Racism ‘happens’: Inexplicable events haunt GOP primary

Although several Republican presidential candidates have made racist remarks, none will admit or condemn the statements.

newt gingrich
Rick Santorum remarked on ‘black people’ during an interview, then later denied uaing the word ‘black’ [GALLO/GETTY]

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N****r, n****r, n****r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n****r’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.” – Lee Atwater, former Chair of the Republican Party

San Pedro, California – It’s the darnedest thing. Republicans have zero tolerance for anything racist. They’ll tell you so at the drop of a hat. It’s liberals and Democrats who are the real racists. Just ask Herman Cain, he’ll set you straight. After all, if a pizza CEO isn’t an expert on racism, then who is?

And yet, in recent weeks, all manner of seemingly racist things keeping popping up all around the GOP presidential primary campaign, which can only be explained in terms of mysterious and malevolent forces, out of movies such as The Exorcist, or Men in Black, or more recent low-rent fare, like the SyFy channel’s Ghost Hunters “reality show”.

First there was the matter of Ron Paul’s racist, homophobic and otherwise bigoted newsletters from the 1980s and 1990s. Of course he never read them. (“I never read that stuff. I was probably aware of it ten years after it was written,” he told Gloria Borger on CNN the week before Christmas.)

What editor and publisher ever reads the words that go out under his name? Sure, he once touted them as the prime vehicle of his mission of political education. Back in 1995 he told CNN: “Long term, I don’t think political action is worth very much if you don’t have education, and so I’ve continued with my economic education foundation, Free Foundation, which I started in 1976 … I also put out a political type of business investment newsletter that sort of covered all these areas.”

But that doesn’t mean that he actually had any idea what was in them. And, yes, when their odious content first became an issue when he ran for Congress in 1996, he and his campaign defended the indefensible by saying the offensive passages had been “quoted out of context” – and then refusing to release the newsletters, thus keeping the context hidden.

Newt Gingrich accused of ‘racial bias’

According to the Dallas Morning News, “Dr Paul denied suggestions that he was a racist and said he was not evoking stereotypes when he wrote the columns.

He said they should be read and quoted in their entirety to avoid “misrepresentation”. And he went on to defend having written: “[W]e can safely assume that 95 per cent of the black males in that city [Wasington DC] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.”

But what politician doesn’t change his story over time, hoping folks will forget what he’s done? Heck, they teach that in Politics 101. I mean, we’re talking about Ron Paul, here. The most straight-shooting of straight-shooters there is. He’ll tell you so himself.

Still, it is rather odd how many examples of racist passages there were. And how the folks Paul hired have such long histories of saying equally vile things in a wide range of other venues. And how he never noticed any of it. And how none of his friends did either, even though others in the libertarian movement were deeply troubled by the racist support Paul had built up over the years. So many coincidences, so little time. It’s a real puzzle. Must be the aliens from MiB. It just has to be.

But then along comes Rick Santorum, and he says: “I do not want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” Except, he later says, he didn’t say “black” at all, even though it’s right there on the videotape. In between, he admits he did, but then the more he thinks about it, the surer he becomes that he didn’t. Somehow, as with Ron Paul, it just happened. Mysteriously. Nobody knows how.

This is all rather curious, you have to admit. As Santorum explained things to Bill O’Reilly: “I looked at that, and I didn’t say that. If you look at it, what I started to say is a word and then sort of changed and it sort of … blah … came out. And people said I said ‘black.’ I didn’t.” Well, sure, that must be it, right? He was about to say some other word – he can’t recall just what it was, doesn’t really matter anyway, right? – and then right in the middle of saying it, he changed his mind.

Happens all the time, right? Most common thing in the world, especially for a professional politician who’s served 12 years in the US Senate. Except, of course, the videotape doesn’t show that at all. He doesn’t skip a beat in what he’s saying. He doesn’t stop and say, “Excuse me, I just mis-spoke, and I want to make sure my meaning is clear.” No, none of Santorum’s “explanation” makes a lick of sense – unless you simply pretend that it does – just like Ron Paul’s racist newsletter explanations. Or else simply chalk it up to those pesky MiB aliens once again. Or perhaps some escaped Ghost Hunters extras on the loose.

Newt’s a not-racist in a class by himself

But then there’s Newt. You’ve got to hand it to Newt: He’s in class by himself. You catch Newt with his hands in the cookie jar, and he doesn’t say “ET made me do it!” No siree. He’s written a book and produced a DVD explaining how he’s saving civilisation by reducing the dangerously high density of cookies in the jar, before it explodes, sending deadly shards of glass halfway across the Alpha Quadrant. And for a limited time only, you can buy both the book and the DVD for one low price. Another $20 more, and he’ll throw in an autographed photo with you Photoshopped in right next to him. Or vice versa.

In this particular instance, Newt was riffing on one of his favorite not-at-all-racist themes, how Barack Obama – who’s actions could only be understood as coming from a Kenyan anti-colonialist mindset – is the greatest “food-stamp” president of all time. Mere mortal men might catch a wiff of racism in a statement like that, but Newt would shoot back, saying that it was bizarre to think any such thing.

“I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” Gingrich told a crowd in Plymouth, New Hampshire. This was racist two-fer on Gingrich’s part, as NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous indicated, saying: “It is a shame that the former speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country. The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job.”

