Monday, June 15, 2009

Racism in many guises

One of the underplayed themes of the right-wing reponse to Obama's presidency is the ongoing overtones of racism. In recent days, however, the racism is bubbling to the surface, not just in Pat Buchanan's appeal to nostalgia for old-fashioned, straightforward bigotry, but in recent internet gaffes, including a Facebook posting by a Republican activist referring to an escaped gorilla as one of Michelle Obama's ancestors and a twitter post by another GOP operative (also from South Carolina) passing on a racist joke ("JUST HEARD OBAMA IS GOING TO IMPOSE A 40% TAX ON ASPIRIN BECAUSE IT'S WHITE AND IT WORKS."). To compound insult with obnoxiousness, the activist said that he'd invoked the image of the gorilla because of Michelle Obama's stated belief that humans are descended from apes (though a news search revealed no quote to this effect by Obama).

Back to the Buchanan column, which claims that old-fashioned bigotry is superior to affirmative action because it's less "hypocritical" -- this is an argument that I've heard invoked in somewhat less inflammatory contexts elsewhere (setting aside the reference to affirmative action): that there is something more honest, for example, about straightforward bigotry, than in more patronizing forms of the "softer" bigotry of low expectations. I had a friend from Europe once observe that he thought the Southern version of direct racism was more honest than the Northern version, which he described as covert -- a veneer of political correctness covering over concealed racist attitudes and practices. This privileging of so-called "honesty" is perverse at best. The allegedly hypocritical position at least acknowledges that racism is wrong -- an acknowledgment which has political purchase and can be used to argue that actual practice should conform to stated ideals. Defending the "honesty" of straightforward bigotry, by constrast, presents honesty as some kind of alibi for racism: at least the racist isn't patronizing. It oddly suggests that honesty trumps racism: if you're going to be racist, at least be an honest racist, then you're not as bad as those people who think they're not racist but secretly are (in their practices and concealed attitudes). The bottom line is that the covert racist at least admits that racism is wrong, whereas the "old-fashioned" bigot doesn't see a problem. This is the creepy part of the privileging of honesty over hypocrisy -- it removes the purchase for critique. The accusation of hypocrisy is one of self-inconsistency: "you should live up to your ideals." Privileging honesty removes the grounds for critique of the racist. It is a strange form of conservative relativism: it's not whether or not you're racist that matters, it's whether you're honest about it. It's a fake argument, and the automatic privileging of honesty over hypocrisy needs to be challenged.

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