Stupid shit, like the meme used as a cover image here, might be part of it. This charming attempt at humor was shared by Linda Sorenson, chairwoman of the Delta County Republican Central Committee in Colorado. For those who can only see the image of a young Ronald Reagan feeding a chimp, the rest of the meme states “I’ll be damned… Reagan used to babysit Obama!” This “not-PC” sort of humor represents the casual racism that so many have come to expect from the GOP.
In truth, saying “conservatives are racist” is inaccurate. Very few of my friends and family who identify themselves as conservative hold openly racist viewpoints, and I am sure that holds true for many others. Nor does holding a racist opinion on an issue– whether from ignorance or spite– make a person at their core a racist. This all misses the actual point. Whether individual members are racist or not, the modern conservative movement was in part founded on the principles of white supremacy and many of their policy positions are the inherited legacy of that original sin. In this two-part post, I want to look at where this controversy comes from, why scholars claim there is solid evidence for racist origins in the modern conservative movement, and what this means for the GOP and conservative politics in the US moving forward.
One of the biggest talking points of the conservative infotainment sphere for the last twenty-five years has been the notion that liberals, blacks, Mexicans, the mainstream media, and basically everyone who is not part of their club wrongly accuses them of being racist. More air has been spewed and ink spilled decrying reverse racism, the danger of black and immigrant crime, the deserved poverty of minorities, the insidious nature of liberals giving blacks handouts to ensure their votes (or citizenship to Mexicans for the same purpose), and other minority outrages than I can recall. The refrain is always the same– we will get labelled racist for saying X, Y, Z (racist) thing, but here is proof that we are right, and liberals/civil rights activists/academics who say this is racist are the real racists because they want minorities to live horrible, crime-ridden, poor lives.
Seriously. Pick an article about crime off of Breitbart. It will either tell you how carrying a gun makes you more safe, how blacks or Hispanics commit most crimes, or how liberals want you to ignore black crime. Sites like this one frequently frame the issue of crime in terms of race. See for yourself. How could anyone see an article like “Report: YouTube Censoring Videos of Black-on-White Crime” and think that you have a racist agenda? Other than the fact that there is no plausible explanation for what you are getting at here that doesn’t end with “see, blacks are dangerous and violent and deserve to be harshly punished by our law enforcement agencies.” Unless you are completely unable to identify cause and effect it is impossible not to see how the issue of race is involved here.
The conservative infotainment sphere might not be the worst thing on the internet– child porn still exists after all– but it is pretty close. The damage it has done to political discourse and disunity, the promotion of a zero-sum worldview where you are either “saving” your America or it is being destroyed by the evil Mexicans, gays, Muslims, liberals, blacks, or RINOs is hard to measure. It certainly played a huge role in creating Trumpenstien. And Trump himself has certainly brought it out into the light of day in his campaign. Among the medium’s many crimes I find their commitment to twisting facts and logic to denounce the notion that anti-black racism exists the most damning. They squeal with glee at any and every publicized crime committed by a black person– look, see how dangerous, immoral, and awful “they” are?! And when it is promoted because it comes from the mouth or hand of a black conservative the pitch only becomes more shrill.
Case in point, the works of Mr. Derryck Green. His response to Jesse Williams BET awards speech is getting a lot of traction around the conservative infotainment sphere. In typical tabloid-trash style, the website Young Conservatives– the NY Post of political “news” sites– titled his piece “The Best Response You’ll Ever Read to the Racist BET Awards.” See, a black conservative says BET and BLM’s activists are racist– you can’t just dismiss this as racism!! This is as tired as it is false. Green has a long history of apologizing for conservative racism and pointing the finger back at the black community. Indeed, it appears to be his life’s work if you look at the majority of his writing and media appearances. Call that what you will.
