If you talk to conservatives about racism, one of their most common rhetorical positions is that liberals are “the real racists” because they (we) can’t seem to shut up about race. We’re obsessed with race – we see racism everywhere! But not conservatives. Conservatives treat everyone identically and don’t even notice race, or if they do notice it they certainly don’t let it affect their decision-making. Why, conservatives think that all of the races are born equal, and deserve equal treatment with equal opportunities for success.
It is because of this rhetorical position that conservatives are deeply offended by the idea of affirmative action programs. By giving one race an “advantage” in hiring or acceptance, liberals are discriminating against white people by saying that simply being born white makes you undeserving of a job or a placement in a school. That only non-whites should get into those jobs and schools, even if they’re not qualified, because liberals think white people are evil, or they feel guilty because some white people had slaves, like 100 years ago.
And it is from this mindset that we get stories like this:
Oklahoma voters have approved a Republican-backed measure that wipes out all affirmative action programs in state government hiring, education and contracting practices. Voters approved the new constitutional amendment Tuesday despite opponents, who claimed there already was a prohibition on racial or gender quotas in state government.
The GOP-controlled Legislature voted in 2011 to send the proposal to a vote of the people. It did so over the objection of Democrats who maintained it was designed only to stoke racial tensions and drive conservative voters to the polls. The Republican sponsors of the bill disputed that claim. They say the amendment’s purpose is to help the state get past racism by showing that a person’s qualifications are more important than skin color.
The emphasis above is mine.
Let’s back up and revisit that first paragraph, shall we? First off, we should note that nothing in that first paragraph is particularly bad or controversial (except the liberal bashing, which is only fair game considering the amount of conservative bashing I do here). I think we can all get behind the idea that everyone is born equal, and that biological race does not meaningfully inform a person’s abilities or worth as a human being. The problem with the conservative position is that it completely ignores the fact that we don’t live in a fair world*, and that race as a social construct does place all sorts of obstacles in a person’s path from birth.
The other major flaw with the conservative position is that it assumes that racism is an overt, conscious process. We know through experimentation and observation that this kind of intentional racism is (thankfully) much more rare than it used to be, but that the kind of racism that we can’t necessarily control through sheer force of will still exists and operates on our decision-making. We don’t become “not racist” by simply insisting that we’re not racist anymore, any more than we become immune to logical fallacies by simply insisting that we’re “skeptics” now. We have to learn how to recognize and think our way out of racist assumptions and attitudes that are part of our upbringing and society. Conservatives seem to simply want to skip to the end of that process without doing any of the work required to get you there in a constructive way.
Which brings us to the parts I highlight in the pull quote. First, it’s important to note that Oklahoma did not have a ‘quota’ system, meaning that it did not mandate the hiring of a certain proportion of people of colour (PoCs). What it did have, likely, is a system whereby race is explicitly included in the hiring process, allowing applicants to indicate that they are a member of a minority group. Managers, when making hiring decisions, can find qualified candidates and, recognizing the need for diversity, draw some of their hires from the pool of those who self-identify. These kinds of programs are designed to ensure that qualified candidates of colour are not overlooked, or are at least featured prominently so that the kinds of passive processes that result in discrimination against PoCs are put at least somewhat in check.
Second, the Republicans seem to believe (and it’s hard not to imagine them saying this sneeringly while fitting themselves for white hoods) that it is up to them to ‘fix’ racism by destroying programs that are specifically designed to cast diversity as a positive force in the workplace. That, if left unchecked by the sterling reputation of the American Republican party, the state would be stuck in this position where they’re not “past” racism, as though racism in Oklahoma was a thing of the past.
The problem is this: affirmative action programs, when successful, make themselves obsolete over time. There is no need to abolish them. No need, that is, unless your intention is in no way to improve the life of PoCs, but is instead a cynical calculation to mobilize resentful white voters who think that affirmative action is “reverse racism“, and that PoCs are taking ‘white’ jobs. But surely Republicans wouldn’t do that. After all, they have no history whatsoever of intentionally stoking racial hatred for electoral gain from behind coded language. Certainly not in the south, at least. And even if that were the case, it’s not like Oklahoma has an issue with race.
In order to recognize this vote for what it actually is, you have to be willing to engage with the reality of what racism looks like in 2012. It is not necessarily the roving lynch mobs of the past, nor is it restricted to overt and intentional hatred that comprises our colloquial usage and understanding. Racism is alive in the ideas that tear down programs designed to diversify wealth and power. It is alive in the zero-sum resentment of whites who believe that any attempt to deal with racism is robbing them of something they deserve. It is alive in the Oklahoma state Republican party, and it just won a ballot measure.
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*This is, I increasingly think, the problem with pretty much every conservative position.