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.