Conservatism: Racism When You Need It

2012 primary debate

In the Winter 1999 issue of The Public Eye Magazine, PRA printed an excerpt from Founder and President Emerita Jean Hardisty’s book Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. In it, Hardisty discussed affirmative action, providing the history of its conception along with the Right-Wing’s stance against the policy.

After the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson and his administration sought to eliminate discrimination in the hiring and promotion process by issuing Executive Order 11246, which required affirmation action from employers who had contracts with the federal government, and sanctions for the ones who didn’t. In 1972, Richard Nixon signed into law Congress’s Equal Opportunity Act, which expanded anti-discrimination protections for women and people of color. The Right, of course, cried “reverse discrimination” then, and is still finding ways to explain the “needlessness” for affirmative action now.

One of the Right’s tactics that Hardisty examined was their appropriation of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech, which conservatives still interpret as an endorsement for colorblind ideology. The right has warped MLK from a radical for justice into essentially these few words: “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” They ignore the context of this quote, which addressed King’s opposition to White power, the root cause for judgment of race in the first place. In his 1964 book, Why Can’t We Wait, however, he made it evident that race is very important because, unless people of color are provided some type of assistance, their rights will never meet with that of White people’s. King wrote:

It is obvious that if a man is entering the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.

Hardisty discussed how the right had undergone a transformation in the 1980s, which created a “new racism.” Rather than upholding Jim Crow laws and practices—something that had “declined steadily since the 1940s”—the right attempted to use policies like affirmative action against people of color, utilizing a colorblind argument. This new racism, ignoring a person’s race, and suggesting that group identifiers are “unnecessary”—that cultural backgrounds have no place in today’s society because “racism is a thing of the past”— modernized discrimination in the hiring process.

Republicans, especially White male Republicans, expect marginalized groups to be able to rise above oppression on their own accord because, in their minds, race should not affect their merit and skill.

During the 2012 presidential primaries, Republican candidates played to this colorblind strategy. Mitt Romney objected to the extension of voting rights for convicted felons, despite it being “an issue that disproportionately affects African-American and Hispanic males…[as] a direct result of…the drug wars implemented during the Reagan administration.” Newt Gingrich, when asked by Juan Williams about why Newt insisted on “talk[ing] about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” said he did not see why it was an insult to Black Americans. Rick Santorum, during one of his campaign stops, offered the statement, “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.” These Republicans refused to consider that institutionalized racism caused much of the disparities between White people and people of color—that somehow Black and Latino Americans were content with living off food stamps, or that they expected to be given free money, which are racist stereotypes and assumptions in and of itself.

Hardisty then went on to note the distancing of the Right from the Far Right’s White supremacy philosophy throughout the 1980s. While the Far Right—White supremacists and neo-Nazis—had no issue with openly promoting “White rights,” the Right Wing attempted to remove themselves from bigoted attitudes and activities. The New Right Republicans of the time, if discovered making racial slurs, were denounced quickly by their leaders and prompted to apologize soon afterward. This trend of immediate condemnation of racist statements made by conservatives is still present today. Some recent examples of this include:

By protesting against the most egregious of violations within their own Party, Republicans can defend against accusations of racism against themselves. To them, eradicating affirmative action is nothing like the overt racist language of their prejudiced peers.

Affirmative action cases are being closely watched today because of how race issues in the United States have developed. The Justices appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George Bush—according to Jean Hardisty—have created a rightist tilt, and thus have halted much of the progress made by civil rights leaders. Evidence of this is found in their lack of ruling on the case at the University of Texas and their divided opinions on how to handle the case for Michigan schools.

In situations where affirmative action has already been banned, statistics show decreases in enrollment numbers of students of color, particularly for Black students. At the University of Michigan, Black student enrollment dropped 30 percent in their undergraduate and law schools after they prohibited race as a factor for consideration. After California’s passing of Proposition 209 in 1996, University of California schools found major drops as well; the percentage of first year Black students at UC Berkeley fell from 6.5 percent to under 3 percent in 10 years, and UCLA first years dropped from 7.3 percent to under 2.7 percent. The University of Florida also saw a decrease from 11.3 percent to 9.4 percent from 2000 to 2005 after the policy was changed.

Comparably, because the public-sector has historically provided fair and impartial job opportunities for women and people of color, government jobs show far more diversity than private institutions. Not only are the proportions of public-sector workers more balanced, they “face smaller wage disparities across racial lines” as well.

Hardisty noted that recipients of programs such as welfare and affirmative action are met with shaming by Right-Wing politicians. They were labeled as “‘undeserving’ individuals” who benefited “at the expense of ‘deserving’ taxpayers.” Present-day conservatives continue this victim-blaming and colorblind practice. During his 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney called the “47 percent” who were going to vote for Barack Obama entitled, that they believed the “government has a responsibility to care for them.” He continued, “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” His statements were echoed by Glenn Beck, who said on his radio show, “That is the problem with government welfare and everything else, get a damn job,” and Newt Gingrich, who said “[Republicans] believe in work and education, [liberals] believe in food stamps and dependency.

The Right readily pretends that racial injustice does not exist, and that anyone can overcome obstacles if they simply tried hard enough, which is blatantly false.

In discussing how White the Right is, it is important to understand there are conservatives of color. Jean Hardisty discussed how they “play a politically important role in the Right’s attack on affirmative action.” By using a person of color, especially a Black person, to make their argument publicly, White conservatives can then use the “legitimacy” of that argument to back their own hostility. Denouncing affirmative action appears more authentic when a person of color says they have no need for it. White conservatives can shield themselves from the adverse reactions of people for trying to dismantle these policies.

