Here is how I arrived at the conclusion that racism exists: firstly, because we talk about. Why would we talk about it if it wasn’t a thing? Just because it is a thing I don’t see doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Let me be clear: I’m not usually one for calling people racists (story perhaps at a later date), or any other kind of blanket identifiers, but I won’t hesitate, after careful consideration, to say thy are behaving in a racist (e.g.) manner or exhibiting racism (e.g.) or racist (e.g.) tendencies.
In reading and discussing–or arguing about–a few recent Slate articles on racism in the Republican party (one creating an argument for neo-racism in the Republican party and the other about middle-aged white men, whiteness, and the Romney campaign; I recommend reading the articles because they can make their arguments better than I ever could) I am reminded of an inalienable truth I learned in childhood: jokes are funny because they have kernels of truth. As tools of humor, stereotypes fall into the same category. Likewise our baseless assumptions about social structure also contain kernels of truth.
An episode of NBC’s new sitcom The New Normal presents us with a superb assumed-truth-stereotype: the incompatibility of blackness and Republicanism. The seemingly well-off, white, openly racist and homophobic (also sexually repressed) grandmother is delighted to meet a fellow Republican in Democrat-laden California, forgiving him his transgression of blackness. In our stereotype-defined social outlooks, this is what we least expect: the black Republican. It’s kind of funny, if only because we are inclined to see it as inherently contradictory. Why? Because Republicans are, obviously, old angry white men.
This stereotype of the Republican Party being the white man’s party, though not categorically true (as the exception-to-the-rule rule teaches us), must possess a kernel of truth. It must also, following a particular path of logic, be racist. Stay with me for a moment as I summarize thousands of words written by better writers than I:
The South is Republican (stereotypical and political truism). The South is Confederate (historical truism). The Confederacy is racist (historical truism). Ergo so too must be the South and, particularly, the Republican South. Can we extend this to say that Republicans are or the Republican Party is racist? Rather, does the Republican Party exhibit racist tendencies? I’d be inclined to err on the side of “yes,” mostly because my Kernel of Truth Logic means stereotypes can be used in proving their basic contention. (If there’s a stereotype about it, it must be partly true: if there’s a stereotype about no black Republicans, then there must be very few.) If we are inclined to think of the white South as Confederate (racist) and simultaneously of the white South as Republican, then logically the Republican party is Confederate and/or racist and all this must be at least partly true. I don’t necessarily agree with this, just following a path.
That’s settled. Now, I want to consider not the role of racism in modern politics, but the baser argument that racism HAS a role in modern politics, or modern society, particularly the South. I’ve proved with shoddy logic that it does, but I believe I have some empirical evidence in support of this conclusion.
The minuscule optimist inside me is hesitant to accept the kerneled truth of this racist white Southern Republicanism stereotype (though intellectually the arguments are, if not compelling, at least interesting) but then again my white upper-middle class suburban life has been wonderfully and misleadingly absent of racism. All white Southerners could be racist Republicans (I do not believe this); how would I know? Still, in this sheltered upbringing and subsequent, also somewhat sheltered, life experience, even I have encountered racism’s remnants.
Here are two small anecdotes in support of the theory that America is not done with racism:
My only real brush with American Southern Racism (I’m branding it) was in the third degree. My friend and I were driving from Houston to New Orleans and he made sure, repeatedly, I knew “we can’t stop in Vidor. Whatever we do, we can’t stop there.”
“Why?” I asked. Until that point, our discussions of race had extended only to talking about our own, and never in any substantive or broad sociological way.
“My friend just told me not to go there unless I wanted to get shot.” Or maybe he said lynched. Either way.
The implication was clear, but so unreal that I was half-tempted to stop there for some racism-tourism. You’ll be happy to know pragmatism won the day.
I then thought of East Texas, probably inaccurately, as this racist backwater that didn’t reflect Texas or the South on the whole. (I think a lot of terrible things about Texas, but being racist isn’t one of them.) That must be where all those old-school racists are, I thought: in tiny Bayou hamlets hiding in their legacies of hatred. But then I came across a line in one of those aforementioned Slate articles which made me recall another small nugget from my annals of childhood memories.
In the late 90s, controversy and conflict (both internally and nationally) over the Confederate flag flying atop South Carolina’s State House was coming to a head. I will not pretend to parse the meanings of the Confederate flag; suffice to say sighting it causes discomfort. A local artist–we lived in New Jersey at the time–was making statues of individual slaves aboard slave ships shackled to their wood slat “beds”; tucked under each statue’s head, while he lay in skeletal and near-death eternity, was a triangle-folded Confederate flag. These slave statues were a protest against South Carolina flying the flag, against the Carolinian and more broadly Southern legacies of the Confederacy and slavery. My parents acquired one of these statues and it now, as it did then, makes me cringe. I cringe partly because of the realism of the art (look at me, the critic) and partly because it is a constant reminder that the Confederacy still matters in a very real way.
My (thankfully) limited exposure to Southern racism nevertheless forces me to conclude the undeniable: slavery’s most virile offspring, racism, is alive and well. Whether it’s in the United States as a whole, in the Republican party, in the white South, or in some combination thereof, is not for me to say conclusively; but the evidence is certainly intriguing.