“Racism Without Racists” Is Twisted Logic

By Dr. Pamela Reed

There is an astonishing theoretical perspective taking hold in the American academy, and working its way down into the mainstream. And if it remains unchallenged, it seems that it is well on its way to becoming an accepted tenet. It is the bizarre idea that, while racism is alive and well in America — to the continued detriment of non-White peoples and the entire nation — most of the people who continue to perpetuate the discriminatory practices necessary for racism to persist — be they political, social, economic or otherwise — are not racists. They just subconsciously harbor racist sentiments and consistently practice racism.

This may be a notion that defies logic, but it is, nonetheless, the face of today’s decidedly amorphous racial discrimination. This perplexing theory of human behavior is laid out in the 2006 book by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, and is referenced by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in his recent column, “Racism without Racists.” Psychologists call this phenomenon “aversive racism.”

The Kristof piece opens with the following declaration: “One of the fallacies this election season is that if Barack Obama is paying an electoral price for his skin tone, it must be because of racists. On the contrary, the evidence is that Senator Obama is facing what scholars have dubbed ‘racism without racists (emphasis added).’”

To make his point, Kristof directs attention to the recently completed joint study by Stanford University, Yahoo and The Associated Press. He reasons that most White people, like the three in ten Democrats who indicated that they will vote for John McCain — basically because they cannot bring themselves to vote for a Black man for President — are “well-meaning Whites who believe in racial equality … yet who discriminate unconsciously.” They are not to be confused with the “dyed-in-the-wool racists” who comprise an estimated 10 percent of the American populace. What a puzzling concept.

Nicholas Kristof is a brilliant columnist, and no doubt a fine man, but this must be one of the biggest accommodations ever, albeit unconscious. And this brings to the fore what I believe is the existential dilemma that will ultimately determine the fate of this great nation. Fundamentally, either we believe in racial equality or we don’t. Exclamation point.

Rather than this ridiculous circular notion of “race without racism,” what is really at work here is a textbook case of cognitive dissonance, which is when a person/institution consciously, simultaneously holds two essentially divergent views or positions.

A classic example of this dissonance is found in America and its Declaration of Independence. On the one hand it states categorically “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal … ” This while at the same time systematically and brutally enslaving Blacks in its race-based “peculiar institution” of chattel enslavement.

So, suffice it to say that this writer rejects this notion of “racism without racists.” And I don’t think people “discriminate unconsciously.” To the contrary, I think most people know exactly what they are doing. Rather than aversive racists, I would term such persons stealth racists who don’t want to be considered bad people, in an age when bigotry is not in vogue.

Another Times columnist, Bob Herbert, wrote of this modern and no less insidious form of racism in his 2005 column, “Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant,” in which he shone a light on what I call the Atwater Doctrine, as outlined by the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, at whose feet Karl Rove studied — and whose philosophy guides the anything-goes campaign of John McCain.

Atwater was the mastermind behind the infamous Willie Horton campaign which fomented racial tension and alarmed White America, propelling George H. W. Bush into the White House. He would go on to chair the Republican National Committee. Herbert quoted Atwater’s shocking and ever-relevant admission to political scientist Alexander P. Lamis in a 1981 interview for his book Southern Politics in the 1990s. Atwater laid out the modern “southern strategy” as follows:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger,’ that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] Blacks get hurt worse than Whites …”

Atwater further elaborated on what he called “black magic” spells: “I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”

The year 1954 is significant in Atwater’s spiel because it marks the year of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, which decreed that separate public schools for blacks and whites were inherently unequal and were a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment that provides for equal protection under the law.

What’s more, it signaled a turning point and a sea change in American history and jurisprudence — and it opened the floodgates of the dreaded integration. Many White Americans, who saw this as a fate worse than death, were outraged and methodically set about the business of circumventing this new law of the land. Thus a new profession was born.

Atwater was only the latest in a long succession of race deconstructionists committed to implementing a system that the University of Maryland’s Clyde Woods calls “neoplantation politics and trap economics.” His theory is laid out in his article “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?: Katrina, Trap Economics, and the Rebirth of the Blues.”

