Oooooo-klahoma where the racism’s sweepin’ down the plains

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.


  1. Narvi says

    Sad news indeed.

    There’s a reason that the Bush administration referred to Liberals as the “reality-based community”: We continue to make decisions based on real-life consequences. They still prefer to invent their own world.

  2. John Kruger says

    So help will be disproportionately given to those who need it. Oh noes!

    Look at all the extra care the burn victims get! The hospital is discriminating against people who have not been burned! The guy with a cold should get the same level of care!

    Racist apologetics like this are just disgusting. Shame on you, Oklahoma.

  3. says

    Slightly more related to your linked “Reverse Racism” post, but still relevant here, I bring you this quote:

    “Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the Evangelical Christians. It’s no different. It is the same thing. It is happening all over again. It is the Democratic Congress, the liberal-based media, and the homosexuals who want to destroy the Christians. Wholesale abuse and discrimination and the worst bigotry directed toward any group in America today. More terrible than anything suffered by any minority in history.” – Pat Robertson

    They really do love their persecution complex, don’t they?

  4. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    yeah. Racism is such a thing of the past, and it’s really rare to think overtly in racist ways.

    That’s why in 2002 Oregon had a ballot initiative to repeal certain (by then inoperative anyway) provisions of the Oregon constitution that made it illegal for “free Negroes” and “Mullatoes” to enter Oregon or own property in the state.

    It was just a housekeeping measure to remove legal language that hadn’t been enforceable in decades and hadn’t been enforced in longer. That’s why we had the entirely predictable result of a landslide victory for removing the language. The margin was so huge, it exceeded 2:1. Yep, that’s right, not much more than 1/4 of Oregonians voted to keep a ban on the existence and property rights of the melanin enhanced.

    See! No racism at all. Look at the numbers:
    Approved Yes 867,901 71.14%
    No 352,027 28.86%

    How could a state where the Nos are only 352 thousand possibly have a problem with racism?

  5. jamessweet says

    The problem with the conservative position is that it completely ignores the fact that we don’t live in a fair world*

    *This is, I increasingly think, the problem with pretty much every conservative position.

    Yes! It continues to baffle me that the cliche is liberals as starry-eyed idealists, whereas conservatives are the hard, cynical pragmatists. For me, I was far more conservative — well really, more like libertarian — when I was younger and more idealistic about the way things could be. As I grew up, I began to realize we live in a messy world, and any kind of strict dogmatic idea about government non-involvement or the free market or what have you was going to eventually meet up with reality.

    Just as another example, in addition to the one you mention here: Some people oppose social programs because they think that leechers are just getting a free handout from the rest of us hard-working folks. Even ignoring the classism and often-racism that this kind of attitude exposes, that’s not even the issue for me: even if most people benefiting from government services were lazy slackers who didn’t deserve it and could get by just fine if they were willing to work a little harder (which is clearly not the case, but for the sake of argument…), I would still support an expansive social safety net because all the evidence points to the fact that it works out better in the end for all of us. Even if I cared not one whit about anyone but myself, I’d still want to live in a country with a healthier economy and less crime, and comprehensive social programs enable that — idealism be damned.

  6. stakkalee says

    Oklahoma’s just trying to gently encourage their African American population to ‘self-deport’ to other states; I hear it’s the In Thing in modern conservatism (if you can use the word “modern” to describe conservatism, that is.)

  7. smrnda says

    I do agree that it’s conservatives, with their emphasis on the idea that we can rely on individuals who choose to be virtuous to save society and that this doesn’t require any kind of deliberate policy who are the unrealistic idealists.

    This reminds me of an anit-racism video I saw at work. In one scene, a Black worker is being given an evaluation and, demonstrating what not to do, the white supervisor says “when I see you, I don’t see a Black person” and the guy goes “Why not? Is there something wrong with being Black? I mean, you must see a Black person since you wouldn’t say “I don’t see a Black person” to a white person.” It’s a big problem when people think that racism requires an overt and conscious belief in the inferiority of other races or a conscious desire to oppress them. To me, that’s just an ignorant and simplistic view of how human beings think and make decisions. We all have biases we are aware of, but the ones that are dangerous are the ones we aren’t aware of or even believe we’re immune to.

    The worst is when people parade around ignorant bigotry as knowledge, like when white people say that they’re only stating the facts that Black people don’t want to work and just want a handout and that it’s the tyranny of ‘political correctness’ that prevents them from speaking ‘common sense’ – and then point to the Black conservatives they admire as proof that they aren’t racist.

