How DARE you?! Conversations about liberal racism

Being a liberal is often associated, rightly or wrongly, with smugness or an air of superiority. For example, oftentimes this ‘superiority’ is the product of a comprehensive education in the humanities and sciences (dare I say a ‘liberal arts’ education)? When someone makes a reductive claim – attributing outcome A solely to input B – liberals often point out that there are causes C-Z to consider as well. What the reductive claim-maker hears is “you’re stupid and I’m better than you because you didn’t know that”. It is no accident that the forces of anti-intellectualism line up almost exclusively on the right.

But beyond the explanations for why there are reasons why liberals might be seen as arrogant when in fact we aren’t, there certainly does exist some legitimate arrogance that comes from the same source as conservative arrogance, or the sense of superiority manifesting itself in any group. When one associates with only those (or primarily those) that share your group monicker, one begins to believe one’s own propaganda. Tea Party groups really do believe, for example, that they are true patriots who only want government off their backs – that’s because they don’t read the polls that reveal them to simply be the new face of the religious right. Religious groups really do believe, as another example, that theirs is the ‘true’ interpretation of the holy books – that’s because they don’t recognize that their ‘proofs’ of their deity are the same as those of a competing group.

With liberals, the most vexing of these myths is the one about racism being ‘their’ problem. Namely, that being liberal makes you vouchsafed from racist thoughts or ideas. I can understand where this myth comes from. Conservatism, particularly when it comes to immigration and civil rights, is always on the side of the status quo – hence the name. Because an argument against allowing immigrants (which is often an argument against allowing certain immigrants) access to citizenship always carries with it the stench of anti-brown bigotry, those on the conservative side end up holding the bag for racism and xenophobia. The same goes for civil rights and access – it was conservatives opposing the Civil Rights Act, it was (and is) conservatives opposing lesbian/gay marriage rights, which leaves them tagged with repeated instances of bigotry.

Because liberals have been on the other side of these fights (by and large), liberals have become comfortable with the assumption that adopting this political stance is impervious armour against accusations of thoughtcrime. Indeed, when having drinks with a colleague and discussing politics, he made some offhand remark about how as liberals, we had to overcome racism from the right. He was visibly first confused, then alarmed when I suggested to him that, in fact, liberals are racist too. It might not look the same as conservative racism, but it still has the same effect.

It was with these thoughts in the back of my mind that I read this piece in The Nation:

Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. This form of racism was a standard feature of American politics for much of the twentieth century. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest that such racism is no longer operative. His re-election bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it.

In it, Dr. Harris-Perry (who I follow on Twitter) lays out an argument for why white voters, who supported Barack Obama in the first election, may be abandoning him now at a greater rate than they did President Clinton in the 90’s – despite the many political and situational similarities between the two. Given that so many of the ostensible reasons for withdrawing support are balanced between the two administrations, racism may explain, at least in part, any differences in voter support and approval. It’s hard to argue that race and racism have not played a role in this particular presidency far more than in others.

Because I liked both this article and a related one that more closely explored the racial attitudes of Bill Clinton more specifically and liberals more generally, I fired a quick message to Dr. Harris-Perry in support, because I knew that she was taking quite a bit of flack for her audacious temerity to suggest that liberals weren’t the immaculate paragons of fairness that we make ourselves out to be. Basically, just a “hey, I liked your piece in the Nation.” Didn’t even get a reply. No biggie.

It was a few short hours before a friend of mine sent me a seemingly-indignant message, asking me to defend my support for Harris-Perry’s article. She/he had procured statistics suggesting that all presidents lose favourability in their first terms (which the article doesn’t dispute), and that she/he saw more differences between the two presidencies than the article had pointed out. When I replied, briefly, that the article was more about the attitude I have described above, she/he challenged me to provide data demonstrating the racism at play. It was at this point that I simply gave up, as I wasn’t really interested in defending someone else’s work while trying to eat my dinner, and the article in question talked about the next election, not the current polling.

