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Addicted to Race

The left’s long twilight struggle against imaginary bigotry

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Obama Golfing

Can you hear the dog whistle?


Slowly but surely, the toxin of bias is being leached out of American culture, if incrementally and by degrees. A Catholic was elected president in 1960, and since then Catholic nominees and candidates have become commonplace. A Jew was nominated in 2000 for vice president, and was a help to his ticket. In 2004 and 2008 respectively, Joe Lieberman and Rudy Giuliani ran for president, and their names and religions did not become issues. The country’s first black president was elected four years ago by a fairly large margin. This year, a black woman and a Hispanic were the first choices of many Republican voters for vice president, and children of Hispanic and Indian immigrants are rising Republican stars. Pockets of bias remain, but this country has reached the stage at which no success is beyond the reach of any American for reasons other than personal failings. But as racism fades, concern over it seems to grow stronger than ever, at least with a clique on the left that longs to hold on to the issue, and works without stopping to keep race alive.

Once it became clear that old-fashioned racial prejudice truly was en route to extinction, a movement arose to insist that racism wasn’t really down and out but had merely gone underground and lived on in nefarious guises, in some ways worse than before. In the mid-1980s came Critical Race Theory, which maintained that racism was ingrained and pervasive and never would fade. This was followed by “unconscious racism,” “subliminal racism,” “implicit racism,” and “aversive racism,” as underemployed academics and scholars sought to find words for inchoate feelings they found rather hard to describe. The gist of them all was that if people stopped saying or doing things thought of as racist it didn’t mean they had ceased to be racist, but that they were sub-or-unconscious racists, who spoke in “dog whistles” or “code.” Thus, if you couldn’t convict people of what they said or they did, you could still indict them for what you thought they were feeling, these poseurs being the most tricky and sinister problem, as their subconscious, denied, and subliminal bias was cloaked in the guise of good will.

This was good news to the philosopher Touré, who approvingly quoted Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow, in his column in Time magazine: “Decades of cognitive research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions even when an individual does not want to discriminate. .  .  . The fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may have black friends and relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias.”

Added to this is the theory of Racial Resentment, making its debut in the 1996 book Divided by Color, which attempted to “distinguish between those whites who are generally sympathetic toward blacks and those who are generally unsympathetic” by examining attitudes through which people express racism without actually mentioning race. Not surprisingly, these tend to be linked to conservative theories, such as seeing people as individuals, not as group members, objecting to those who rely upon welfare (unless in the case of a dire emergency), and thinking that blacks, like the Jews and the Irish, ought to work their way up by themselves. Counting these views as racist ignores the facts that (a) conservatives also resent whites who rely upon welfare and (b) respect blacks (and others) who rise on their merits, showing respect for Colin Powell the soldier, admiration for Herman Cain, who worked his way up to become a rich man and an industry leader, and veneration towards Condoleezza Rice, whose speech at the Republican convention in Tampa about her rise from her girlhood in the segregated city of Birmingham to the position of her country’s top diplomat earned a prolonged and noisy ovation that brought the entire large crowd to its feet. 

Nonetheless, such theories are staples of liberal discourse, used to discredit the center-right social agenda, based on Al Gore’s belief that people who call themselves colorblind use the term “the way that duck hunters use their duck blind—they hide behind it and hope the ducks won’t know what they’re up to,” as the then vice president once more or less famously said. The appeal of these theories is that no proof is needed; they assume guilt, and there is no way for those accused to prove their innocence. The response to people who claim they have never done or said anything racist is to tell them that they are either subconsciously racist or have been sending out signals under the radar, by way of “dog whistles” or “code.”

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