How Racism Changes Form—Conservatism As Identity Politics, Pt5
It’s my main thesis in this series that conservatism is not fundamentally about ideology, but about the preservation of elite power, maintained as a form of identity politics. Elites then claim “natural” leadership, in the name of protecting, defending and exemplifying the group identity against evil, enemy “others.” Ideology matters to the conservative project solely as a means for justification, including identity formation. It supports the forms of policies, practices and institutions that preserve group identity and power—and, thereby, elite rule. Consistency matters to this ideology only insofar as it proves necessary. Therefore, “the abandonment of conservative principles” is to be expected when those principles no longer serve those in power.
America’s history of racism provides examples of how conservatism adapts, responding to repeated movements for social justice, which profoundly alter the relationships of radical, liberal and conservative forces. Inconsistencies are generated at multiple levels whenever this happens.
The Conservative Defense of Segregation in the 1950s
William F. Buckley is the elder statesman of American Conservatism. Founded in 1955, his National Review quickly established itself as the flagship national conservative publication. An unsigned editorial (probably written by Buckley) on August 24, 1957, titled “Why the South Must Prevail,” said:
- “The central question that emerges... is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes--the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced ace. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.
“National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence....
“The South confronts one grave moral challenge. It must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class. It is tempting and convenient to block the progress of a minority whose services, as menials, are economically useful. Let the South never permit itself to do this. So long as it is merely asserting the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races, and so long as it does so by humane and charitable means, the South is in step with civilization, as is the Congress that permits it to function.”
The passage also ignores—indeed by invoking the aura of “civilized standards” it explicitly hides—the profoundly violent and barbaric foundations of Southern segregation, and raises the specter of the suppressed majority resorting to violence. This sort of bizarre inversion of reality in maintaining a false identity is also quite typical of conservative identity politics, as we will see more clearly in a future post.
Some may focus their attention on the last paragraph, where it appears to foresee a future of “genuine cultural equality between the races,” however, this is precisely the sort of rationalization that has always served as one face of racism in the modern world—a world in which the ideology of equality has always played some role, and posed some threat to those who reject it too categorically. Indeed, slavery itself was defended by some via the rationale of uplifting the black race. They also sometimes condemned excessive brutality—or at least expressed regret over it, much as the National Review warned that the South “must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class,” but opposed the lifting of a single finger to prevent such exploitation.
Such is the nature of the rhetoric of apologetics. Modern conservativism has always existed in an environment hostile to it—beset by continual social change that requires innovations it opposes, because they undermine its authority and the continuity of blind obediencce—and confronted with an ideology, liberalism, that does a far better job of responding to the challenges of that environment. Because of these two facts, modern conservatism has always felt some need, whether great or small, to adopt some aspects of liberalism, at least in rhetoric, and sometimes in substance. This is what we see reflected above. It is visible throughout the history of American race relations, some examples of which we turn to now.
The Attack On Affirmative Action As Illustrative Conservative Prototype
The fact that conservatism is correlated with SDO, defense of established elites, and rationalizations of elite power in egalitarian drag is not limited to the case of affirmative action discussed in the previous post in this series. Rather, this should be seen as a prototypical example of how modern, post-Enlightenment conservatism works.
“Traditional values” of discriminatory practice are challenged by progressive forces of various stripes, which receive their broadest, most integrated and widely-supported articulation within the framework of liberal political theory. Under prolonged pressure, particularly from the dispossessed themselves, the conservative position is eventually abandoned, and the traditional forms of oppression—along with their primary justification narratives—are abandoned. In their place, new narratives are developed, drawing partly on old narratives that may or may not have been abandoned, and partly on superficial adaptation of some carefully selected narratives that were used to overthrow the old forms of oppression.
Restrcuturing Hierarchical Ideology—The Case of Colorblind Racism
The elements of how this was done in the case of race relations, typified by the example of affirmative action, has been analyzed by a number of theorists, among them Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Bonilla-Silva teases out an ideology centered on individualist classical liberal notions, beliefs and folk models, expressed largely in oblique ways that crumble into incoherence when pressed, and nurtured by a persistent social apartheid that insulates those who hold this ideology from experiential and close interpersonal challenges to their belief systems.