I don’t care to waste my time debunking Green’s hackneyed piece. It does not deserve that level of respect. Rather, I think it would be more interesting to explore why the overwhelming consensus of US political historians claim that racism and white supremacy are core pillars of the modern conservative movement. Green’s absurd video on “debunking the myth” of conservative racism is a good jumping off point:
Green, like most conservatives who tell us that racism is no longer a problem, wants to talk about political issues without the context of history. Green claims, as many conservative activists before him have, that blacks are totally capable of being anything (even cops!) but are being held back by the racist policies of liberals who think blacks are incapable of rising up without white assistance. His evidence, the conservative commitment to a “meritocracy.” You see, conservatives are colorblind. They know that people succeed or fail on their own individual qualities! What a wonderful idea. Of course, it is total shit.
Take race (and gender) out of the equation and simply evaluate that statement in the context of social and economic resources for three similar young white men. We will call them Ryan, John, and Tim. Assume that they have similar work ethics, intelligence, and disposition. Are the results of their lives simply based on merit?
Ryan was born well off (top 2%). His dad is a successful CPA in a major city (like Chicago) and his mom stayed home with him. He went to the best private schools in the area, participated in extracurriculars year-round, and took trips with his family all over the world. He worked as an intern at his dad’s firm in the summers and did not work doing the school year in college, has no student loan debt, and got interviewed by several big accounting firms despite middling grades, intellect, and a non-accounting major (say, psychology). He’ll be starting out at 22 with no debt, a job that pays him 60000 a year, and a clear track to quick and lucrative advancement (aided by his ability to socialize with his fellow upper-class members). Ryan will marry another elite, they will have an expensive home (over 500k), take exotic vacations, and be able to provide everything imaginable for their children.
John was born into a typical American household in a smaller city or suburb of a non-major city (like say, Westerville). His father works at a manufacturing plant and his mother is a dental assistant. He went to an average public school, participated in extra-curriculars offered by the school and played baseball in the summers. His family took yearly vacations, usually to a relative’s house or park a day or two drive away from home. He worked full-time in the summers at a fast-food resturant and had a part-time job in facilities management during the school year, has 40k in student loan debt, had trouble landing interviews with an major companies at his public college’s job fair due to his middling grades, intellect, and non-business major (again, psychology) and instead is looking into sales positions with a local bank. He’s starting out at 22 deeply in debt, with a job that requires him to work crazy hours in the hope that he might carve out 50000. His path foward is less clear (held further back by his lack of knowledge and experience with the things his bosses and clients are in to), but he will likely marry someone similar to himself, buy a nice home (something around 250000 in the suburbs), and will be able to afford many luxury items (if much more modest ones than Ryan has).
Tim was born poor. His father and mother raised him on his disability funds and her retail sales salary in a run-down urban area (say in the mold of Toledo). He went to a poorly performing public school, participated only in free school-sponsored extracurriculars, and has never taken a lesuire trip. Tim didn’t go to college and instead enrolled in a two-year program at a local vocational school. He starts out at 20 with modest debt (15k) and gets a job in manufacturing that pays him roughly 30000. His path forward is clear– work this job until it does not exist. He will make a modest living, but will never accumulate much, as his income barely pays his living expenses (house, car, food, utilities). He will likely marry someone who makes a similar living and they will repeat a process similar to his own upbringing– just getting by.
These three young men are not seperated by much in the beginning– a “mere” 30k. But these advantages will compound quickly. And the stark disparity between the lives these three would create for themselves is only marginally determined by their own merits. Circumstances put a glass cieling and floor on their end results. For Ryan, the margin of error was huge. He basically just needed to avoid royally messing up. For John, the margin was smaller. His middling work locked him out of advancing up the ladder, but his advantages meant that he was still assured a good living. For Tim, there was no margin. Born without exceptional talent or skills he had very few paths available and none of them led upward. This process is only compounded when you account for things like race, gender, and sex.