But Newt made two other racist implications as well, first by repeating his association of President Obama with food stamps – as if it wasn’t Bush’s super-recession that created the record-high levels of food stamp usage – and second by implying that the NAACP was somehow afraid or unwilling to hear from Newt the world-historian truth-teller, when he had actually been invited to speak to them several times in the past – and always refused to do so.

If conservatives were right, and welfare programs … hurt the poor and deepened poverty, then the underfunded welfare state in the US should produce the lowest levels of poverty … Instead, the opposite is true.

Naturally, Newt portrayed himself as the victim (a favourite role for him) while lashing out at the liberal welfare state. “If you talk openly and honestly about the failure of liberal institutions and the way that they hurt the poor, there becomes a sudden frenzy of a herd of people running over screaming ‘racism, racism’,” Gingrich said.

But there’s nothing open or honest about Gingrich’s argument here, which the US right has been pushing for decades. The welfare state in the US is an outlier compared to other advanced industrial nations – both in its small size and its failure to effectively combat poverty. If conservatives were right, and welfare programs such as food stamps, housing assistance, income support, etc, hurt the poor and deepened poverty, then the underfunded welfare state in the US should produce the lowest levels of poverty in any advanced economy. Instead, the opposite is true.

One of the best sources of international data is the LIS Data Center (formerly Luxembourg Income Study), which has been the basis of hundreds of academic working papers over the years. One such example is LIS Working Paper No 419 [PDF], Poor People in Rich Nations: The United States in Comparative Perspective, by Timothy Smeeding (October 2005).

It includes two charts showing the US as an outlier in poverty rates, with two different correlations. The first shows the relationship between cash social expenditures and non-elderly poverty. The second shows the relationships between non-elderly poverty and wages. Together, they show that the US has more poverty because we have more low-wage jobs and because we provide less cash to compensate for our low-wage job market.

This sets the stage for another paper from Smeeding, also in 2005, LIS Working Paper No 426[PDF], Government Programs and Social Outcomes: The United States in Comparative Perspective. In this paper, Table six is particularly instructive, comparing the anti-poverty effects of government spending on families in eight countries. Among single-parent families, the US market income poverty rate was only slightly below the average of the countries compared – 48.6 per cent compared with 52.3 per cent. But the US welfare state only reduced that rate to 41.4 per cent, compared with a 25.1 per cent average. That’s a 14.8 per cent reduction for the US, compared with 52.6 per cent average. The next smallest reduction was 27 per cent in Canada.

But even more telling was the welfare state’s poverty reduction for two-parent families, who are largely ignored in US policy discussions. And for good reason: The poverty reduction was just 5.8 per cent for the US, compared with an average of 47.6 per cent. The next smallest reduction was 20.2 per cent in the Netherlands.

Limited knowledge and racism without racists

The US media is almost totally ignorant of the rest of the world. That’s why such basic and dramatic information about the US welfare state compared with others is totally missing from their reference frames, and why conservative politicians such as Gingrich can lie so outrageously, making claims that would cause informed journalists to laugh at him hysterically.

If you cannot see your country in a larger context, you are limited in understanding your country, however well you might know it from the inside. Likewise, if you cannot see yourself in a larger context, you are limited in your own self-understanding. Which brings us back to the subject of the GOP presidential race, and all those inexplicable racist sorts of things that just keep happening, even though there aren’t any racists anywhere to be found.

It may be surprising to learn that this curious phenomena of racism without racists has already been thoroughly explained in a book by the same name, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Color-blind racism, Bonilla-Silva explains, is a racial ideology that expresses itself in seemingly non-racial terms.

As such, it is custom made for people who never look at themselves from outside their own skin – or at best, from outside their own narrow circle of like-minded and like-bodied friends and acquaintances. Bonilla-Silva identifies four central frames at the core of colour-blind racism. “The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information,” he writes. These four are:

  • Abstract liberalism: The frame of abstract liberalism involves using ideas associated with political liberalism (eg “equal opportunity”, the idea that force should not be used to achieve social policy) and economic liberalism (eg, choice, individualism) in an abstract manner to explain racial matters. Abstraction allows these ideals to be invoked when convenient (say when objecting to affirmative action) and to be ignored when they’re not (when unequal school funding makes equal opportunity impossible, for example).
  • Naturalisation: The frame of naturalisation allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences. It’s “just the way things are”.
  • Cultural Racism: The frame of cultural racism gives rise culturally based arguments such as “Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education” or “blacks have too many babies”, which it then uses to explain the standing of minorities in society.
  • Minimisation of Racism. The “minimisation of racism” frame suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances (“It’s better now than in the past” or “There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there”). It remembers the past with a highly selective intent, to excuse the evil that remains.

True colour-blind racists can say with all honesty that they feel no hostility towards blacks or other minorities. “There’s not a racist bone in Ron Paul’s body” his supporters often say. And for all we know, they’re absolutely right.

But that’s irrelevant.

Colour-blind racism doesn’t live inside people: people live inside it. If they notice it, and struggle against it, they deserve to be called anti-racists. But none of us can free ourselves of colour-blind racism, so long as it lives at large in the world we live in. It’s not a question of being pure – there is no being pure with the history we have. It’s a question of taking sides in an ongoing struggle. Deny the struggle, or blame the victims, and you have taken sides – the wrong side.

This is why Ron Paul is on the wrong side, and why the so-called “straight-shooter” ties himself up in knots, contradicting himself six ways from Sunday when asked a simple question like, “If you didn’t write those things, who did? And will you denounce them, once and for all?”

The last is a question for the whole GOP – candidates and voters alike.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.