Politics & Policy

Lower the Temperature over ‘Racism’

Both sides should stand up to the outrage industry.

I got over 1,700 comments on my column last Monday calling for America’s outrage industry to refrain from playing the race card so much. It made the Drudge Report and Real Clear Politics.

A lot of people agreed with me that “shouting ‘racism’ in a crowded media and political theater has become a substitute for thought and debate in America,” and that “careless accusations of racism can sometimes do as much damage to race relations as the expression of prejudice and ignorance can.” But some didn’t, and I’d like to address one of their key concerns. I’ll also reveal academic research that some liberals tell me demonstrates why they shouldn’t play the race card, even when they think it’s valid. Bear with me, it’s worth it.

First, my liberal critics. An academic named Beverly told me that I was misusing the word “racism” by employing it in its old meaning, of “prejudice or discrimination based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” She argued that “racism” now refers to anything that reveals how a “white power structure” dominates the country.

I’ll agree that the term has become muddled. As Wikipedia notes, “the exact definition of racism is controversial because there is little scholarly agreement” about it. But that’s precisely why we should be careful about hurling it around. Many people now know only that “racism” is an evil term, and that it can have drastic consequences for those accused of it — but not much else.

The definition of racism has become so all-encompassing that anyone can be tarred with it. Christopher Driscoll, a Rice University scholar and co-chair of the American Academy of Religion’s “Critical Approaches to Hip-Hop and Religion” group, argued in a 2012 paper that “we might be better served by recognizing that multiple racisms operate in the 21st century and consequently, so should multiple definitions.” He had space to list only “a few types of racism” in his paper; they included overt racism — “Think Bull Conner [sic],” the infamous Birmingham, Ala., sheriff who used police dogs and fire hoses against civil-rights demonstrators in the 1960s — and dispositional racism, which “happens when I am viscerally more fearful of a black guy walking towards me on the sidewalk than occurs for his white counterpart.”

Driscoll is white, and he acknowledges that he himself has exhibited the latter type of behavior. But so too has Jesse Jackson. As the Chicago Tribune’s Mike Royko reported, Jackson, at a 1993 Operation PUSH meeting in Chicago, admitted that “there is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” He then added this observation on urban street crime: “This killing is not based on poverty. It is based on greed, violence, and guns.”

But that was the Jesse Jackson who used to, as Royko put it back in 1993, “talk[] about individual responsibility and black community action” and “attack[] drug use, teenage pregnancy, gang membership, and dependence on government.” That was then. Now Jackson is a race hustler, who actually said recently that Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s comments that he didn’t observe blacks being mistreated in the 1950s Louisiana of his youth were “more offensive than the bus driver in Montgomery, Alabama, more than 59 years ago” who sent Rosa Parks to the back of the bus.

I guess shouting racism in a crowded political theater pays better than speaking uncomfortable truths to powerful liberals.

A third form of racism Driscoll mentions is “institutional racism,” which, he says, “is found in the extremely disproportionate numbers of black and brown individuals who face poverty, prison, death row, lack of adequate education or housing etc., etc.” He suggests that scholars shouldn’t focus just on overt or dispositional racism but instead “pay closer attention to other forms of oppression, like poverty and education level.”

Using Driscoll’s reasoning, we can all be accused of racism, at any time and for any reason. If there is any inequality of conditions it is ipso facto true that racism is involved. Down this road lies madness, and an avoidance of discussing real solutions to problems such as poverty or poor schools. Our discourse will remain frozen in mutual suspicion and name-calling.

But there is a way for conservatives and liberals to agree that the race card shouldn’t be played as often as it is. Conservatives have a natural stake in this. After all, they don’t think they are racists — using whatever sweeping definition is out there — and resent the fact that so many arguments default to charges of racism. But a liberal named Phil pointed out to me a good reason liberals should worry that they are overemphasizing racism. Because it’s based on academic research by three noted sociologists from Massachusetts, liberals should be open to the idea.

The research comes from a 2013 article in the journal Poetics by Sarah Sobieraj, a sociologist at Tufts University, and two of her colleagues, who analyzed the content of ten “outrage-based radio and television programs” for six weeks during 2010 “to examine the techniques that the most successful hosts employ to connect with members of the audience.” The shows were hosted by everyone from Glenn Beck to Keith Olbermann (who was fired by MSNBC soon after for being too outrageous).

They then conducted in-depth interviews (ranging from 45 to 80 minutes) with both conservative and liberal fans of the shows. What they found was fascinating. Liberals told them they risk being called naïve or willfully blind by critics of their views. But conservatives said they risk being called racist — and “being called a racist carries a particular cultural force.”

“The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the mind of conservative fans [we interviewed],” the Poetics article notes. Every conservative they talked with raised the issue of being called racist, and did so without being asked. “What makes accusations of racism so upsetting for respondents is that racism is socially stigmatized, but also that they feel powerless to defend themselves once the specter is raised,” the researchers add. “We suspect that this heightened social risk increases the appeal of the safe political environs provided by outrage-based programs” in the media.

In other words, because conservatives fear being called racist, they gravitate to shows such as Rush Limbaugh’s so that they can be convinced they are not.

Some liberals were thrilled over this explanation of why conservatives dominate talk radio (e.g., Limbaugh), the Internet (Drudge Report), and cable news (Fox News). As one of my liberal commenters claimed, “Conservatives desperately want validation that their prejudices don’t make them racists!” Here’s Tom Jacobs of the liberal Pacific Standard commenting on the Sobieraj article:

Social norms have shifted over the past couple of generations, making openly racist thoughts unacceptable. But there’s plenty of evidence these prejudices have merely retreated into the unconscious parts of people’s minds, where they still influence feelings and behaviors.

That said, this research strongly suggests that labeling people as racists for their political views is counterproductive. Even if there is some truth there, admitting as much would destroy their self-image as well as their social standing.

So that argument is a non-starter. All it does is drive people to the safe confines of friendly media, and help fuel the ongoing outrage machine.

Other liberal pundits agreed with Jacobs. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones acknowledged that “it’s also obvious that, in many ways, a liberal focus on race and racism is just flatly counterproductive.”

We have potential closure here, folks. Conservatives live in fear of being tagged as racists, so they will naturally support a lowering of the racism noise machine. Liberals should recognize that attacking conservatives doesn’t change conservatives’ behavior, but does drive them to “outrage-based news sources.” That, in turn, generates more political activity by them. It prompts them to give money to conservative causes and vote in greater numbers, and it provides them with more talking points to, for example, bash Obamacare to their friends and relatives. That all could lead to the Democrats’ losing the Senate this November.

I admit that much of the above is a Rube Goldberg–like reasoning construction. But, hey, people justify worthwhile political compromises for a host of reasons that look strange or don’t make sense at first glance. If both sides can reach agreement that excessive use of the race card is bad for whatever reason, isn’t that the kind of “bipartisanship” the media keep saying we should be striving for?

Of course, the biggest problem with the above is how many people have a stake in fueling the outrage machine — from political groups collecting donations, through politicians seeking votes, to media outlets that live off controversy. Too bad the rest of us don’t have as much time and energy to help make things better. Here’s hoping common sense prevails over outrage someday.

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.


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