In other words, this aversion to overt racism is nothing new. In the final analysis, the greater American society must dismiss such benign explanations of modern racial discrimination. To advance this notion of “racism without racists” is to enable and give shelter to those who continue to hold on to covert racial animus.

If we are to ever come close to totally eradicating the cancer of racial hatred in this country — and the world at-large — we must deal with it in honest, stark terms and eschew euphemisms.
This is the crux: bigotry could no more survive without bigots, than socialism or Marxism could exist without socialists or Marxists.

Now more than ever, we must call racists what they are: racists. Of course, their numbers are greatly decreased from the days of enslavement and Jim Crow. But make no mistake, the shameful truth is that racism is alive and well in America—and it is fed by racists.

Perhaps Dr. Paul Sniderman, one of the Stanford political scientists who analyzed the massive quantitative findings of the recent AP/Yahoo study, says it all: “There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean there’s (sic) only a few bigots.” And this will not change until good people of all hues eliminate any safe harbors for such people. From sea to shining sea.

Dr. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

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6 responses to ““Racism Without Racists” Is Twisted Logic

  1. As a result of an on-going discussion about my article, I feel compelled to offer a clarification. The Bonilla-Silva book is not an accomodationist one. He merely points out this phenomenon in a devastating critique—an expose, really. And as is always the case, theories, principles, or even statistics can sometimes be misused or misconstrued. We have all seen Dr. Martin Luther King’s words used by Republicans in their efforts to overturn affirmative action. In effect, Bonilla-Silva points out how, through carefully coded rhetoric, the Lee Atwaters, Sean Hannitys, and Rush Limbaughs of the world have smoothly “flipped the script” and changed the rhetoric with regard to racial inequality. Hence, we have “reverse discrimination” and the “oppressed majority.” And now, when people are caught making racist statements, they all play the “I am not a racist” card. Sound familiar? This is primarily what I am addressing in my piece. It was just such an incident that prompted the Bill Herbert piece that I referenced in my article. The New York Times columnist was responding to an outrageous analogy offered by former Secretary of Education and current CNN analyst Bill Bennett. We probably all remember when Bennett said during one of his radio broadcasts that if we really want to reduce the crime rate, we could just abort all Black babies. Now, in the next breath he said how atrocious and reprehensible such a thing would be. But that didn’t stop him from saying this out loud to begin with. Of course a firestorm ensued, and a bevy of defenders emerged to vouch for Bennett’s character, and to say over and over: “He is not a racist.” He just said it “inartfully”. Or here’s another one: “He probably shouldn’t have said it, but there is not a racist bone in his body.” And maybe they’re right. My point is that the time has come when these verbal snafus cannot be so easily dismissed as innocent misstatements. Granted, we all have said or done something that we wish we could take back. And some people genuinely just don’t know any better. But a lot of people, as I said in the article, know exactly what they are doing. Only the actors, their associates, friends, and families can say with absolute certainty when these racist statements or acts are “conscious” or “unconscious.” And unless the ones in-the-know begin speaking up, things will remain the same. Take for instance Sarah Silverman’s tongue-in-cheek “The Great Schlep.com” video calling on Jewish young adults to pretty much shame/coerce their elders in Florida into voting for the Democrat, as they almost always do. And as Silverman points out, they probably would this year too–were he not a Black man named Barack Obama. She is, in effect, calling them out and pointing out their prejudice, be it conscious or unconscious. In short, this is what I’m talking about.

  2. There is no such thing as “reverse racism.” The fact of the matter is that most Americans, of whatever ethnic background, do not know the difference between traditional bigotry and racism. Traditional bigotry is based on hate-for-hates-sake. It is the complete disdain for a person or group that is physically different; speaks a foreign language or even worse, manipulates the “King’s English”; refuses to abdicate their civil rights to, or does not support conciliation with, the known oppressor/oppression; and of course, has a different skin color than the bigot. On the other hand, racism is all of the above, BUT the bigot has the power to make the recipient of the bigotry to: a) pay the consequences of the hatred (can’t get a job, can’t get in school, can’t get a loan, mortgage, or insurance, can’t get into certain schools), and; b) held accountable for the bigotry they experience (you’re just lazy and that’s why you can’t get a job; you are unintelligent and that’s why you can’t get into that school; you are not welcome in this neighborhood so you don’t need the loan; you can afford a normalized loan, but are only eligible for the predatory loan: take it or leave it).

