During slavery, it was commonly propounded that the whites were both smarter and stronger than blacks. There were even faux concerns that if slavery were abolished, the black race would die out, unable to survive on its own. Once slavery ended, however, things changed. The ‘happy docile slave stereotype’ (there were always multiple variants) was replaced by the predator/rapist, whose purported presence served to justify wave upon wave of lynching epidemics.
What these examples show is how fluid racist ideologies can be under pressure, and yet still fulfill their same basic function of justifying and naturalizing racially stratified outcomes. The book ‘Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression’ explains how stratified societies maintain themselves with a mixture of hierarchy-enhancing and hierarchy-attenuating ideas, values and ‘legitimating myths,’ which can vary over time, but still continued to produce stratified outcomes provided newer legitimating myths emerge to support hierarchy, as the older ones fall out of favor.
In America as a whole, perhaps the most useful framework for understanding this process in the so-called post-civil rights era is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s concept of ‘colorblind racism,’ as explained in his 2003 book, ‘Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States.’ While the idea of a ‘colorblind’ social order was, in the 19th century, a relatively radical, emancipatory idea, more recently the notion has been turned upside down, with the claim that we are already colorblind, except, perhaps, for those who still see racial injustices. The concept of ‘colorblind racism’ neatly captures what’s involved in this shell game.
'The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information,' Bonilla-Silva explained, and he identified four such frames at the heart of colorblind racism: 1) Abstract Liberalism, using ideas associated with political liberalism (such as 'equal opportunity,' the idea that force should not be used to achieve social policy) and economic liberalism (choice, individualism) — in an abstract manner to explain racial matters. 2) Naturalization ('That’s just how things are.') 3) Cultural Racism (arguments like 'Mexicans don’t put much emphasis on education' or 'Blacks have too many babies'to explain the condition of minorities.) 4) Minimization of Racism, which simultaneously acknowledges and dismisses persistent racism ('It’s better now than in the past' or 'There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there').
With this framework as background, it’s not hard to understand the evolution of even more pernicious extremist variants in the right-wing media, which Boehlert sketched out. It began with Andrew Breitbart and his website announcing that ‘basically racism had been eradicated, and that anyone who talked about the topic was therefore a racist,’ especially ‘civil rights activists and civil libertarians … because by raising questions, or talking about it, or discussing it, they were trying to rip the country apart, because the country is already solved racism.’
From Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, quoted here in full because I think it deserves to be read in full:
A few weeks ago I received an anxious text from my wife informing me that a group of young men were fighting outside of our apartment building. We’ve spent most of our adult lives in New York, and most of that time in New York living in Harlem. I love Harlem for the same reason I love all the hoods I have lived in. I walk outside in my same uniform, which is to say my same jeans, my same fitted, my same hoodie, and feel myself washing away, disappearing into the boulevard, into the black and (presently) the brown, and becoming human.
There have been young people fighting outside my window for as long as I can remember. I was no older than five sitting on the steps of my parents’ home on Woodbrook Avenue watching the older boys knock shoulders in the street—”bucking” as we called it then—daring each other to fire off. From that point on I knew that among my people fisticuffs had their own ritual and script. The script was in effect that evening: show cause (some niggas jumped me in the park), mouth off (I ain’t no punk), escalate (wait right her son, I’m bout to get my shit).
My wife wanted to know what she should do. She was not worried about her own safety—boys like this are primarily a threat to each other. What my wife wanted was someone who could save them young men from themselves, some power which would disperse the boys in a fashion that would not escalate things. No such power exists. I told my wife to stay inside and do nothing. I did not tell her to call the police. If you have watched the events of this past week, you may have some idea why.
Among the many relevant facts for any African-American negotiating their relationship with the police the following stands out: The police departments of America are endowed by the state with dominion over your body. This summer in Ferguson and Staten Island we have seen that dominion employed to the maximum ends—destruction of the body. This is neither new nor extraordinary. It does not matter if the destruction of your body was an overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction of your body resulted from a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction of your body springs from foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be be destroyed. Protect the home of your mother and your body can be destroyed. Visit the home of your young daughter and your body will be destroyed. The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.
