Social Conservatism Isn’t ‘White’
There they go again: Republican candidates are saying things and sending signals that show that racism remains widespread, routine, hideous—and sometimes even laughable, when it strains to deny its own existence. And, again, some of us white leftists and liberals are compounding the lunacy. The best way to deal with racism is to document it clearly and forcefully without shouting or sneering about the knuckle-draggers who remain gripped by it, and to refrain from encouraging it by inflating its monstrosity. The best of the civil rights movement understood this. So did Obama in 2008.
Instead of strategizing intelligently, however, some activists and writers display a moralistic, self-indulgent, tragically American innocence of the harsh truth that groups of people have always stigmatized other groups, often lethally. To grasp this isn’t to let Republicans off the hook. It’s to learn how to defeat racism, of which their “white” variant is our peculiar American curse.
Even atop the genocide against Native Americans and the abduction and enslavement of millions of Africans, Anglo Saxons in America long designated certain whites as members of inferior races and dealt with them accordingly. It was the energetic assimilation of those “races,” not their multiculturalization, that helped to defeat racism against them and to set precedents for the black civil rights movement.
We should be wary, then, of suggestions that there’s something inherently “white” about “a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America,” as Lee Siegel characterized Mitt Romney’s vision in the New York Times. That’s a bit too simple. To characterize that vision as “white” would be to dismiss, as racist, not only the whites who share it but also the whites who just haven’t proven themselves principled or hip enough to abandon those picket fences, “patriarchal” families, and corporate jobs, and who don’t read the Times Sunday Review section over brunch.
To call all that “white” is also to dismiss, as clueless and self-denying, all those non-whites who are naïve enough to aspire to the picket fence and the corporate job, and it is to reinforce stereotypes about both whites and non-whites—two sides of the same counterfeit coin.
The “retro” vision is problematic enough even without any “whiteness,” but it’s even worse if we accept any racial stereotyping in it, because for better or worse (in my view, for worse), that vision is far more widely shared by people of all colors than some of us like to imagine. That was clear enough to Richard Nixon and, later—and more sincerely—the Republican congressman and presidential candidate Jack Kemp when they touted “black capitalism” in the 1970s.
Today the Republican side of the counterfeit coin of “whiteness” is nakedly racist. My favorite example—aside from Mitt Romney’s handing $60 to a woman who happened to be black—is Rick Santorum’s declaration in Sioux City, during a rambling rumination about foreign influence on the American economy, that “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money…”
This gaffe (which was only made worse by Santorum’s claim that he’d really said “blah, people,” not “black people”) was captured well by Gary Younge, a black writer for the Nation who recently dispatched Santorum and his yea-sayers. He noted without comment that while only 2.9 percent of Sioux City’s population is black, 13 percent of the people in the county “are on food stamps, an increase of 26 percent since 2007, with nine times as many whites as blacks using them.” And Iowa’s economy is doing fairly well! In much of the rest of “Red State” America, Romney’s retro vision is crumbling among whites rapidly enough to disorient any who imagined that it distinguishes them from blacks.