The massive gaps in social, political, and economic capital in black communities that are a direct result of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the “New Jim Crow” criminalization efforts of the last twenty years. These happened. They are well-documented. We know that teachers, administrators, public servants, employers, and common citizens do not treat everyone alike. Green’s argument asks you to ignore evidence like a city of roughly 40000 people that is about 25% black to having only one black cop (or roughly 1.2 percent of the police department) or for the average black family in the region to make roughly 30,000 less than the average white family. To Green, this doesn’t matter. We’ve had AA for fifty years! Shouldn’t blacks all be up to speed now? As though all vestiges of white supremacy were simply done away with because a handful more black students were admitted to colleges or interviewed for jobs. The notion that we live in a fair, just, and colorblind society is undeniably false. Anyone peddling that notion immediately outs themselves as an idiot.
Green focuses his argument, as political hacks so often do, around the polemic of condescending speech. To be sure, you can find plenty of patronizing and well-meaning condescension in leftist thought. It annoys me to no end– particularly when it comes from educated elites who believe that colorblind socialist economic policies will somehow end racism. But the sweeping generalization that creating policies meant to level the playing field is a tacit admission that blacks are inferior requires that you ignore the stated intent and the scholarly and ethical discourse these ideas came from. No one is arguing that voter id laws are racist because blacks are incapable of getting id cards. The argument is that the poor have a harder time getting identification– which is a statistical fact– and that blacks and other minorities are much more likely to be poor (again, a fact, based on a whole host of socio-economic factors, many of which have racist origins). Efforts to restrict voting on the basis of very specific ID seem to have no discernable cause– i.e. there is no evidence that voter fraud is an actual issue– but instead seems to be motivated by a desire to limit specific people from voting. Actually, that is too generous to the Voter ID crowd. We have conservative leaders who pushed for these laws explicitly stating that they did so to swing elections in their favor by limiting minority enfranchisement. Original intent apparently only matters when we talk about the Founders.
Conservatives like to loudly proclaim their love of history, but the are appallingly uneducated about modern American political history. Mr. Green is no different. I don’t claim that all conservatives are racist– the broadness of that brush could never be true about any coalition of people that large. Nor is there anything particularly racist about conservative political ideology. Favoring small government, entrepreneurship, local control, national defense, defined borders, religious freedom, among other ideas are not in and of themselves racist notions. But these ideas do not exist in a vacuum. The context behind why people want some of these things and how they propose using them matters. And that is where you will find, repeatedly, that “conservative” Americans hide their racist intentions behind political terminology.
In the history of this nation, when words like “limited government” or “states rights” have been evoked it was almost always in terms of the rights of dominant local majorities to discriminate against others. This is not a debatable point. The idea that states’ rights were the causal factor that forced the South to rebel against the North in our Civil War is the most prominent example. States’ rights, is and has always been a euphemism for the subjugation of blacks. The Confederate states fought the Civil War over slavery. That was literally the only issue. It is outlined in each of their declarations of succession and in their constitutions. It was made clear in the timing of their rebellion– directly after the election of a suspected abolitionist. It was the “way of life” that they spoke of. Their economy, culture, and society were built on the backs of slaves. The Confederates themselves were not shy about it– they proudly proclaimed that they were fighting to keep their peculiar institution. It was only later, when the war was lost, that Southern apologists started to obscure this meaning. They did so in the service of political and cultural goals– chief among them, the continued subjugation of blacks.
The rise of the states’ rights explanation for the Civil War was tied directly to the Jim Crow movement. It sought to keep the Federal government from enforcing the 14th and 15th Amendments. Alabama didn’t need the damn Federal government telling them how to run elections. Or schools. Or public institutions. Or transportation.
But don’t worry– having separate white and black facilities was definitely not racist.
Nor was it racist to make things like waiting rooms for whites only and enforced by the police (long known for being colorblind and only upholding our fair and just laws).
Surely local businesses should be free to choose who they do and do not serve. No need for the government to protect the rights of minority consumers– the market would surely do this!
Local neighborhoods would never openly discriminate in housing– they simply want the right to be able to define their community!
This is what states’ rights and local control have always been about. The ability to define and control access to de facto and de jure aspects of citizenship. And this sentiment was one of the foundational building blocks of the modern conservative movement.