    I moved from Pennsylvania to Florida for a professorship in the summer of 2007. It is a move that I will always regret. Sure there have been a few good things, like my students, whom I have grown to respect and love, which is reciprocated. However, the bad things certainly outweigh the good, and the main cause is racism. The South is still old. Many whites that I have come across feel entitled to things to which the U.S. Constitution states every American citizen are entitled; but not here. There is also the constant appearance of the Old Negro, who is willing to continue to play the role set up for him or her by Booker T. Washington back in 1895.

    The fact of the matter is that racism is not just about the people who spout racist things (Obama is Arab, a terrorist, has association with felons, “kill him!”, “kill the terrorists!”). Racism is when such idiots actually have the power to further the cause of their racism: power. This is why racism is embedded in all things American. Racism is the thread that weaves together Old Glory, and until the American Flag is unwound and re-stitched with equality for ALL Americans, we can expect more of the same.

    Face it: America is a country built on the backs of slaves, who were, after abolition, forced to suffer Jim Crow, COINTELPRO, and yes, continued suffrage.

    I am the wrong Sister and this is the wrong century for the State of Florida and its residents to try and make me a “nigger!” I rebuke the inclination. I WILL have my vote and it WILL be counted, and bigots be damned. There are no innocent racial “snafus,” and I believe that these Republicans know EXACTLY what they are saying. Despite popular belief, black folk are not ignorant across the board. There are millions of us who are educated enough to be able to recognize the code words that are falling from the lips of white Republicans in recent days. Any desire for me to accept the notion that there is less bigotry than in the past as some type of achievement is the same thing as asking me to give back my pending Ph.D. for the G.E.D. with which I began: ridiculous.

    Ellesia A. Blaque
    Professor, Africana Literatures and Culture

  3. WE should not rest easy because of the gains that we have made in America for there is so much work still to be done. The tentacles and shackles of racism have been with us for so long that sadly any small success that we make as people of color is seen as the end of disenfranchisement. Racism today is simply more subtle and more sophisticated yet the outcome is still the same which is that we are left on the outside looking in at the achievements of other people. As one crooner said some years ago, “Wake up everybody no more sleeping in bed no more backward thinking time for thinking ahead the world has changed so very much from what it use to be”. Yes it has changed however we have to be at the forefront of that change. We can not look for others to change it for us.

  4. Thanks for your comments. Thank you, Ms. Blaque, for distinguishing between “racism” and “bigotry” or “prejudice.” People too often confuse the concepts. And Dr. Ewers, thank you for pointing out the power of individuals committed to change.

    Just a few quick points: Someone recently argued that it doesn’t matter what people do because the system is already fixed. This is how I responded to them: Granted, mine is a micro-level analysis, as opposed to a systemic one. Mostly. I focus on individuals deliberately because that is the focus of Kristoff’s article. But also because it is at the individual level that true change is affected. It is sort of like when Obama says “We are the change that we have been waiting for.”

    His detractors brush his adage off like so much new-age psycho-babble, but this is very real. Really, it is the heart of the matter. What I am saying is that far too often there is very little that “well-meaning” people of any race can do to fight/change policies that have been in place for centuries. At least not in isolation; however, when enough individuals band together to reach critical mass, then anything is possible. Witness the Barack Obama juggernaut.

    But make no mistake, change will not come easily…and many will fight it by any means necessary. But we must persist…

    Lastly, Dr. Ewers, thanks for reminding us of the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes classic, “Wake Up Everybody.” I heard this song a few days ago during my drive to work and I called one of my good friends and told her that Barack Obama should make this his new theme song. Hopefully, enough of us are fully awake, and our votes will reflect this on November 4.

  5. Dr. Reed,
    I hear you when you insist that if we are ever to eradicate racism we must do so directly and without euphemisms. But I think you misunderstand Bonilla-Silva’s theory.

