Given the recent Trump phenomenon, the political-correctness backlash, and the counter-charge that liberals routinely and unfairly deploy the accusation that conservatives are racist, I wanted to take minute to grapple with this one, and make a few prescriptions from a rhetorical perspective.
Short answer: no, conservatives are not intrinsically racist. And less and less. There is a new generation of ‘lite’ conservatives that will have a significant market position if they can successfully inhabit an racially/ethnically/LGBT* inclusive platform, while keeping other traditional republican positions. If successful, this group will also pull center-right democrats from the herd. This will be a space to watch.
But there’s still a divergence here that’s easy to spot. Let’s start with, “what do liberals and conservatives mean when they talk about someone being racist?” Because there appears to be a nontrivial difference.
Many liberals, and most anyone who attained a liberal arts degree after 1995, have a pretty good vocabulary to talk about the particular permutations of American racism. They might know about Jim Crow laws, the history leading to the 60’s, they may have some background about the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, know the forms of housing discrimination, banking discrimination, redlining, predatory mortgages, and can talk with some base fluency about structural racism, or know what is meant by ‘white privilege.‘ There is exhaustive scholarship on this, and to deny it in this day and age is to row against history. The classic, magazine-compact summary of a perfect storm of these factors is still Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article about Chicago housing: The Case for Reparations .
So liberals educated in the discipline have a vocabulary they can deploy to describe racial events in a scholarly way, much like philosopher can point to something and say, oh, that’s empirical, that’s phenomenological, we can say, oh, that’s redlining. Or, that’s discriminatory. We can identify these events in-the-world. There is a discipline that describes them. While there are some conservatives really up-to-date on this stuff, these ideas are so left-centric that knowing them or having them is almost enough to make you a liberal, though I wish this weren’t true.
The conservative vocabulary for forms of racism isn’t as nuanced. Conservatives rarely acknowledge the structural elements at play in what is called Institutional Racism. It’s quite possible to benefit from a racist society, and have no idea that it is working to your benefit, indeed, and critically, if it’s working properly you aren’t supposed to. Many liberals believe this to be the case, and many conservatives do not, and this is a main point of divergence. Either you believe white privilege (for example) is something that happens, or you don’t.
By contrast, the conservative storyline takes hard work, grit and most importantly, personal responsibility as the elements that carry the day. Outside factors, like those listed above, are disadvantages (if you acknowledge they exist, many conservatives don’t), but hey, everyone has disadvantages, even if they aren’t applied equally. It is the process of your story to apply discipline and perseverance to surmounting these obstacles. Then you’ll be, oh, paid what you’re worth, a Self Made Man, a Maker Not a Taker, and so on.
So if, according to the conservative storyline, the only events that befall us are those that arise from our choices, the only real way to be a racist is to be a cognitively committed racist, which you might even state openly, whereas to the liberal mind, it’s possible to be acting in a racist way simply by being insufficiently self-aware of one’s role in a racist system at any given moment.
This means for liberals, you might not think of yourself as a Klansman, but can take a racist step, and be acting in a racist way that– to your own misfortune– you did not even intend.
To the conservative, that doesn’t happen. If you are racist, it took a certain level of cognitive intention to get there. Somebody telling you that you have done a racist thing is typically a case of someone just being too sensitive, too ‘politically correct.’ I am not committed to the idea of inequality of the races. I am not a Klansman, ergo, I am not racist. Indeed, I believe in justice and fairness. I judge people individually.
(Now is a good moment to say not all liberals or conservatives think this way. I’m not painting with too broad a brush, but this is definitely a fat magic-marker. There are some, albeit few, conservatives who are deeply concerned and up-to-date with racial justice discussions, and plenty of otherwise liberal racists, to say nothing of liberal overcompensators who see the actions of structural racism at play in their cup of coffee. Not the point I’m making.)