  8. invivoMark says

    I get the conservative argument here. I really do. Everybody knows somebody (or knows somebody who knows somebody) who got their position in favor of more qualified white men, simply because of their race/sex/other status as a minority. It could be a university application, grad school acceptance, a job, an award, etc.

    That burns their butts. And it probably should. I know I would feel awful to know that someone else got the job I wanted because his race pushed his application above mine.

    But for every overt instance of race giving a PoC an advantage, there are probably a dozen instances of race giving them a disadvantage. Sometimes it’s something worse than not landing a particular job.

    Now, that doesn’t by itself make affirmative action just. The purpose of affirmative action isn’t retribution for race-related disadvantages. The purpose is to eliminate the differential advantages of being a certain race, and in that respect, it’s better than doing nothing.

    I think I’ve recognized this for a long time, but reading Crommunist does help me formulate these arguments in a way that even a conservative might understand. 🙂

  9. says

    who got their position in favor of more qualified white men…

    I want to push back on this a bit, because quite frankly I don’t accept this formulation. There is a base level of qualification for a position beyond which other factors become somewhat nebulous in value. For example, how much better is a person with 4 years experience on a drill press than someone with 2.5 years experience? I’d argue that for most positions the relationship between experience and productivity are not linear. It is the same for formal education – I am technically “less qualified” than someone with a PhD, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do my job as well. Or for post-secondary admissions – is someone with a 90% average “more qualified” for a degree than someone with a 85% average? Does that 5% difference correspond to a meaningful difference in terms of outcomes? As far as the “more qualified” issue goes I’m not sure that’s that air-tight a case.

    Second, it is my position (that I have taken from others who made the argument better) that diversity is a qualification. A diverse work force draws from a broader base of non-direct experience – that is, experiences learned off the job site – than a homogenous one, even if that homogenous one all have Harvard degrees. Most non-quota affirmative action programs function from that explicit premise: that race is a personal characteristic that can meaningfully inform job performance in a way that may not be reflected in job experience or academic preparation.

    There is a third argument that, especially among some groups, considering race acts as a way to “weight” someone’s achievement. If those same two fictitious students from before, one with a 90% average and one with an 85% average, come from similar backgrounds, then one has demonstrated that ze is a more successful student. However, if the person with the 90% average came from an affluent family, a well-funded private school, and had tutors and could afford to take preparatory courses; while the 85% student achieved hir marks while simultaneously working a part-time job and dealing with underfunded schools and with other cards in the deck stacked against hir, it is not difficult to make the argument that the student with the 85% is, in fact, more ‘qualified’, insofar as it means that ze has a longer track record of success in the face of adversity.

    Some things to think about. It’s not just a simple matter of demographic fairness.

  10. invivoMark says

    I agree with your second point.

    Your third point makes sense as well, but it seems like a much stronger argument for affirmative action by income done by income level instead of race. I’m not sure how I feel about that – that argument could surely make up a whole field of social research.

    On your first point, however, I feel like your argument isn’t quite spot-on. The point of the conservative’s objection isn’t that the job isn’t being done properly, or that the hiring company would be better off with the white person. The point is that the white person did better, had a stronger CV, and isn’t being held to the same professional standards. Being a PoC is adding points to the other guy’s application, or being white is taking points away from their own.

    I agree that the differences in qualifications will be minor in most cases. But that still leaves room for a more highly qualified person to lose out.

    And if you’re a white person with exceptional qualifications, and you see that the guy who got the position you wanted is a PoC, and the company who hired them has exactly their quota number of minorities, you’re going to feel angry about it. It’s easy to justify at a sociological level. It’s much harder to do so when it’s your life and well-being that’s in the balance.

  11. jb says

    I am fond of reading right-wingnut sites for laughs, and I came across one hilarious series of posts today:

    1) Angry white guy complains about an article where a ‘lefturd’ is pointing out that right-wingers are obsessed with preserving the white race, and that racist conservatives want to ban abortion so that more white babies will be born. Angry white guy says ‘OMFG HOW RACIST OF THE LEFTURD TO SUGGEST SUCH THINGS ABOUT CONSERVATIVES’

    2) The next day, angry white guy starts whining about how ‘caucasians are going extinct’ how ‘non-whites are outbreeding whites’ and how ‘what must we do to increase the birth rate so that the levels of white people return to what they were in the 1960s’


    yeah, this guy has some nice cognitive dissonance going on, or something!

  12. says

    I’d definitely be in favour of incorporating socioeconomic status into affirmative action programs. Race is not the same as class, and the programs can absolutely be improved.

