There’s a type of faux scandal that’s been happening … well, I haven’t exactly kept track, but it seems like there’s a new one every month or two. They all fit this pattern: President Obama does something that symbolically asserts his status as president, and the right-wing press gets outraged by how he’s “disrespecting” something-or-other related to the presidency.
So, for example, in January, 2010 this photo caused FoxNation.com to ask whether Obama was “disrespecting the Oval Office” by putting his feet up on the antique desk.
Of course, it didn’t take long to uncover similar photos of previous presidents, none of which had raised any particular outrage at the time. But everybody forgot again, and so we had an almost identical flap last September. “This just makes me furious,” one woman tweeted. “He was raised so badly.”
Or remember last May when marines held umbrellas over President Obama and visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. Horrors! He’s treating our revered warriors like servants! How dare he! It was front-page news.
Once again, it wasn’t too hard to find similar photos of previous presidents, like this one of the first President Bush, which wasn’t front-page news — or any kind of outrage at all.
Other such “scandals” involve the First Lady: Did you know that Michelle had the audacity to wear an expensive gown to a recent state dinner, like first ladies have been doing, well, forever? Compare to this 2005 WaPo column in which Laura Bush is said to look “regal” — and that’s a compliment. Until 2009, the First Lady was supposed to look regal. Remember Jackie Kennedy? But when Michelle dresses up, she’s Marie Antoinette.
The Obama’s vacations are another issue, and how much taxpayers spend to protect them outside the White House. But of course when the Bush twins celebrated their 25th birthdays in Buenos Aires, nobody cared what it cost the Secret Service to keep them safe in an exotic locale. They were the president’s daughters, so of course we protected them.
The entire White House lifestyle is an issue: The Obamas are “living large” claimed National Review (and mentioned Marie Antoinette again). The Washington Post fact-checker investigated and concluded: “there appears to be no appreciable difference between Obama’s expenses and Bush’s.” If you read the NR article carefully — and most of the other articles raising this faux issue — you’ll realize they never said there was. It’s just that the Bushes living large never bothered anybody.
Even the Obamas’ Christmas cards became an issue. This one, from 2011, disrespects the Christian holiday because it is secular and features the president’s dog:
I could go on and on. Whenever President Obama acts like the President of the United States, or the Obamas act like the First Family, it just looks wrong to a lot of people.
So here’s the $64,000 question: Is that racist?
It depends on what you think racist means. Conservatives will not only answer the question “No”, they’ll be insulted that you even raised it (and will probably launch into their canned everybody-who-disagrees-with-Obama-is-a-racist-to-you-people riff). That’s because conservatives have adopted a very restricted definition of racism: Racism is conscious hatred towards people of another race.
So, those white folks who didn’t even notice when Reagan’s or JFK’s feet were on the desk, but who see Obama’s and think “He was raised so badly.” — are they also secretly thinking “Who does that uppity nigger think he is, acting like he’s a real president or something?” Maybe a few here or there, but mostly no. They aren’t consciously hating Obama because he’s black. But they can’t look at a black president the same way they looked at the 43 white presidents. Things just look different when Obama does them.
What do you call that?
I’m asking that question seriously, not rhetorically. I sympathize with people who want to reserve racism for Adolf Hitler ordering the Final Solution to the Jewish problem or George Wallace standing in the door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The men who lynched Emmett Till or the grand jury that refused to indict them — those people were racists. I get that it doesn’t seem right to put them in the same category with the people who only just realized in 2009 that life in the White House is pretty sweet.
But all the same, lots of whites look at Obama and can’t think “president” without thinking “black president” — and they go on to judge his actions more harshly than those of white presidents. They go on to treat him with less respect than white presidents have always received — like interrupting the State of the Union to yell “You lie!” or questioning his birth certificate when there was never any reason to do so. (This satire, which applies the same standards to Ronald Reagan’s birth certificate, is hilarious precisely because it would never have been taken seriously.)
Congressmen saying it would be “a dream come true” to impeach the President (while admitting they have no evidence of an impeachable offense), or listening patiently while constituents publicly say the President “should be executed as an enemy combatant” — that would have been unthinkable during the 43 white administrations. But today it’s considered acceptable behavior.
If you don’t want to call it racism, fine. But it’s a real phenomenon; it needs a name. What do you call it?
