Friday, July 17, 2015

Types of Racism: Opportunistic Racism

In my last post I talked about how someone born into a civilization that promotes a specific idea can only gradually work themselves out of that idea by making a lot of tiny decisions to be careful and thoughtful at any given moment. I posited my view that life is a succession of experiences of cognitive dissonance where one has the opportunity to suffer the pain of expanding her consciousness or lull herself into deeper delusion through the narcotic of willful ignorance.  In this post, I'm going to talk about yet another type of racism, the sort that is manifest in someone who knows better, yet freely chooses to adopt it as a means of gaining power over others.


George Wallace

There was a time in my youth when it was OK for politicians to not only be racist, but to be totally open and unapologetic about their racism. One of the most visibly successful of these "in your face" racists was George Wallace. He was governor of Alabama for four terms: the first beginning in 1963 and the last ending in 1987. (He wasn't governor through that entire period. In fact, Alabama had a law saying that no governor could be elected to two consecutive terms---so Wallace's wife ran and won for one term.) He also ran several significant campaigns for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Though he never had any hope of getting the nomination, he was able to garner a lot of support with the racist elements of the party.

The interesting thing about him was that he was originally considered quite a moderate on race issues. So much so that in his first campaign for governor (1958) he spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan and got the endorsement of the NAACP. He lost to a fellow by the name of John Malcolm Patterson, primarily because he played the race card:  Patterson was endorsed by the KKK, Wallace by the NAACP.  As Wallace himself said to an aide: "--you know why I lost that governor's race? ... I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again."

He ran for the nomination and governorship again, and won that election. Here's a very famous part of the speech he gave at his swearing-in ceremony.

I won't oversimplify and suggest that George Wallace was a Richard the Third who consciously chose to "make evil his good, and good his evil" in order to ride racism into the Governor's mansion. I suspect that the process also involved a lot of small decisions to take the blue pill instead of the red one. (I wish that America hadn't inverted the color scheme that rest of the world uses---outside of the US red means "progressive" and blue means "conservative". The pill metaphor works much better if you understand that.) But he obviously didn't start out in his career as a knuckle-dragging racist, it was something he seems to have freely adopted in order to get elected.

It is extremely rare to get a glimpse into the mind of how a politician actually thinks. This is because the very nature of the job entails selecting for people who have very highly developed antennas that allow them to figure out where a person's beliefs lie, and then shoot them back at them. Also, they never really have the luxury of running for office based on their own beliefs. Instead, they have to develop a grab bag of ideas will attract enough voters to get into office.  And getting into office is the absolute minimum that a politician has to achieve in order to do anything at all that they set out to achieve.

The path to real power is so long and it entails so many compromises that in the end I suspect a great many career politicians no longer remember why they wanted to rule in the first place. It might be that late in Governor Wallace's life he had time to rethink his path in life, because he ended up publicly recanting his racism and even seems to have been regarded with some affection by elements of the Alabama black community. If so, then I think that there is something to the idea that no one is beyond redemption.


To move the clock forward, we have a chance to learn a little bit more about opportunistic racism in the Republican party. Before the US Civil War the political party system split on the line of slavery:  the Democrats were pro-slavery and the Republicans anti.  After the war, this meant that for a very long time only Democrats had any chance of getting elected in Southern states. This was because most whites still resented the Republicans and because of Jim Crow most blacks weren't allowed to vote. This was the "Solid South", where the saying was "I'd vote for a yellow dog before I'd vote Republican".

This all changed after the Second World War when "New Deal Democrats" (ie supporters of the progressive policies championed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt) pushed through civil rights
Lee Atwater
legislation that unraveled Jim Crow. This enraged the "yellow dog" Democrats to the point where they would consider switching their allegiance to the Republican Party. An important strategist who worked to do this was a fellow by the name of Lee Atwater.

His key point was to avoid using crude language about blacks (ie; what Wallace called "out niggering your opponent"), but instead to create coded messages that racists can use to "fill in the blanks".

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn't have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964 and that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
Questioner: But the fact is, isn't it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

This strategic messaging doctrine is called "dog whistling". It has several advantages.  First of all, it appeals to the racist subculture but doesn't antagonize or mobilize ordinary voter's opposition in the way that using less polite language does. The Civil Rights movement was able to mobilize non-racists in the North because they were totally disgusted by the violence and obvious hate manifested by segregationists.  The dog whistle approach avoids doing this.

Secondly, it lulls lazy thinkers into assuming that what is being discussed is exactly what it seems to be. A person who takes things at face value and doesn't think things through will assume that blacks use social services like food stamps in a disproportionate amount (actually, I suspect that this isn't even true) because they are "lazy". But if this "fact" is true, it might be because they can't get jobs that pay enough to actually give a living wage and end up working very hard for very little. The problem with lazy thinkers is that they assume that their personal experience can be projected onto everyone else's.  If you are a white person in a pervasively racist society this sort of reasoning simply doesn't work.

Third, it can be used to appeal to people who are consciously liberal but who are dominated by "fear racism" on a subconscious level.  This tactic was used very well by the Republicans. Check out this YouTube video discussing a series of campaign ads that were considered very important in recent success of the Republican Party.

(Incidentally, this campaign to whip up fear against black people had a secondary effect of whipping up hatred against criminals in general. The result has been catastrophic for the USA, which now overwhelmingly incarcerates far too many people.  This has gotten to the point where even Republican leaders admit that the criminal justice system needs to be dramatically reformed.)


Roger Ailes
Lee Atwater's dog-whistle campaign messaging has been remarkably successful for the Republican party. But another element of opportunistic racism comes from another operative that came from the same milieu:  Roger Ailes. He had been a television producer for the "Mike Douglas Show" in the early 1960s until he met Richard Nixon who was a guest. After a long conversation with Nixon, Ailes got a job working on television issues for the Nixon campaign. He then went on to a significant career in the Republican Party.  (He wrote the script and produced the "revolving door" ad in the above YouTube clip.) Ailes is important because in 2005 he became chairman of the Fox Television Stations Group, and began to set the tone for all of Fox news. His project was quite openly to create a news vehicle for Conservative propaganda.

The thing about Ailes is that he has a profoundly cynical vision of the average television news watcher.  He sums this up with his "Orchestra Pit" theory of news coverage:
 "If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, 'I have a solution to the Middle East problem,' and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?" 
This explains the YouTube clip I showed from Fox News featuring Bill O'Reilly. There is no interest at Fox News to explain a complex issue---instead, the job of the journalist is to accentuate people's emotional reaction to shocking displays (ie the man falling into the orchestra pit.) Fox News is popular with a certain segment of the population for the very reason why it infuriates most people. It panders to the most mentally-lazy part of the citizenry by handing out nothing but the bluest of blue pills. This isn't by happenstance. This policy was deliberately created by people who set out to use racism to further both their careers and their politics.


It's important to understand that the four types of racism that I've identified, hate, fear, mental laziness, and, opportunism, bleed into each other. You cannot separate them easily and say "this person is a fear racist" and "that person is a hate racist", while that person over there is a "mental laziness racist".  A fear racist could use their rationality to work their way beyond their debilitating fear. The cynicism of an opportunist racist could also be understood as the product of mental laziness. You could also say that even an opportunistic racist is motivated to bend the facts because of some sort of fear or hatred. But I do believe that the different categories are useful because they allow people to parse out the different elements of our minds and how to address one specific manifestation of racism when we see it before our faces.


lkeke35 said...
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Unknown said...

great reading. thank you!