The New Racism
Although overt racism is still a serious issue in the United States, a more insidious, widespread, and dangerous problem is a covert form of racism that I call New Racism.
New Racism is practiced by people who harbor racist attitudes and beliefs, but who have internalized the lesson that overt racism is a fringe position that leads to censure and exclusion.
My hope is that this concept will assist you in clearly recognizing racism in its dominant contemporary form, so you don’t have to waste time mincing words, or find yourself rhetorically checked by people demanding evidence that Donald Trump is racist, whether he appoints Bannon and Sessions or not.
When you close your eyes and think of a “racist,” what do you imagine? Perhaps you see a modern-day Archie Bunker, watching Fox News on a flat screen TV. You may see hooded Klansmen in formation, or skinheads spray painting swastikas on schools.
Or you may see black-and-white photos of Birmingham police officers attacking well-dressed demonstrators with fire hoses and dogs. This image is indelibly linked with racism in the popular imagination in part because the civil rights movement of the 60s was so successful in establishing it as a living reality. Using concrete images and historical examples brought home the fact that racism is not just an attitude or belief, but has real consequences.
Martin Luther King, one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, was a master at painting word pictures to motivate moderate Americans to take a stand in the struggle. In his “Hammer on Civil Rights,” for example, he talks about one of the most dull, undramatic things you could think of – deliberation on a civil rights bill in the Congress.
To make this topic come to life, he had to illustrate what was at stake in a way people could feel. He did so by appealing to imagery that everyone already knew, a scene that was recognizable to anyone who had seen an issue of Life in the last five years:
As had been foreseen, the bill survived intact in the House. It has moved to the Senate, where a legislative confrontation reminiscent of Birmingham impends. Bull Connor became a weight too heavy for the conscience of Birmingham to bear. There are men in the senate who now plan to perpetuate the injustices Bull Connor so ignobly defended. His weapons were the high-pressure hose, the club and the snarling dog; theirs is the filibuster. If America is as revolted by them as it was by Bull Connor, we will have victory.
He illustrates the battle against racism in the Senate by figuratively comparing it to the familiar marches in the South, both drawing from and reinforcing the common imagery used to understand and recognize racism and its effects.
Dr. King’s marches in the South armed him rhetorically for the rest of his career with an arsenal of images that he could use over and over again to paint a picture. He loved calling out Eugene “Bull” Connor by name, as it immediately conjures the image of a brutish, hulking opponent wielding physical violence against unarmed demonstrators.
What we see here is the link between the idea of racism and images in the public imagination. The burning cross and the swastika, the crew-cut police officer with the southern accent – these are fundamental references for people to understand what racism is. We know what it looks like.
Or do we?
My contention is that we have become captive to these images of racism, to a degree. There is a danger that old ideas about racism keep us trapped in an idea world that was developed in the past, and they no longer helps us to recognize the real thing, as it exists today. “Bull” Connor tells us something about racism in Birmingham in 1963, not in racism Baltimore, Oakland, Cleveland, and Chicago in 2016.
Overt expressions of racism do exist in the US, and we must be extremely concerned by the indications that they are taking on a new potency after the November election. We have seen an alarming spike in hate crime reports in recent months.
But neo-Nazis and Klan rallies remain fringe occurrences that attract a disproportionate amount of media attention. The National Policy Institute rally in November, for example, was the focus of several national articles when members gave Nazi-like salutes to Donald Trump, but the rally itself drew only around 200 participants.
We must be concerned about outright white supremacy, but I would argue that an excessive focus on these gestures, which correspond to our usual mental image of racism, distract from a far more dangerous and widespread form that I will call New Racism.
No Smoking Gun
The key distinguishing feature of the New Racism is that there is no smoking gun – there are no racial slurs, no declarations that the white race is superior, no call for laws or policies that directly and explicitly target minorities. There is, instead, a systematic focus of positions and policies that just happen to harmonize neatly with a belief in white supremacy, or that target people who just happen to be minorities.