In a paper available online, “The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding ‘Racist’” [PDF], Bonilla Silva explains:
In contrast with Jim Crow, color blind racism major themes are (1) the extension of the principles of liberalism to racial matters in an abstract manner, (2) cultural rather than biological explanation of minorities’ inferior standing and performance in labor and educational markets, (3) naturalization of racial phenomena such as residential and school segregation, and (4) the claim that discrimination has all but disappeared.The paper itself doesn’t attempt a comprehensive outline of colorblind racism. But it does focus on five “stylistic components,” as explained in the abstract:
In this paper I argue that color blind racism, the central racial ideology of the post-civil rights era, has a peculiar style characterized by slipperiness, apparent nonracialism, and ambivalence. This style fits quite well the normative climate of the country as well as the central frames of color blind racism. I document in the paper five stylistic components of this ideology, namely, (1) whites’ avoidance of direct racial language, (2) the central rhetorical strategies or “semantic moves” used by whites to safely express their racial views, (3) the role of projection, (4) the role of diminutives, and (5) how incursions into forbidden issues produce almost total incoherence among many whites. I conclude the paper with a discussion on how this style enhances the ideological menace of color blind racism.And, in the paper’s conclusion, he writes:
If the myth of color blind racism is going to stick, whites need to have tools to repair mistakes (or the appearance of mistakes) rhetorically. In this article I documented the numerous tools available to whites to restore a color blind image when whiteness seeps through discursive cracks.The study of this rhetoric matters for a lot of reasons. But one of them is simply the powerful proof it gives that racism still persists, and that people know it. Otherwise, why would they feel such discomfort, and go through such contortions to hide it?
In short, what Bonilla Silva is doing in this paper is exploring the larger framework around the phenomena that Pratto and Sidanius focused on when they found that people with higher SDO scores, people more supportive of group dominance, were more inclined to use egalitarian arguments against affirmative action. In the section on avoidance of direct racial language, he shows how different rhetorical devices are used to overtly disavow racism, followed by clearly racist assertions. The first two examples, which function quite similarly are “I am not prejudiced, but...” and “Some of my best friends are...”
These have been used so much that they’ve become stereotyped and therefore less effective, so other strategies have emerged. One is saying “I am not black, so I don’t know,” followed by strong expressions of anti-black views. Another is the locution “Yes and no, but...” seemingly taking, or at least acknowledging all sides, but in the end—though often not consciously—coming down on the anti-black side. A third is the “anything but race” strategy, which is less characterized by an exact phraseology.
Projection plays a key role, as Bonilla Silva explains. In the studies he based his findings on, “projections appeared on a variety of issues (e.g., affirmative action, school and residential segregation, interracial friendship and marriage, and blacks’ work ethic), but most often on the hot issue of so-called black self-segregation.”
Here it’s worth quoting a passage at length:
For example, Janet, a student at SU, answered a question on whether or not blacks self-segregate as follows:Of course, it’s also worth noting that there’s some truth in Janet’s claim about minorities choosing to self-segregate. But it doesn’t have the significance she assumes. With large numbers of white folks like her, clueless about their own enduring racism, why should minorities feel as comfortable with whites as they do with one another?
I think they segregate themselves. Or, I mean, I don’t know how everybody else is, but I would have no problem with talking with or being friends with a black person or any other type of minority. I think they’ve just got into their heads that they are different and, as a result, they’re pulling themselves away.The interviewer followed-up Janet’s answer with a question trying to ascertain if Janet had tried to mingle with blacks, but Janet cut her off quickly with the following statement: “They’re off to their own kind of little own world.”
Janet projected once more in her answer to the interracial marriage question onto people who marry across the color line.
I would feel that in most situations they’re not really thinking of the, the child. I mean, they might not really think anything of it, but in reality I think most of the time when the child is growing up, he’s going to be picked on because he has parents from different races and it’s gonna ultimately affect the child and, and the end result is they’re only thinking of them, of their own happiness, not the happiness of, of the kid.By projecting selfishness onto people who intermarry, Janet was able voice safely her otherwise racially problematic stance on intermarriage. Nevertheless, she admitted that if she or a member of her family ever became involved wit someone from a different race, her family, “would not like it at all! [laughs].