This exchange wouldn’t be unusual, except that I happen to know that this person is a regular reader. I say all kinds of unsubstantiated shit on these pages pretty much every day. While I do my best, I don’t always provide full citations for my conclusions or speculations, leaving it up to the reader to dispute them. Most of the time, this particular friend chooses not to dispute, even when I am talking about racial topics. However, this particular statement – a throwaway line of congratulations in a Tweet – stuck in her/his craw long enough that she/he went stats hunting.

So in the same way that Harris-Perry has done, I am openly speculating here that this kind of “prove it” attitude from liberals who spontaneously become skeptical whenever they have a dog in the fight (which, by the way, Harris-Perry wrote another piece about), comes at least in part from the cognitive dissonance at play when they are accused of racism. “I couldn’t possibly be racist,” they say, as though being liberal means you were raised on a different planet. We are all products of the same system. If someone points out that a behaviour has racial connotations, instead of reflexively reaching for counterexamples, perhaps take the time to consider the possibility, and engage in the argument that person is making, rather than the one you hear through your rage.

I will close with Dr. Harris-Perry’s words:

Racism is not the the sole domain of Republicans, Conservatives or Southerners. Not all racists pepper their conversation with the N-word or secretly desire the extermination of black and brown people. Racism is complex, multi-layered, and deeply rooted in the American story. Name calling is not helpful in uprooting racism, but neither is a false sense of moral superiority.

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  1. says

    1) I’m looking forward to your friend’s deeply thought-out piece in response to this. I’m sure that they will take a serious amount of time to construct the case as to why it’s physically impossible (if not logically impossible) for liberals to be racist.

    2) Perhaps this has to do with the concept of the presumption of innocence. Racism is seen by many as a kind of a crime, no? A moral crime if not a legal one. What you are presenting (and I’m on board, by and large) is the presumption of guilt, that everyone has committed this crime, and that evidence is unnecessary.

    Worse, the innocence of people cannot be established in the face of this. Perhaps their (ahem) moral outrage stems from the perception that they have been found guilty with no opportunity to represent themselves, and told that even if they *did* have an opportunity, they would fail as they are ‘part of the system’. People tend not to react well to perceived helplessness (given that they think of themselves first, and not the system as a whole).

  2. Bill says

    “If someone points out that a behaviour has racial connotations, instead of reflexively reaching for counterexamples, perhaps take the time to consider the possibility…”

    In virtually all cases, regardless of subject, reflexively reaching for counterexamples is a facet of the way that I consider possibilities. The particular counterexamples that I came up with, on reading the article, apply only to myself: I do not self-identify as a “liberal” or a “progressive,” although the bulk of my opinions may be classified as such. My personal counterexamples included issues not mentioned in the article because the political context of today is, in my opinion, different than the political context during the Clinton years. (To be honest, all politicians disappoint me. I merely think that the need to have non-disappointing politicians is increasing.)

    That being said, though, OF COURSE there is a racial connotation for the current POTUS’s loss of support. It seems unavoidable that in any reasonably sized population phenotypic variations and cultural differences will be used as the basis for non-rational behavior and judgements, and in the USA melanin variations are the basis for more inequity (and flat out evil) than any other variable. Racism in the USA is a particularly virulent and egregious case of human group prejudice, and, as such, is something that we should all certainly think about as we try to overcome the limitations of the “insider/outsider, us/them” mentality that humans have evolved.

    I find it highly likely that a lot of “liberals” believed President Obama’s campaign rhetoric because they pigeon-holed him as a person of color, so “of course!” his views matched their own “liberal” ideals. (I was not one of these people, by the way. Obama the candidate was clearly more right-centrist than people were assuming, and the pragmatics of power made it highly unlikely that he would be able to give up the unconstitutional powers Bush and Company grabbed via 9/11.)

