an Italian journal, and republished a few months back by the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Don’t Let the Virulent Hatred of Obama’s Presidency – Veiled in “Policy Differences” Fool You.” Having grown up in the deep South, his reflections start with this pointed statement:

“The nigger show.” I first heard this expression used to describe the Obama administration during a visit to my hometown in East Texas during the early summer of 2009. I understood what the epithet meant: Our minds are made up, the president lacks legitimacy, and there is nothing he can do that we will support. . . . The outward signs of racism of my home state have now disappeared, but racial hatred remains. My father and his friends still use the word “nigger” to refer to all black people, and the people of my hometown don’t hesitate to spout their racist rhetoric to my face, assuming I agree with them.

He then adds:

Until the election of Barack Obama, my discussions of racism in the United States seemed historical. I felt that with the passage of the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, the country had turned a corner. . . . [But] the veiled racism I sense in the United States today is couched, in public discourse at least, in terms that allow for plausible deniability of racist intent. And those who resist any policy initiative from the Obama administration engage in a scorched-earth policy that reminds me of the self-centered white flight, the abandonment of public schools, and the proliferation of private schools, that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. . . . The very people, like my own rural, working-class family back in East Texas, who stand to gain from the efforts of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress are, because of their racism, willing to oppose policies that would benefit them the most.

He notes the kind of backstage/frontstage distinction we have made in our research:

In public, they must veil their racial hatred behind policy differences. But I know what members of my family mean when they say – as so many said during the town hall meetings in August – that they “want their country back.” They want it back, safely, in the hands of someone like them, a white person. They feel that a black man has no right to be the president of their country. . . my father lamented that he and my mother might have to stop visiting the casinos in Shreveport, La.: Given Obama’s election, “the niggers are already walking around like they own the place. They won’t even give up their seats for white women anymore.”

In his view the South is not becoming less intensely racist, but the “country as a whole has become more like the South,” a sort of white-southernization of the country.

I also grew up in East Texas with many such white folks, and know them well. They live very racialized lives, sometimes blatantly, sometimes more covertly. Right now, for example, in East Texas not far from my university, there are numerous back roads where most black Americans fear to go (and black package delivery drivers will not go) because of such things as aggressively displayed confederate battle flags on numerous whites’ houses, trailers, and trucks. In these areas many whites often publicly talk about President Obama in the language Drews accents. Some viscerally hate him, and mainly because he is “black” in their conventional white racial framing. Often, they were not fond of previous Democratic presidents, but they rarely escalated their racial hatred and language to the current level. It is significant that the mainstream media almost totally ignore the scale and importance of this everyday reality, and most certainly not just in the South.

Today, many whites across the country have become more socially correct in regard to racial matters and have decided to play along with and perpetuate the Big Racial Con in the frontstage, in public settings. But they are still seduced by the old white racial (and class) framing that they learn coming early in life. They use it in their backstage settings, regularly. In that frame, Black Americans have long been the favorite scapegoats for what is wrong about many local and national problems.

It is hard to overestimate the level of venality and conformity in regard to the old white racial frame today, as well as the great ignorance and lack of critical thinking about racial matters in this country. One of our blog commentators, a field researcher and professor, has called the young college students he interviewed on racial matters, “cheerful robots.” These are many of the white leaders of tomorrow and seem likely to follow in their ancestors footsteps–if this time often engaging in the Big Racial Con, in the grand racial masquerade.