The section on diminuitives is neatly introduced as follows:
Because maintaining a non-racial, color blind stance is key, whites use diminutives to soften their racial blows. Hence, when they oppose affirmative action, few say, “I against affirmative action.” Instead, they say something such as, “I am just a little bit against affirmative action.” Similarly, few whites who oppose interracial marriage flatly state, “I am against interracial marriage.” Instead, they say something such as, “I am just a bit concerned about the welfare of the children.” About half of the college students used diminutives to cushion their views on issues such as interracial marriage and affirmative action.Similarly, the introduction to the section on rhetorical incoherence, “I, I, I, I Don’t Mean, You Know, but... ‘: Rhetorical Incoherence and Color Blindness” outlines the phenomena quite clearly:
Rhetorical incoherence (e.g., grammatical mistakes, lengthy pauses, repetition, etc.) is part of all natural speech. Nevertheless, the degree of incoherence increases noticeably when people discuss sensitive subjects. And because the new racial climate in America forbids the open expression of racially-based feelings, views, and positions, when whites discuss issues that make them feel uncomfortable, they become almost incomprehensible.At the very end of his conclusion, Bonilla Silva makes a very crucial point when he writes:
Finally, I end with a methodological observation that has policy implications. If there is a new racial ideology that has an arsenal of rhetorical tools to avoid the appearance of racism, analysts must be fully aware of its existence and develop the analytical and interpretive know-how to dissect color blind nonsense. Analysts unaware of these developments (or unwilling to accept them) will continue producing research suggesting that racial matters in the United States have improved dramatically and, like color blinders, urge for race-neutral social policies. It is the task of progressive social scientists to expose color blindness, show the continuing significance of race, and wake-up color blind researchers to the color of the facts of race in contemporary United States.Of course, in my view at least, racial matters in the United States have improved dramatically. The same was true with the end of slavery, however. Dramatic improvement in a horrific situation will still leave you in a terrible situation. Dramatic improvement in a terrible situation will leave in a bad situation. What we really need is an end to “dramatic improvement.” Dramatic improvement is not enough. Which is why I’m a radical, not a liberal.
Yet, I do not say this to dispute Bonilla Silva’s perspective, but rather to complement it. Preservation of hierarchy and deference is the conservative objective here, and the objective has been achieved. By maintaining the old methodologies, one can verify the waning of the old racism, but this static framework is itself to tightly bound to the historical contexts it seeks to comprehend. One must step back further in order to grasp the true situation. And this is precisely what the liberal/conservative conversation militates against. It is only the radical/liberal conversation that can hope to open up a mainstream awareness of the magnitude of what remains to be done.
We now step back in time to the previous construction of racial hierarchy, the segregation era. (Ignoring, for the most part, the Northern counterpart, which deserves an analysis all its own.) In this account we pull back a bit, so we can see how conservative, liberal and radical views interact. The focus on interactions between ideologies, rather than simply within them, is a subject we’ll discuss explicitly in future installment of this series.
Restrcuturing Hierarchical Ideology—Plessy And Segregation
Racial progress has always come from a two-fold dialogue and collaboration—one between the races, and between liberals and radicals of various stripes. Racial regress has come from a very different two-fold dialogue and collaboration—one between different segments of the white community, and between liberals and conservatives. Colorblind racism is merely the most recent example of this latter phenomena. Two earlier examples were the late 19th Century retreat from Radical Reconstruction and the racial justice ideology that emerged in the last half of the Civil War, and the late 18th/early 19th Century retreat from liberatory ideology of the Revolutionary War, which finally crystalized in the ideology of African colonization.
Both these examples are historically quite complex—including some prominent black support—but the broad outlines are both clear, and strikingly similar. More liberal sentiments dominated the North, while more conservative sentiments dominated the South. As black concerns and radical voices were squeezed out, conservative concerns came to dominate, while overtly liberal sentiments were accommodated to express them.
Hence, Plessy “blessed” segregation with the faux egalitarian veener: “separate but equal.” Of course, by its very nature, separate could never be equal. Any fool could see that. But only if some radical, or even a very conservative black person pointed it out. And they were shut out of the dialogue.
Indeed, it went even further, as the 14th Amendment was deprived of any significant effect. It was held to have no bearing on private business practices or state or local law—leaving it an open question of why anyone bothered to pass it in the first place, if such was actually it’s original intent—a standard that otherwise approaches the status of the Holy Grail in the ideology of conservative jurisprudence.
Southern white terrorism established the first big gains for creating a new racist order. This culminated, eventually, in the disputed election of 1876, which was resolved via the inclusion of a provision for withdrawing federal troops from the South. This made further erosions of black rights inevitable, leading eventually to the passage of new state constitutions, which effectively rolled back everything that Radical Reconstruction had accomplished in establishing political equality of the races. As an important result of these new constitutions, not only were the great mass of blacks disenfranchised—a large number of poor whites lost their right to vote as well, thus re-establishing the fact (in case anyone had missed it) that hierarchy in South had always been about class as well as race.