It will not do to point out the rarity of the destruction of your body by the people whom you pay to protect it. As Gene Demby has noted, destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held accountable. The body of Michael Brown was left in the middle of the street for four hours. It can not be expected that anyone will be held accountable.
We are being told that Michael Brown attacked an armed man and tried to take his gun. The people who are telling us this hail from that universe where choke-holds are warm-fuzzies, where boys discard their skittles yelling, “You’re gonna die tonight,” and possess the power to summon and banish shotguns from the ether. These are the necessary myths of our country, and without them we are subject to the awful specter of history, and that is just too much for us to bear.
James Poulos is trying admirably to get at this, noting that we fear Lincoln’s awesome prophecy. But even Poulos can’t quite escape:
We know that America is exceptional in one key respect—we came to democracy without much bloodshed. Around the world, from Hungary and Russia to Iraq and Nigeria, we see the dream of peaceful democratization dragged again and again to what the philosopher Hegel called the slaughter-bench of history. Racial strife and murderous governments, not liberty and democracy, are the rule in history, the established pattern. We know that, mercifully, democratization scourged us only once in ferociously modern style: during the Civil War.
The last sentence here nullifies the first. Some 600,000 Americans—2.5 percent of the American population—died in the Civil War. What came before this was a long bloody war—enslavement—against black families, black communities and black bodies. What came after was a terrorist regime which ruled an entire swath of this country by fire and rope. That regime was not overthrown until an era well within the living memory of many Americans. Taken all together, the body count that led us to our present tenuous democratic moment does not elevate us above the community of nations, but installs us uncomfortably within its ranks. And that is terrifying because it shows us to be neither providential nor exceptional, and only special in the subjective sense that our families are special—because they are ours.
My family lives in Harlem. My wife did not call the police. An older head told the angry boys that they needed to take it somewhere else, which they did. Black people are not above calling the police—but often we do so fully understanding that we are introducing an element that is unaccountable to us. We introduce the police into our communities, the way you might introduce a predator into the food chain. This is not the singular, special fault of the police. The police are but the tip of the sword wielded by American society itself. Something bigger than Stand Your Ground, the drug war, mass incarceration or any other policy is haunting us. And as long we cower from it, the events of this week are as certain as math. The question is not “if,” but “when.”
Bible study last night at our house was pretty great BUT when we got to the cleansing of the Temple (in the book of Mark, which is what we’re studying), the person who was leading basically skipped it to talk about the fig tree and the thing where if you have enough faith you can move mountains blah.
And I was like, Hold up, this is really important, it’s basically the climax of the book; the Temple is the center of Jewish national life and identity in this period—you wouldn’t read a story where the main character runs into the White House waving a gun and telling everyone to get out and think “huh, nothing to see here.” (One could argue that the crucifixion is the climax, but keep in mind that that’s when the hero dies, which one might argue makes it the low point of the book, no?) After that everyone was staring at me so I was like, “Haha, but yeah, fig trees, let’s talk about that” and everyone chuckled nervously and we moved on.
It seemed like a perfect example of the deep rut Christians can get in when it comes to the Bible: by the time we reach adulthood, we’ve heard all the stories so many times. What’s left is just to take the words and see how they apply to my life, what is God “saying to me right now” through the words, as though the Bible were a tarot deck or an astrological chart. If I read the Bible this way, of course what I want to talk about is how my faith can move mountains and kill fig trees: it’s super easy to find a way that that can “speak to” my current situation with a bare amount of creativity.
Which is a great way to miss the message of the gospel writers and, I dare say, Jesus himself. Jesus’ message comes in sayings and teachings, sure, but the big, deep, crucial, focusing points are all actions. We ignore them to our own peril.