    My first point is centred on the idea of “did better”. Job qualifications are ostensibly a measure of how successful you will be at the position. Jobs are not a reward for winning the ‘qualifications race’; they are about getting someone to use their knowledge and skills to perform a task. As such, “qualifications” hit a ceiling effect. They are not linear, with 4 years of experience being twice as good as 2 years. Once you hit the minimum threshold of “good enough”, everything else becomes icing on the cake. So I reject this notion that people who are “more qualified” are being turned away in favour of those who are “less qualified”, because at that point you’re talking about icing, not cake.

    I can certainly understand why people are angry, but to me that speaks more to a sense of entitlement than it does to a legitimate complaint.

  13. says

    One thing we could do to assure hirings are color blind is go to “blind” interviews. I’ve worked as a contractor in electrical engineering, and a lot of the times I was hired involved phone only interviews, mainly because I was across country. One of the contractors who was black mentioned he noticed a difference in his rate of hire between face to face interviews and phone-only interviews.

  14. smrnda says

    I cannot find the study, but similar effects were observed with resumes in terms of names that suggested a person’s race.

  15. says

    Those kinds of things apparently work quite well, provided you have a name that isn’t obviously racialized. The issue with that arises when you are drawing from a pool that has a small number of non-white (and/or, in the case of engineering, non-male) applicants. If you see the value in diversity, it’s better to know and make the conscious choice to ensure your workforce is representative of as many demographic groups as is feasible.

    It’s sort of a Catch-22, because you don’t want to discriminate against people, but in many ways you can’t know until the person shows up on the first day if it’s a blinded process all along.

  16. besomyka says

    *This is, I increasingly think, the problem with pretty much every conservative position.

    That’s more or less what I came to realise as my politics shifted leftward. I largely grew up in a conservative suburb of Houston, and fell in line with that Libertarian-Religious-Right mentality.

    What made the first cracks in my political ideology was seeing how reality conflicted with the stories we told each other. Affirmative Action as reverse racism (instead of a balancing force promoting equality). That the poor either deserved their situation by their own personal failing, or that government support programs were keeping them down.

    I began to see the underpinnings of the politics in a similar light as I saw Bigfoot hunters or psychics. They were, personally, convinced, and occasionally they could point to something real and weird and difficult to explain quickly… but in the end, it’s all wishful thinking and lies.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t something worthwhile in the political ideology of being conservative. There IS a rational way to highlight and remind people that change isn’t always good, that preserving the things that we have done right is a good thing, and that if we ARE going to change things, doing it in a thoughtful and measured way could be best.

    But that’s not what the GOP is right now, and it hasn’t been since the 60’s as far as I can tell.

  17. invivoMark says

    This makes sense. I’m not saying I totally agree, certainly not in several specific instances (awards, acceptance into a highly exclusive program, etc.). But I understand what you’re saying and it isn’t unreasonable.

  18. says

    That’s entirely fair. AA is something that I think should be debated honestly and in an informed way. My own feelings about it are somewhat mixed.

  19. says

    Another problem with large numbers of contemporary conservative positions:

    Treating the fundamental attribution error as if it is a good thing about human psychology.

  20. Rip Steakface says

    The argument that I always hear regarding affirmative action that continues to annoy me is “affirmative action is racist because it says that these people are incapable of getting up to the same level as white/cis/Christian/males without help from the system.”

    It bugs the hell out of me, but I can’t figure out why. Something seems inherently wrong with the argument, but I haven’t thought about it hard or long enough to figure out what.

  21. says

    REALLY briefly (too briefly, I guess), the problem is twofold.

    One: it assumes a fair/level playing field between various racial groups exists, when the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise.

    Two: it re-writes history and says that white cis Christians (mostly men) got there “on their own”, which is false (years of discriminatory immigration policies, the GI Bill, benefits of generations of white supremacy in law and civil society).

    And I guess three: it ignores what happens when groups have tried to get to the level of white folks without help from the system. That history is not pretty.

    And I also guess four: nobody is making the claim that people are incapable of getting there without help. People are saying that the help is useful and fair.

  22. says

    Everybody knows somebody (or knows somebody who knows somebody) who got their position in favor of more qualified white men, simply because of their race/sex/other status as a minority. It could be a university application, grad school acceptance, a job, an award, etc.

    Speak for yourself. I know of nobody in that position. Seriously, how do you even know these things? You have black or female friends who you sincerely believe were not fully qualified for a position they’re in, but they got it anyway because diversity, thereby cheating some qualified white guy out of a job? Your friends are that frank about getting jobs which they honestly self-assess as not fully deserving? Or are you friends with the white guys in question? In which case, you really trust their assessment of the situation? You think they’d be honest enough to admit that their qualifications really were equal or even–dog forbid–that they were the less-qualified candidates? I call shenanigans.

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