“I Guess I’m a Racist” and Other Proclamations That End Conversations About Race

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Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, left, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama shake hands at the conclusion of the presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. Friday, Sept. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak).

The following is an excerpt from Ian Haney López’s book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Haney López joined Bill Moyers to talk about how politicians use strategic racism to turn Americans against each other and win votes.

When Obama briefly referenced race as one of the ways that the GOP might try to scare voters, in addition to the typical “race card” retort, the McCain camp also struck back with the charge that Obama had sought to “paint John McCain . . . as racist.” This assailment deserves a bit more attention.

Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney López

The claim to have been slandered as a racist frequently crops up on the right in response to liberal efforts to focus on troubling racial dynamics and there may be a fair level of cynical strategizing at work in such conservative carping. By translating the claim that race continues to play a distorting role in American life into a narrow indictment of mean-spirited bigotry, conservatives are more able to easily dismiss the allegation as absurd. The invented charge of being a closet Klan member is readily repudiated. In addition, because the charge of being a racist is freighted with social opprobrium, alleging they have been so charged allows conservatives to cast themselves as unfairly maligned victims. The claim to have been called a racist sucks all the air out of the room, ending any substantive conversation; the only thing left is for the race critic to apologize and to deny that she intended to call anyone a racist. In short, for conservatives, alleging that they’ve been called a racist is good strategy.

But what about the emotional affect that often accompanies this particular defensive kick? Typically, those claiming to have been denoted racists exude outrage or distress. The imagined accusation, their emotions communicate, has wounded them personally, deeply bruising their sense of themselves. McCain’s spokesperson reacted angrily, not only rejecting the non-charge but vigorously defending McCain as someone who “fought his entire life for equal rights for everyone,” as if McCain’s whole career had been smeared.

Or consider the pained dismay communicated by actors in an ad opposing health care reform. The ad featured perhaps a dozen adults, mostly white and seemingly middle class, including one young woman with a toddler, looking directly into the camera to confess “I guess I’m a racist.” The ad interspersed these aggrieved confessions with text and a voice-over repeating the allegation made by some outspoken liberals, including Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter, that race likely informed some of the opposition to Obama’s health care overhaul. These actors were signaling their antagonism to health care reform — and also to the charge that in politics race matters — by facetiously taking upon themselves the “racist” label. Yet when they intoned “I guess I’m a racist,” their demeanor communicated not satire but heart sickness.

It’s impossible to know whether, coming from a politician’s camp or an anti-health care ad, these intonations of wounded feelings were genuine or feigned. Even if the latter, though, they nevertheless track a real sense of distress among many conservatives, including many tea party members, who feel that they have been unfairly vilified as racists. Sometimes allegations of having been called a racist constitute a strategic retort, but often they reflect a deeply felt wound.

Some greet this sort of defensiveness as a sign of progress. At least we’ve arrived at a place where whites worry about being racists, they say. But hair-trigger defensiveness is not a sign of forward movement. On the contrary, it reflects a pattern as old as racism. Racial ideas perpetually adapt to reassure members of the dominant group that, however unjust the social arrangements and whatever the attendant violence, they are good and decent folks. Thus, at virtually every historical juncture, challenges to existing racial structures — whether it be slavery 150 years ago or the inhumanity of racialized mass incarceration today —  have often been received as personal affronts. Even in eras now recognized as unquestionably racist, most whites accepted the racial status quo as normal and moral and internalized challenges to racial injustice as assaults on their integrity. Thus, that whites should continue to feel defensive today should not be taken to indicate racial progress.

Baldwin’s words go to the larger impact generated when many whites feel implicated as racists. One dynamic is the forced exoneration. But the deeper result is to forestall desperately needed conversations about race in society.

In 1965, the novelist James Baldwin explored white defensiveness in an essay entitled “White Man’s Guilt.” Baldwin started by noting how his color seemed to impede human connection with many whites. They saw his color first and reacting to that, feared an indictment over their own racial position. “And to have to deal with such people can be unutterably exhausting,” Baldwin wrote, “for they, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one, disagreeable mirror though one may be, has not really, for the moment, made.” Baldwin lamented that white defensiveness against possible charges of racism frequently skewed any possible relationship, repeatedly forcing him into exhausting gymnastics meant to reassure whites of their innocence. Just so with contemporary claims of wounded feelings at having been, supposedly, called a “racist.” The actual charge of racial malice is almost never made. And yet, racial justice advocates are time after time pushed to provide exoneration from the fictional accusation of personal bigotry.

But this is only half the dynamic and indeed, not the important half. Baldwin wrote that he did not need to level any charges, for the proof of white responsibility for racial oppression was everywhere in society. “The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans — white Americans — would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives.” The imagined allegation against which many whites aggressively defend themselves today is of personal bigotry. The social indictment written in the sky is rather of a shared responsibility for race’s continued distorting power.

Baldwin’s words go to the larger impact generated when many whites feel implicated as racists. One dynamic is the forced exoneration. But the deeper result is to forestall desperately needed conversations about race in society. Claims to have been personally attacked take productive conversations about current racial patterns and collapse them into a stultifying ventilation of wounded feelings. It shifts attention from racial dynamics that hurt everyone and focuses our eyes instead on the bruised egos of those whites who feel themselves personally targeted whenever the conversation turns to race. The imagined charge is of small-minded bigotry. The actual charge, written across society — including, importantly, in the racial politics of the GOP — is that race in various forms continues to harm us all.  Histrionic distress about supposedly having been called a racist impedes recognizing the truth about race’s continued harmful power.

Copyright © 2014 by Ian Haney López. Excerpted with permission from Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, by Ian Haney López (January 13, 2014 from Oxford University Press).

Ian Haney López, a UC Berkeley law professor and senior fellow at Demos, is the author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (2014). His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @IanHaneyLopez.
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