The reason that racism has overwhelmingly taken this form in recent decades is simple – contemporary social norms in the United States strongly disfavor overt racism. An overtly racist joke or put-down can push people outside of the center of public discourse, but New Racism is far more difficult to establish, and easier to defend against.
Let’s say someone is racist at heart, but they have internalized the lesson that telling ethnic jokes makes it hard to run for governor. Or let’s say we have someone with racist attitudes who doesn’t even consider themselves to be racist – my guess is that most New Racists probably don’t. How can such a person be identified, and in what sense can we say they are racist?
To answer that question, let’s take a quick look at one model for understanding how language works. My definition of New Racism draws from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his idea of “family resemblance.”
In his book Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein illustrates the idea of family resemblance using the example of games. How do we define the word “game”? Well, there are many different types of games – board games, card games, ball games, the Olympic Games, and so on. Is there any single feature that is common to all of them, some characteristic that we can point to and say “If a thing has this characteristic, we can call it a game”?
Maybe they are all games because they have rules? But trials also have rules, so that can’t be it. Or perhaps because they are all forms of entertainment? No, we also watch movies for entertainment.
Once we are satisfied that there is no single feature that all games possess that lets us say “that’s a game” – that is, we have no smoking gun – then we have to move to a slightly more complicated model.
We don’t call something a game because it has a particular feature. Rather, we call things games because of a bunch of different characteristics they possess – they’re fun, they have rules, they have pieces or equipment, they’re competitive, they have an element of chance, and so on. Maybe we can list ten features that most games have, and if something has six or seven, we will call it a game.
Wittgenstein said that we recognize a game by its family resemblance to other games. It’s like we have six sisters, and four of them have red hair, five have freckles, three have green eyes, five are very tall, and four of them have long noses. There’s no single feature they all possess, but we still recognize that they resemble one another.
This is the model of meaning I am proposing for the new racism – there are number of features you tend to find in the new racist, and when you find several of them, you have probably found one. Not that you will be able to convince the new racist of that – they will no doubt reply that they haven’t told a racist joke since they were six and they just want what’s fair for everyone. But we can’t be taken in by this – it’s a waste of our time.
Characteristics of the New Racist
What traits do new racists possess in various combinations? Let’s run through some of them.
I repeat that no one attribute is sufficient in itself to establish that an individual is racist, though some of them probably come pretty close. But if you find five or six of these in a single person, well, it’s a red flag, to put it mildly. It’s indicative of a racist psychology.
1) A fixation on minor social problems or low-risk threats associated with minorities, such as fear of undocumented immigrants voting illegally, fear of terrorist attacks by refugees, or terror of being mugged by blacks.
2) A strongly-held belief that problems in the United States are primarily caused by foreigners or minorities.
3) A tendency to be irrationally skeptical or critical of minorities, such as questioning whether or not Obama was born in Kenya.
4) Use of stereotyped language and ideas in understanding minorities, such as the belief that blacks are not industrious.
5) A tendency to dehumanize minorities or to cast them as fundamentally different.
6) An obsession with the threat of sexual violence posed to white women by minorities.
7) A strong, emotional opposition to social policies intended to benefit disadvantaged minority populations, such as furious opposition to affirmative action and welfare programs.
8) Association with groups that organize around these principles as a core ideology.
9) Strong intolerance of mild attempts to moderate public discourse, with frequent, disparaging criticism of “politically correct” values.
You can waste a lot of time agonizing over whether or not individuals are “really racist” if they haven’t been caught using slurs. We should not be taken in by lame equivocations, or feel paralyzed in challenging racist programs because we lack a smoking gun. We should also not mince words – people who lay awake at night, angry because Mexicans are streaming into the country taking jobs and committing rape are racists, whether they are Klan members or not.
Types of New Racist
One can distinguish between two types of new racist: 1) overt racists who have learned to keep silent in public regarding their views for fear of censure, and 2) people who do not believe that they are racist, but who harbor racist attitudes and consistently act in racist ways.