The manner in which Plessy was eventually overcome underscores the conservative identity hypothesis. It was attacked first at the level of law schools, and once that counter-precedent was established, it was built upon to press for integration at lower, and broader levels, until finally suit was brought for integration of public schools. The resistance was strongest at this level, not just because it had the broadest application, and was most immediate, but also because it threatened to break down the barriers of social segregation, and even—the greatest horror—lead to the possibility of inter-racial sex, and eventually marriage. The preservation of racial identity was thus the most fundamental source of virulent opposition.
What’s more, it’s now widely recognized by scholars that Brown has fundamentally failed. There has been a profound trend away from the highwater mark of integration, as documented by the Harvard Civil Rights Project. More generally, Harvard Law Professor Lani Gunier noted:
The fact is that fifty years later, many of the social, political, and economic problems that the legally trained social engineers thought the Court had addressed through Brown are still deeply embedded in our society. Blacks lag behind whites in multiple measures of educational achievement, and within the black community, boys are falling further behind than girls. In addition, the will to support public education from kindergarten through twelfth grade appears to be eroding despite growing awareness of education's importance in a knowledge-based society. In the Boston metropolitan area in 2003, poor people of color were at least three times more likely than poor whites to live in severely distressed, racially stratified urban neighborhoods. Whereas poor, working-class, and middle-income whites often lived together in economically stable suburban communities, black families with incomes above $50,000 were twice as likely as white households earning less than $20,000 to live in neighborhoods with high rates of crime and concentrations of poverty. Even in the so-called liberal North, race still segregates more than class. Gerald N. Rosenberg, emphasizing the limited roles courts can generally play, bluntly summed up his view of Brown's legacy: "The Court ordered an end to segregation and segregation was not ended." If Brown was a decision about integration rather than constitutional principle, Mark Tushnet observed in 1994, it was a failure.This is not the conventional wisdom, of course, which congratulates us on putting the ugly racist past behind us. But that is simply another example of how the liberal/conservative discourse obscures the truth.
This is indicative of the lifecycle story of how one liberal/conservative convergence—expressed in Plessy, was torn down in principle, only to survive in practice till it could be rearticulated in a new form, under a new liberal/conservative convergence.
We now step further back in time, to the cycle before segregation, when a previous consensus was created, then attacked and destroyed. Again, we find multiple ideologies interacting in the process.
Restrcuturing Hierarchical Ideology—African Colonization
In the previous cycle, conflicting ideals of liberty and white supremacy gave birth to the ideology of colonization, which stood as a barrier to black emancipation, as explained in the book, Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality. After the Revolutionary War, Northern states somewhat haltingly adopted policies of gradual emancipation, a solution designed to not harm the financial interests of Northern slaveholders. There was no such concern with the freed slaves, who tended to languish in extreme poverty—for which they were duly blamed by an increasing number of Northern Whites, who wished themselves rid of this troublesome element. Two attitudes thus coincided—slavery was abhorrent to their credo of liberty, while ex-slaves were abhorrent to their racism. African colonization—returning all freed slaves to Africa—seemed a perfect solution to this dilemma.
Slaves had never been fundamental to the Northern economy, and thus gradual emancipation was quite feasible. Not so in the South. Yet, slavery could still be regarded as evil there, so long as it was held a necessary evil. And so long as it was not threatened, Southerners were perfectly willing to strike this stance: theoretical opposition, practical embrace.
The reverse attitude applied to the notion of African colonization. So long as colonization remained a theory, with perhaps a tiny trickle of soul-salving practice, it provided an ideal “solution” to America’s “race problem” as defined by whites, and helped sustain a north-south coalition. Senators and Congressmen from both sections helped establish and lead the American Colonization Society. But the free black community objected, and engaged in active political organizing, which eventually spurred the emergence of the white Abolitionist movement, and its strong stand against colonization. (It was only as Abolitionism gained strength, from 1830-1860, that an ideology defending slavery as a positive good came to dominate, based largely—though hardly exclusively—on passages from the Bible. See Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840.)