The good news for the liberal method is that one is not cornered, and can usually revise their behavior if they so choose. This may involve momentary humility, but otherwise not too much ego-driven dissonance. Phrases like “check your privilege,” while deeply irritating, are a nod to the kind of quick reassessment that is possible in the liberal view. Liberals rarely think of themselves as racists, but feel attuned to its latency, and when they are, they feel pleased to think that they are at least capable of changing. Racism isn’t a terminal point, it’s a process that we need to be alert to, an ongoing negotiation with our psyche. We were all fed the same bad programming, and we have the tools to evaluate it. Indeed, sometimes no change will be necessary. The bad news for liberals is that this also means they toss around a word with an academic meaning in a way that devalues its social meaning, which is akin to an insult. Sometimes, confrontation is needed. Politics, however, is a science of persuasion.
The conservative method breaks but does not bend. Because racism is perceived as a commitment to an idea that they don’t feel they hold– you can’t accidentally wander into it. Accordingly, as a logical matter, it’s quite difficult for a conservative to ‘be’ racist, they can only be ‘a’ racist. That is, if I say I’m not, that would have to be the end of the discussion. My intentions, my responsibilities, aren’t accidental.
No wonder that the liberal accusations of republican racism don’t land, because they make conservatives feel cornered and unfairly tarred, and thus call the whole observation into question. It pushes too hard, if only because liberals don’t know how hard they are pushing. That flexibility is part of the worldview liberals think is shared. It’s not.
The Trump phenomenon also draws from this well. People can only feel cornered so many times before they are compelled to back to the corner and hold the position. To have the target of the critique come to identify with the critique out of exhaustion or confusion is exactly the last outcome anyone should want.
Conservatives now take the idea that they may be engaging in racist demagoguery, for example, unseriously and wear the criticism as a badge of pride. They call this ‘not being politically correct.’ It’s a clean way for them to defang the critique without having to change, and it does the job. The message is extremely successful. You don’t need to change to meet the world, it promises. This was done to you. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you? (No!) Well, OK then.
Liberals will have a part to play, here, not because we’re wrong, but because we want to be effective and get the message through, and the message isn’t about Trump the man or the next demagogue to come along. The message is what qualifies as acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and reaffirming what our values are. Standing for something is what gets people activated, not knocking down a target (although that’s hand-in-hand).
We are trying to persuade, not accuse. So our strategy has to be to use language that is procedural, process-oriented, changeable, and focused on our ability to identify him by his deeds, not our ability to read his heart. Being critical of deeds triggers less ego defense, besides which, being a racist isn’t a permanent condition and should have as many exits as possible. This flexibility is the enduring advantage of a liberal mentality. If you’re not right, get right.
The final point here is that confronting the man-as-message instead of the content of the message leaves the field open for the next person to come along with the same message, repackaged and calling the last instance an unexpected aberration. Neither Ted Cruz’s stance on immigration nor Marco Rubio’s are an improvement, in case you haven’t been paying attention.
Trump the man isn’t the problem. American animus, and the way he plays it, is the problem.
So: Trump isn’t “an” Islamophobe. Trump “takes an Islamophobic step” by suggesting policy proposals that assume all Muslims share the same intentions toward the United States based on the actions of a few and collectively punishing them all.
Trump isn’t “a” racist for suggesting that most of the Latinos coming across the border are murderers and rapists. He “makes a racist argument” by doing this. None of us know what Trump thinks, indeed some of us suspect him to be a cynical manipulator who could care less about Latinos one way or the other. But we sure as hell know what he’s saying, and we aren’t having it.
Were I younger, a hardliner, I’d find this an insufficiently muscular approach to confronting a reckless proponent of dangerous ideas. I’ve come to see this as an error of perspective. This isn’t a military engagement and victories are not won in an instant. This is democratic persuasion, which almost never happens in real-time, but gradually. We need the tent to be big and our ideas clear, so we can draw some of his supporters back to the light, or, at least, out of the abyss. We don’t need to be the best at insulting our opponents, or shoving them out. We need Trump to lose, yes. More to the point: what we need, is to win.