    Some liberals are arrogant (and not for cause). Some liberals are stupid. Some liberals are racist. (The last two statements might be underestimates.) The question that Dr. Harris-Perry raises in my mind is, “How many liberals will allow their racist tendencies to overcome the need to vote for Obama as the ‘lesser of the two evils’? (Given my own tendencies, and the influence of money on elections and politicians, ALL voting is, for me, choosing the ‘lesser of two evils’.)”

    That question, of course, cannot be answered even in the broadest terms until the next election, and I’m not qualified to figure out if there is a way to ferret out that information through study.

  3. Bill says

    “What you are presenting (and I’m on board, by and large) is the presumption of guilt, that everyone has committed this crime, and that evidence is unnecessary.”

    I don’t think that either this blog or the original article says that “everyone” has committed this particular crime, merely that, in the group of people who are backing away from supporting President Obama, some unknown number of them are being influenced by irrational prejudices. Given how large that population is, that point, once raised, is pretty self-evident and needs no further evidence.

  4. says

    So you’re saying that you didn’t get the point I was making? Or you’re nit-picking over an irrelevant side-detail of quantification because…?

    How about you mentally insert “not-all”, “at least one”, “92.3%”, “the majority” or whatever quantity floats your boat, and we move on?

  5. says

    it’s physically impossible (if not logically impossible) for liberals to be racist.

    To be fair, I don’t think that was my friend’s position. What she/he said was that she/he didn’t see evidence of racism at work because all presidents suffer in the polls. The point that both the article and I tried to make in response is that it would be foolhardy to ignore the very likely possibility of racism when interpreting poll numbers, especially given the extremely racist climate surrounding the administration. I was then asked to provide proof, which is an unusual standard considering how much we know about how racism manifests itself. Dr. Harris-Perry was speculating that in the next election, we may have a natural experiment to measure the magnitude of racism among liberal voters.

    Racism is definitely seen as a crime, and it’s one of the myths I am actively trying to dispel. Racism is a brain fail, propped up by enormous societal pressure and historical scaffolding. I can certainly understand why, given how destructive it has been, people react poorly to accusations or implications of racism, but that is not a warranted response. If someone accuses me of straw-manning their point, I don’t fly off the handle and talk about how they’re “the real straw man” for noticing my straw man. I either agree, or point out their error.

  6. says

    As far as “evidence is unnecessary” goes, that’s not my point. What I am saying is that we have a million different ways that we have seen the effect of racism, and no reason to suspect that some people are immune from it. Evidence is apparent. Proof is unnecessary.

  7. says

    I’d rather mentally insert “susceptible to this bias” in the place of “committed this crime”. This is not a trivial or merely semantic change, and it addresses both of your points.

  8. says

    I’d rather mentally insert “susceptible to this bias” in the place of “committed this crime”. This is not a trivial or merely semantic change, and it addresses both of your points.

    I know what your stance is, and I agree with it. I do not misunderstand your position at all. I know you do not consider the commission of a racist act or the adoption (unintentional or intentional (not 100% on the latter one?)) of a racist stance to be a crime (moral or legal).

    I’m presenting a possible interpretation from the view of those who flip out in response, and an explanation for why it induces rage.

    Verifying this would take the kind of large-sample study I would *love* to be involved with, but unlikely to be able to garner the funding…

  9. says

    To be fair, I don’t think that was my friend’s position.

    Then I don’t know how to interpret this statement:

    “I couldn’t possibly be racist,” they say, as though being liberal means you were raised on a different planet.

  10. says

    As hyperbole, I suppose. Or an abstraction of the general response from liberals, rather than the specific response of my one friend. While I am happy to malign liberals as a group, I am trying to be careful not to misrepresent or apply specific intention to individuals. Particularly those I would like to be on at least speaking terms with 😛

  11. says

    As far as “evidence is unnecessary” goes, that’s not my point.

    Then you will forever talk past the people who react to your statements with rage.