This is where you usually lose any conservative. The immediate rebuttal is “Jim Crow was a Democratic platform.” Which is true– social conservatism has not been the providence of one party. Nor was socialism– take a look at the right-wing site The American Thinker twisting itself into knots trying to describe Dwight Eisenhower as a reckless, free-spending liberal! Of course, the Dixiecrats– a popular term for the southern Democrats for whom the issue of white supremacy was always #1– switched teams in the mid-1960s and became the backbone of the new GOP. For all of Goldwater’s emphasis on strong national defense and fanatical devotion to libertarian economic and political dogma the coalition that brought conservatives to power in the late 20th century would never have been possible without white supremacists.
Political parties are coalitions. They are made up of a variety of interest groups stitched togeather for a common cause. Sure, you might not like some of the issues other parts of your coalition are adamant about, but you agree on enough core issues to make that a moot point. For example, maybe you do not care one way or the other about the issue of abortion. But the fanatics who want it totally banned do. And they support you on the issue that matters to you– perhaps gun rights, low taxes, or “religious freedom.” So you band together to get your agenda enacted. This is how politics in a democracy works. And since the mid-1960s, the modern conservative movement has catered to the white supremacists (and later added homophobes, though one suspects a great deal of overlap in these bigoted populations). From both top-down and bottom-up sources, white supremacy has deeply embedded itself in the modern conservative movement.
Historians refer to these two phenomena as “The Southern Strategy” (the top-down strategy) and “The Suburban Strategy” (the bottom-up, grass-roots strategy). The Southern Strategy is the more well known of the two. Popularized by the 1970 article “Nixon’s Southern Strategy: It’s All in the Charts” by James Boyd of the New York Times, it represents the GOP’s open attempt to court disaffected white southerners who were unhappy with desegregation. The Republicans knew that this move would alienate blacks permanently moving forward. Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips explains:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
Blacks didn’t abandon the Republican party because Democrats offered better handouts– the GOP explicitly abandoned them in favor of white bigots.
The racism of Phillips new movement was not one of burning hatred, but of simple math. The technocrats racism. Demographics had shifted. Blacks were too small a minority in the south to matter. If black rights could swing the majority of white southerners into the GOP it would give them a favorable path to controlling the presidency.
While Phillips knew that the strategy would swing the south Republican, he also predicted that it could shift many counties in the north based on ethinic composition. You can see it in how he described why Boston Irish Catholics had not yet joined their natural conservative allies in the GOP:
It’s because there are not enough Negroes and Jews in Boston to take over local Democratic organizations and send the other ethnics whooping into the Republican party. But it will come.
And come it did. In largely white areas of traditionally conservative ethnic composition scores of working class voters fled the Democratic party that had been their home (in large part to the pro-labor policies of the party) in favor of the pro-business but anti-black/Jew Republican party.
The GOP, from Nixon on, would stoke racial division as an electoral strategy. First they did so openly. Phillips was not a pariah for making these remarks. This was no secret strategy– it was out there for all the world to see. Those of you who voted Republican in the 60s and 70s (or had parents/grandparents that did) might not want to admit it, but unless you/they were wholly uninformed voters they knew damn well that the newly emerging conservative movement stood against integration and for segregation. They became, proudly, the anti-black party. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” dismissed the concerns and issues that had stoked social unrest in the country during the 1960s and sought to impose a hard order on the vocal minority. Again, this is not a secret.
The Southern Strategy was simply a recognition on the part of savvy demographics experts and political strategists to capitalize on emerging population trends (similar to the recommendations of the Romney autopsy in 2012). It could never have worked without the already existing Suburban Strategy. In fact, the continued resonance of the Suburban Strategy is one of the major reasons why the GOP has been unable to move past the Southern Strategy and adopt a more sensible (and less racist) strategy to national elections.
In part two, I’ll take a look at the Suburban Strategy, how it contributes to the notion that racism is a core tenat of modern conservativism, and why the movement must take steps to cut out this cancer if it has any hope of being a viable force in American politics moving forward.