    His is a theory of how the system of racial oppression persists in the face of the fact that most whites believe in racial equality (there are many, sophisticated studies that show this). He is not claiming, as I read him, that structural or aversive racism is all that there is to the system of racial oppression. I’m quite sure he would not deny that there are overt racists (those who believe in , openly express these beliefs and act to sustain racial inequality), and there are covert racists (believe in, do not openly express, but act to sustain racial inequality). But there are also those who truly believe in racial equality but are socialized and enculturated to maintain a racially unequal and unjust social system. You seem to believe that there is no such thing as unconscious racism, but much empirical evidence suggests otherwise–see, for example, Project Implicit at Harvard.

    What is often left out of accounts of racial oppression, and what I find valuable in Bonilla-Silva’s work, is a model of how racial oppression is sustained. If indeed, the number of overt (and perhaps covert) racists has declined significantly since 1954, then it is difficult to explain why racial oppression continues to be so deeply and tragically embedded in our society and culture.

    Here, a systemic perspective is useful. With a systemic perspective, the focus is on how the system reproduces itself, and this requires looking at both individual beliefs and behavior as well as social structures and practices. There is a long history in social theory, from George Herbert Mead, Durkheim, Lukacs, and Parsons to Giddens, Bourdieu, Foucault and Habermas that theorizes the mutually constitutive nature of the individual and society. When we reduce society to only intentional acts of individuals, we fail to see the complex and powerful ways that individuals are made and shaped by their social and cultural contexts.

    While there certainly are cases of cognitive dissonance, I think that this cannot explain the very significant gap between belief and behavior that is examined, for example, in Kinder and Sanders, DIVIDED BY COLOR. There is without a doubt a dominant ideology of color blindness in the contemporary US, and this surely shapes the ways we (and primarily whites) see our social world.

    Part of the difficulty here is that we too often focus on who is a racist. This almost always implies an intentionalist model like the one you propose. But discussions such as these are more distractions than anything. Yes, there are intentional racists, both of the overt and covert varieties, and they must be called out. However, in order to effect real social change, the question should not be “who is a racist?” but “how does my/your/his/her behavior and expressions reproduce the system of racial oppression?” Insofar as any one of us acts in ways that reproduces this system (and I think we all do to varying extents), we are “racists.” Until we look at how our everyday actions sustain this vastly unjust system, we will only be poking at its most visible tentacles.

    David Owen
    Assistant Professor of Philosophy
    Coordinator of Diversity Programs for the College of Arts and Sciences
    University of Louisville

  6. Hi Dr. Owen. I appreciate your insight. I think this whole discussion of race, color-blindness, racism, etc. is very complex.

    My first and most important point is that my article does not deal primarily on the Bonilla-Silva theory laid out in his book. Instead, I focus on Nicholas Kristoff’s use of this theory in his NY Times article to support his contention that it is not racism that makes some White Democrats refuse to vote for Barack Obama because of the color of his skin. Indeed he writes that this is a “fallacy” and that the “evidence” suggests that what is at work is “racism without racists.”

    What I am trying to point out is that Kristoff’s interpretation of Bonilla-Silva’s theory is potentially dangerous for any number of reasons. Primary of which is this: I don’t think it is healthy for people who harbor racist thoughts and who exhibit racist behaviour–be they conscious or unconscious–to have this neat little theory that excuses their prejudice because, well that’s just how the system works.

    As my initial comment in this section seeks to point out, the Bonilla-Silva term “racism without racists” is beginning to be accepted at face value, without looking at the deeper point he is trying to make, both with regard to the individual and the system.

    With regard to conscious and unconscious or subconscious racism, I think that this is something that is virtually impossible to fully measure, notwithstanding the studies you cite. All I know is that we must work to eradicate it–in all it’s forms.

    I’ll just end with a question: Would you say that Kristoff’s is a correct interpretation of Bonilla-Silva’s idea of “racism without racists”?

    If so, then I think my critique would extend to his theory as well.

    Lastly, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to read my work. It is always good to know that one is not writing in a vacuum.

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