    There is a dotted line tracking from the greater identity that one self-identifies with, to the individual who is doing the self-identification. When you make a perfectly qualified, sane statement like ‘Sure, liberals can be racist’, this tracks/implies/indicates to a person who has self-identified as a liberal that ‘Crommunist is saying that *I* can be racist! But I’m not racist! WTF!!!1!!11’

    Given that the general statement may be (and I’m arguing ‘is likely to be’) interpreted as an accusation of the individual, of *course* the next step for that individual is to demand the evidence for their (in their mind) crime.

    Your move to say ‘I’m not talking about you, individually, but liberals as a collective. Look, take a look at the systems of power of the last few centuries, see who was in power, see how racism continued, was entrenched, was and is endemic, see how the racism changed’ from the viewpoint of the accused undercuts their ability/perceived right to defend themselves, and yet continues to accuse them as a member of the group.

    The most important point I want to make here is that I think that their viewpoint is *wrong*, but it is (nonetheless) going to lead to rage.

    I guarantee you this: if you can get someone who responds with rage to track back their thought process as meticulously as possible, you will find the errant thought that jumps from your statement about a group to the feeling that the individual has been named and attacked.

  12. jamessweet says

    If someone points out that a behaviour has racial connotations, instead of reflexively reaching for counterexamples, perhaps take the time to consider the possibility, and engage in the argument that person is making, rather than the one you hear through your rage.

    Bingo. Took me a damn long time to figure that out too 🙂

    One problem I have is the conflation of “[engaging] in a behaviour [that] has racial connotations” vs. being racist. The latter is such a loaded term, it could mean so many different things, and I think it’s seldom helpful to look at things in those terms. Unless someone is explicitly and unapologetically endorsing intentionally racist positions, I tend to steer away from that. With that in mind, I’m not sure how helpful it is to say “liberals are racists too!”, except just that it’s a provocative way to get people’s attention for your main point (one which I whole-heartedly agree with) My two cents at least.

    If we accept Harris-Perry’s argument (and FWIW I’m not sure I do buy it, though I appreciated your comment over at Dispatches) that does not imply that Democratic voters “are” racist, or at least that’s not the kind of language I would prefer to use. “Electoral racism” could manifest itself without a single one of the participating voters having one racist bone in their body — there are many things that can create systemic bias other than explicit prejudice.

    I must admit I am skeptical of the suggestion that Obama is getting a rougher time from progressives than B. Clinton did — though the suggestion certainly doesn’t enrage me! What I find more troubling about Harris-Perry’s piece is that in characterizing Obama’s primary victory as a “repudiation of naked electoral racism”, she failed to explore the role that electoral misogyny may or may not have played in Hillary’s failure to get the nomination. I just don’t see how one could write a piece about the role of electoral prejudice in the 2008 Democratic nomination without mentioning this aspect in passing at least…

  13. Crommunist says

    The “liberals are racist too” comment is, as I tried to illustrate above, a reaction to the sometimes (but not always) unspoken idea that one’s motives are “pure” so long as one is a liberal. That those who adopt liberal positions, even on race, cannot be racist – so we shouldn’t bother examining our own actions or beliefs. Many people of colour are as aware of the different flavour of racism that comes from the left as they (we) are of the more ubiquitous right-wing brand.

    Part of the main point that I will keep coming back to in all of these writings is that “intentional” is not a component of “racist”. Intentional, overt racism certainly isn’t the biggest racial challenge we currently face as a society. Much of it manifests itself in ways that can be recognized after the fact, but without any intentional malice on the part of any individual or group.

    Obama may not be having a tougher time, but that’s not the important bit that I took away from her piece. The thing that I think is important and instructive is to recognize that despite their similarities, President Clinton did not have the baggage of racism around his neck. The argument could similarly be made that many liberals will vote for Obama again because he’s black, out of a fear of appearing racist (even to themselves). The point is that there is a variable in the equation of this re-election that has not existed before, and that if we look carefully we may have the opportunity to isolate and measure it.

    As far as the misogyny angle goes, she wasn’t writing a piece on every type of bias in every election. If she had specifically said that it wasn’t an issue then I’d join you in objecting. However, she was referring explicitly to racism and the general election, which I think is fair considering the thesis of her piece.

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