It wasn’t hard to find examples. Just take a look at this year’s Values Voters Summit, when Dr. Ben Carson compared the Affordable Health Care Act to slavery. His talking point was immediately embraced by White conservatives such as Bill O’Brien, John Fleming, Rush Limbaugh, and more who would never have dared make such an audacious comparison on their own. His Blackness allows White republicans to say that their Black representative was the one to issue such a statement, not them. They can hide in the background—the focus on conservatives of color—while supporting the racist proclamations made by people such as Ben Carson.

When former Democrat Elbert Guillory announced why he switched to the Republican Party, calling for other Black Americans to abandon the “government plantation and the [liberal] party of disappointment,” pundits such as Glenn Beck had no issue publishing about it as if it were a step in the right direction.

Conservative activist Samuel Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, posted an article on his website that said, “Wanting a White Republican president doesn’t make you racist, it just makes you American,” written by Kevin Jackson, a Black conservative. Rather than writing this piece himself, Wurzelbacher used Jackson’s article as a means to voice his own opinions without taking on full responsibility.

Some members of the Right ironically reject affirmative action while favoring racist policies such as racial profiling. Writer and columnist Victor Davis Hanson wrote a piece that advised individuals to “watch out if you see young black men on the street or approaching your house or vehicle—they commit ‘an inordinate amount of violent crime.’” On the other hand, he does not favor affirmative action, offering the question, “what exactly is the justification for affirmative action’s ethnic preferences or admissions [?]”

Conservatives claim that by discussing the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, President Obama is “race baiting;” yet they are colorblind when it comes to acknowledging the racial disparities that Black Americans go through in the United States, such as New York City’s Stop and Frisk program. Colorblindness ignores the racial discrimination that people of color go through on a daily basis.

As racial justice gains more in ways of equality, the right will continue to push back against it. While it’s clear conservatives continue their firm colorblind belief that any individual, regardless of race, can earn their way into a higher institution of learning or the workforce, revealing their hypocrisy and showing the actual race issues people of color face is the only way to make progress.

At Values Voters Summit, Racist Revisionism the Order of the Day

Conservative pundit Dr. Ben Carson (left), Martin Luther King Jr.'s niece Alveda King (center), and American Values president Gary Bauer

Conservative pundit Dr. Ben Carson (left), Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece Alveda King (center), and American Values president Gary Bauer (right)

There were many disturbing takeaways from the first day of Values Voters Summit (VVS) sessions. The one that struck me most forcefully is that the cognitive dissonance and historical revisionism of the white supremacist Religious Right on the issues of race and racism is very much here to stay. In fact, they’re digging their heels in—and they’re using Black conservatives and other conservatives of color to do it. From the 7:00 am breakfast session – “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition! (The 2nd Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms)” – to the final panel on “The Future of Marriage,” omissions, half truths, and breathtaking equivocations on America’s racist history, and present, were the rule of the day.

In the breakfast session, Black former Cincinnati mayor Ken Blackwell claimed that we have the Second Amendment to thank for America being the most diverse and free nation in the world—citing as an example the Deacons for Defense, a 1960s Black Power group who advocated armed self-defense against white supremacist violence. He framed gun-ownership as crucial to resisting and defending oneself against government tyranny and giving the ludicrous implication that all it took to end Jim Crow was for Black Americans to own guns.

How to square this with the reality that the Deacons and similar groups were violently targeted by the white Right and the U.S. government in the 60s—or with the present-day reality that the Right Wing routinely smears unarmed Black men like Trayvon Martin or Ramarley Graham as dangerous thugs who deserve to be shot and killed—I cannot tell you. Yet Blackwell’s comments about the heroism of armed Black men were applauded by the (at least) 90% white audience.

The parade of Black speakers at VVS seemed at least partially calculated to absolve the white Religious Right of its ongoing racism and rewrite its supremacist past. To hear them tell it, conservatives are the true champions of civil rights, liberals are the real racists, and Black communities are sad, ignorant dupes of the Democrats.

This has, of course, become fairly standard rhetoric from Black and white conservative leaders, but it was taken to extremes at the Summit that I literally breathtaking. There were three moments where I gasped out loud at racist or racialized comments from speakers:

  • Dr. Ben Carson called “Obamacare…the worst thing to happen in this country since slavery”
  • MLK’s niece Dr. Alveda King declared that “white people didn’t kill [her] uncle, the Devil did”
  • Gary Bauer, president of American Values and former head of the Family Research Council, asserted that “because of Judeo-Christian civilization, the slaves were freed.”

King’s and Bauer’s statements where met with applause. From the surprised murmur that swept the crowd after Dr. Carson’s comment, it seemed that even the Values Voters crowd was slightly stunned by the comparison—or perhaps that a Black man was the one who made it. A conservative blogger who struck up a conversation with me later in the day volunteered that Carson’s speech was easily the most surprising and controversial of what he’d heard so far.

In any case, the common thread between all three statements is how thoroughly they rewrite the legacy of white supremacy in American evangelicalism. I was particularly struck by Alveda King’s speech, when she called the ideas of racial reconciliation and interracial unity a “confession” – including an admission that she once “blamed…all white people” for the assassination of her uncle.

Taken with the reframing of evangelical “Judeo-Christian” culture as freeing the slaves – rather than the reality that white evangelicals were financially, theologically, and violently invested in the institution of slavery and perpetuating white supremacy—it adds up to a disturbing picture. White conservative Christians, in the narrative of VVS, are and always have been champions of racial equality, while Black people who name white racism are not only irrationally hateful, but in fact sinning against white people. As PRA’s own Rachel Tabachnick and others have noted, this claim that the Religious Right is working for “racial reconciliation” is a ruse for concealing “proselytizing – for both charismatic evangelical belief and right wing politics.” Judging from the first day of Values Voters, it’s a strategy that this crowd is committed to for some time to come.