I’ve narrowed my focus to President Obama, but really the phenomenon is much broader. For example, read Tim Wise’s “What if the Tea Party Were Black?” or just about anything about Trayvon Martin. If Michael Dunn had been a black man shooting up a car full of white boys, I doubt jurors would have bought his I-thought-I-saw-a-gun argument.
For a lot of whites who don’t harbor any conscious racial malice, things just look different when blacks do them. What do you call that?
Teasing out the different stances that might be called “racism” is at least half the value of Ian Haney Lopez’ recent book Dog Whistle Politics. Lopez notes that racism changes from one era to the next, and somebody changes it. “Racism is not disappearing,” he says, “it’s adapting.”
Lopez uses the word “racism” for most of the possible meanings, and differentiates with adjectives. Here are some of the ones he finds:
- racism-as-hate. The most restrictive definition, and the most comforting for whites. “For the public at large, racism-as-hate provides self-protecting clarity: if racists are like those in the 1950s who screamed at black school children and burned crosses, then most everyone can safely conclude that they, at least, are not racists. … Since conservatives on the Supreme Court adopted a malice conception of racism in 1979, when using this approach the Court has rejected every claim of discrimination against nonwhites brought before it.”
- structural or institutional racism. This is racial injustice that seems to be the fault of nobody in particular, because it’s embedded in the way society works. Vicious cycles (like poverty leading to dysfunctional behavior which leads back to poverty) may trace back to past sins like slavery or Jim Crow, but now they are self-replicating. “Structural racism is racism without racists. All that said, precisely because institutional racism implies a need to change society, it was rejected long ago by conservatives, including those on the Supreme Court who repudiated this understanding of racism in the early 1970s.”
- implicit bias. This is the it-just-looks-different response I have been describing, or the kind that shows up in Implicit Association Test you can take online.
- commonsense racism. “The social world through which we move reflects centuries of racism that extends right up to the present. But this is hard to grasp in its particulars. Instead, we see clearly only the results, and with the underlying causes hidden, we tend to accept the extant world as a testament to the implacable truth of racial stereotypes.” The commonsense racists “are not hate-filled bigots but decent folks who see racial injustice as a normal feature of society. … For many, it simply seems ‘true,’ an unquestioned matter of commonsense, that blacks prefer welfare to work, that undocumented immigrants breed crime, and that Islam spawns violence.”
- strategic racism. New appeals to racial prejudice and new rationalizations for racial injustice don’t create themselves. When the old racial manipulations stop working, somebody figures out new ones. “Strategic racism refers to purposeful efforts to use racial animus as leverage to gain material wealth, political power, or heightened social standing. … [B]ecause strategic racism is strategic, it is not fundamentally about race. … [S]trategic racists act out of avarice rather than animus.”
Lopez retells a lot of American history to illustrate how when one avenue for racial injustice was blocked, another was usually found in short order. (His discussion of how in the Reconstruction Era convict leasing developed into a new form of forced black labor to replace slavery, and continued in that form well into the 20th century, was new and eye-opening to me.) He sees this not as blind evolution, but as clever people working out the new arrangements and constructing ways to rationalize them to the masses.
Lopez also describes the usual course of racial conversation these days: If you introduce any of the above ideas into a conversation, conservatives will interpret it as an explicit or veiled accusation of racism-as-hate; you are saying they are like the white supremacists who yelled obscenities at the black little girls trying to integrate public schools. They will experience this as an injustice, and then see themselves as the victims rather than the people whose suffering you were trying to point out.
Strategic racists have turned this into
the rhetorical punch, parry, and kick of dog whistle racial jujitsu. Here are the basic moves: (1) punch racism into the conversation through references to culture, behavior, and class; (2) parry claims of race-baiting by insisting that absent a direct reference to biology or the use of a racial epithet, there can be no racism; (3) kick up the racial attack by calling any critics the real racists for mentioning race and thereby “playing the race card.”
“Most racists,” Lopez recognizes, like the South African whites Lopez met during the apartheid era “are good people. This is not a book about bad people. It is about all of us.” Most whites — even the most conservative whites — are not haters. But so many on the Right have been trained in the recast-yourself-as-the-victim reflex that it has become hard to have any kind of discussion at all about the more subtle and pervasive forms of racism. And until we get to the bottom of that, our democracy will always be vulnerable to the manipulations of the strategic racists.