The ideology of colonization remained incredibly resilient. Abraham Lincoln, for example, remained an adherent, arguably to the end of his life. And yet, that mattered little in the end, since he himself had signed the Emancipation Proclamation—which began the process of complete emancipation, which is precisely what colonization was supposed to prevent. Still, there were many other ideological elements of the ante-bellum consensus which remained available for rehabilitation in the post-bellum period, as the civil rights gains of the Civil War and early post-Civil War period were undermined and rolled back, culminating in legal sanctions of Plessy and the passage of Southern state constitutions enshrining white supremacist rule.
Most importantly, at its core, the belief in separate racial identities survived, and flourishes to this day. Conservative politics restructured its policies and their justifications two times after this—first in the post-Civil War period, then in the post-Civil Right period, 100 years later. But the core of identity politics remained intact—and remained a potent weapon for conservatives to use in attacking liberals, and fragmenting their political coalitions.
Shifting Images of Blackness Reflect Ideological Fluidity In Defense of Hierarcy
One significant aspect of race relations that underwent significant shifts was the dominant, white-dictated characterization of the black race, even while its inferior status was maintained as a constant. Before the Atlantic slave trade ended, as demanded by the Constitution, slaves were poorly treated and had very high mortality. Many whites simply assumed that slavery would die off, as the vast majority of slaves died. But the cutoff of the Atlantic slave trade lead to improved treatment of slaves, since they now represented a collective non-renewable resource, and the assumption of their survival was reversed. It reversed again with the end of slavery, when many Southern whites convinced themselves that blacks—who had done the vast majority of work under slavery—would not be able to survive on their own, and would soon die off.
There was also an assumption that strength of body and mind went hand in hand. As blacks refused to die off, and even started to prove their physical superiority, a new model emerged, in which strength of body was assumed to accompany weakness of mind—and thus black physical strength was “proof” of white mental superiority. (For a full account of this and numerous other myths, see Darwin’s Athletes.) Another reversal involved the image of blacks as passive, happy-go-lucky and child-like. With the end of slavery, many whites held onto this image, but it was supplemented by the image of black men as dangerous, violent, murderous rapists, thus justifying a massive wave of lynchings and other acts of anti-black terrorism and violence.
All these shifts of image were clearly related to how white group identity was constructed—and conservative identity, in turn, as a defense of white identity, while Radical Republicanism was associated with treason to the race. They are easily understood in terms of changes in historical realities, despite requiring rather spectacular mental gymnastics in terms of a consistent ideology. This constitutes yet another form of evidence that conservatism is not—and never has been—a consistent ideology at root, but rather a form of identity politics, with ever-shifting rationalizations at every level.
This brief sketch of the ways in which defenses of racial hierarchy were redefined and contested illustrates one facet of how post-Enlightenment conservatism works—it abandons what can no longer be maintained, adopts whatever “progressive” ideas it can turn to its own devices, recasts old arguments in new terms. In short, it engages in all the sorts of intellectual trickery that conservatism is supposed to avoid by trusting instead to the wisdom of history, the soundness of traditions tested by time, and unchanging eternal truths.
What’s most worth noting, however, is that it does this semi-surreptitiously, denying the novelty of the ideas it advances, never proclaiming what is about, never inviting the full range of critical debate that liberalism at its best invites, and even demands. As a result, conservative arguments are not tested the same way that scientific ideas are tested—which was the whole underlying point of Enlightenment thought. They are, instead, primarily expressions of a not-to-be-contested narrative. And whatever the overt subject of the argument, the real subject is the subject making the argument: the conservative subject. The voice of authority. It does not believe in dialogue. It believes in dictating terms, cloaked in whatever mantel of authority it can get its hands on. And above all, the terms it dictates are the terms of identity—who is “us” and who is “them,” who is to speak and who is to listen, who is moral and who is not, who is to rule, and who is to obey. The question of contradictions never arises, because no one else is to be permitted to speak.
This post was originally intended to have a second part, which is being deferred to the next post, for reasons of length. The focus of that second part is how a similar process functions at a more abstract level. I will offer some comments on how libertarian and social conservatism reinvented themselves over a period of time. Both ideologies attempt to present themselves as embodiments of the Founding Fathers—a classic conservative trope of claiming legitimacy by adopting the mantel of heroic creation myths. Yet both involve significant lies, both about the Founding Fathers, and about their own intellectual antecedents.
- Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States.
- “The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding ‘Racist’” [PDF]
- Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality.
- Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840