Overt racists who have learned to keep silent are a very serious problem. For a glimpse at how serious, I highly recommend Mike German’s Washington Post op-ed Behind the Lone Terrorist, a Pack Mentality, written in 2005. German is a former FBI officer who infiltrated violent organizations and learned how they developed strategies to protect themselves from public scrutiny, and how to indirectly support operations such as Anders Breivik’s attack on school children in Norway or the Oklahoma City Bombing without being directly culpable, and thereby legally accountable:
Imagine a very smart leader of an extremist movement, one who understands the First Amendment and criminal conspiracy laws, telling his followers not to depend on specific instructions.
He might tell them to divorce themselves from the group before they commit a violent act; to act individually or in small groups so that others in the movement could avoid criminal liability. This methodology creates a win-win situation for the extremist leader — the violent goals of the group are met without the legal consequences.
Actually, there’s no need to imagine this. Extremist group leaders produce a tremendous amount of literature, including training manuals on “leaderless resistance” and lone wolf terrorism techniques. These manuals have been around for years and now they’re even available online.
“Lone extremism” is not a phenomenon; it’s a technique, a ruse designed to subvert the criminal justice system. McVeigh did act as a lone extremist, as the FBI says. He was trained to do it this way. But his act of lone extremism was part of an ongoing conspiracy that continues to inspire violent attacks to this day, and to close our eyes to this conspiracy is to deny reality. It’s a matter of connecting the dots.
The second kind of new racist does not see themselves racist, but harbors racist attitudes and beliefs. I believe the large majority of new racists fall into the second category.
Dylan Matthews gives a good rundown on these attitudes in Donald Trump has every reason to keep white people thinking about race. In this excerpt, he reviews an experiment conducted by Princeton professor Tali Mendelberg and described in her book The Race Card:
She conducted a study with a random sample of Michigan voters where she showed fake television news stories about a gubernatorial race; in the stories, the conservative candidate was arguing that welfare recipients were an unfair burden. Some of the fake stories featured B-roll of black welfare recipients; others featured B-roll of white recipients. They were otherwise identical — but the stories with B-roll of black recipients led respondents to express significantly more hostile views toward government programs to assist black people. In fact, the effect on their expressed racial views was stronger than the effect on their expressed opinions on welfare.
But the cues can be subtler still, as other research points out. Nicholas Valentino, Vincent Hutchings, and Ismail White manipulated a 2000 campaign ad by George W. Bush that wasn’t even about welfare — it was about health care and taxes — by adding imagery of black people counting money, or a white nurse assisting a black mother, while a narrator says, “He’ll reform an unfair system that only provides health care for some.” In their control group, which saw no ads, measured levels of racial resentment didn’t do much to predict support for Bush versus Gore. Among people who saw the ad with racial cues, their preexisting level of racial resentment was hugely predictive of their presidential preference.
We should also consider people who are neither overtly nor attitudinally racist, but who are committed to policies that are racist in effect for ideological reasons. But this is a problem for another day.
Go Forth and Engage
New racism is a covert expression of racist attitudes identified by its family resemblance to a general racist psychology, the elements of which are fairly self-evident. The racist is constantly concerned about whatever terrible imagined things minorities are doing. It is easy to sense, because the underlying psychology is not subtle. It can be harder to establish – especially if you are looking fruitlessly for a smoking gun that isn’t there.
It is critical to be savvy about how the new racists operate. The New York Times ran an in-depth article on neo-Nazi organizations rebranding themselves for more palatable public consumption as “alt-right,” which said the following about Donald Trump’s victory:
“I’d been waiting to hear those words from a mainstream political candidate all my life,” said Gerald Martin, a retired public-school teacher from Dallas who grew up in a family that opposed desegregation.
He is a veteran of both the Army and a number of white supremacist movements, and name-drops the likes of William Luther Pierce III, a white supremacist who wrote “The Turner Diaries,” a novel about an underground band of white Americans who fight a liberty-crushing government controlled by Jews.
Before the Trump candidacy, Mr. Martin said, few in the alt-right were talking about politics; the movement was more about winning the battle of ideas. But once Mr. Trump began to talk, he said, “suddenly we’re all talking politics and we’re politically energized.”
“We’re almost intoxicated,” Mr. Martin continued. “We don’t have any power — but now we’re close enough to smell it.”