I’m doing my best to avoid contributing to the noise vortex surrounding the Tangerine Muppet, but as some people have pointed out, the real story is what this whole cowboy cosplay convention reveals about the values of a disturbingly large number of Americans. So let’s talk about that.
People have been more willing than usual to throw around the r-word recently, which is nice. Yes, it’s largely an empty signifier at this point, but if you can’t call a racist a racist, you can’t really do anything. The problem is that there’s this persistent idea that race is an “identity” issue, that it’s sort of an add-on to the “real” political issues like jobs and taxes. Specifically, the story is that economically disadvantaged white people who are “low-information voters” are being “fooled” into thinking that people of color are the problem and are therefore “voting against their own interests.” All of these terms should trigger maximal skepticism. People know what their interests are, and you don’t really need a whole lot of information to make basic political decisions. Furthermore, racism is severely off-putting to all decent people; if there was a candidate with really good policies who also happened to be a Klan member, few of us would be able to overlook that and support them. So the only honest conclusion is that people who support racist policies do so because they’re racists.
This conclusion is supported by history. The two political parties as currently constituted are defined by their attitudes toward racism; the historical shift was finalized in response to the Civil Rights Act. And the “Southern Strategy” wasn’t just a marketing gimmick – basically all of the “conservative principles” that supposedly define the Republican Party are actually just restatements of racism. Most famously, opposition to “big government” isn’t really something that makes sense on its own. Nobody actually thinks there’s a correct “size” for the government to be. Rather, everyone has certain specific things they think the government should be in charge of. Nobody argues that we should defund the military in order to make the government smaller. Also, Republicans obviously don’t support “small government” in any sense; whenever they’re in office they run up deficits, inflate the military, and expand executive powers (Democrats also do all of these things; the point is that there isn’t a difference between the parties on these issues). The truth is that, for Republicans, the part of the government that’s “too big” is just the part that helps black people. This applies equally to just about every other conservative shibboleth: universal healthcare, welfare, and economic stimulus spending are all bad things because they mean spending money on black people. Recall the old insult “tax-and-spend Democrat” – you’d think that both taxing and spending would be the budgetarily responsible thing to do, but it’s a different story when it’s white people being taxed and black people being spent on.
Recent history also bears this out. The Tea Party arose in response to Obama’s election, rather than any actual policy he advanced. In fact, Obama hasn’t really done anything dramatic enough to have credibly provoked a backlash – it’s cliched by now to note that Obamacare was originally Romneycare. And there’s plenty of pure nonsense like the claim that Obama is secretly a Muslim, when he clearly comes from a typical black Christian tradition (there was that big controversy regarding his minister, remember?). The only explanation for this is people projecting stereotypes – either about scary black Muslim radicals from the 60s, or modern-day “Muslim extremists.” So, racism. The people who claimed that Obama’s election heralded a “post-racial era” were obviously morons, but it’s important to understand just how wrong they were: not only is racism as strong a political force as ever, but Obama’s visibility as the most powerful black man in the world has made race an even more salient issue.
What all of this adds up to is that racism is and always has been the central issue in American politics. In other words, the fact that one of the primary motivating factors in people’s political alignment is now vulgar racism and nothing else is the least surprising thing that’s happened in recent history. What this election cycle represents is actually a return to normalcy. We’re no longer pretending that we all share the same fake centrist consensus; we’re finally beginning to regard our enemies as enemies. Or at least we’re getting closer. Racism as a concept has been permanently hexed; people still make transparent excuses about how banning Muslims is about “national security” and building The Wall is about “the economy.” But anyone operating with a basic level of honesty can clearly see the bright line dividing the two sides of the current debate: you either think that the government is for everybody, or you think it’s only for The Right Kind of People.
White people don’t like to think about racism this way. They like to think of it as an issue where certain “backwards” people just don’t like certain skin colors for inexplicable reasons (the adjective “ugly” is often applied to racist opinions, as though the issue with them were merely cosmetic). This impulse is understandable – at first glance, discriminating against people based on their ethnicity doesn’t really seem to accomplish anything (as a contrasting example, there’s direct motivation for sexism: men want control over sexual access and the reproductive process). When a person is facing the issues of a) losing their job and not having enough money to live on and b) encountering non-white people on a slightly more frequent basis, it seems like one of those issues would be the obvious priority. But that’s assuming that everyone has the same standards of value, and it’s also assuming that race and class are actually different issues.
Historically, it’s obvious that the function of racism has been to create an underclass. This serves two very important purposes. The first is economic: it creates a group of people who can be exploited with maximum efficiency, due to the fact that they lack both legal protections and public sympathy. This doesn’t just apply to black people; we saw the same dynamic with the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads, and we see it today with the Mexican immigrants doing our farm work. The second function is psychological: when it comes to social standing, people are motivated above all else to not be on the bottom of the pyramid. People care more about relative standing than absolute standing; we would rather make things worse off for everyone while preserving a tiny advantage for ourselves than improve the general condition while resigning ourselves to not being special. Racism puts white people on the side of the ruling class by promising them that, no matter what happens, they will always have someone to look down on.
This dynamic is required in order for capitalism to survive. Marx’s argument that capitalism would inevitably destroy itself was based on two important assumptions: that there are only two classes, and that the members of the working class would naturally develop solidarity. Racism undoes both of these assumptions. It essentially turns non-rich white people into a buffer class: one that is still mostly exploited, but which understands itself as a beneficiary of the status quo. This understanding is not entirely illusory. Being white actually is enough of a real advantage that many white people will fight to preserve it, out of rational self-interest – the same self-interest that created racism in the first place. Everyone knows that America was settled via genocide and slavery, but it’s crucial to understand that these crimes were not “mistakes.” They were foundational: America would not have existed without them. This is why Malcolm X said that you can’t have capitalism without racism.
And this is what connects current socioeconomic conditions to the modern resurgence of racism: white people are no longer confident that the old bargain will continue to hold. It seems absurd when racists claim that because of things like affirmative action and minority-targeted scholarships, white people are now the group without any advantages, because these things are obviously amelioration-based policies that don’t actually harm white people. But this perspective starts to make sense when you think of it in terms of psychological superiority: if people of color have any advantage that white people don’t have, then white people are no longer special. We’re all just different people with different advantages and disadvantages, trying to get by in a fucked up world.
So, since attempting to hold on to white superiority is, of course, the wrong solution, the right solution can only be to negate the advantages that white people have accrued via white supremacy. Thus, a general economic solution, one that appeals to everybody by attempting to lift all boats equally, cannot work because of racism – because such a solution would maintain white superiority. Affirmative action may be a hacky band-aid solution, but in this sense it’s at least a step in the right direction. The fact that it aggrieves racists is actually how you can tell it’s a good idea: logically, racists will be aggrieved by any anti-racist policy. A policy that “we can all agree on,” that racists feel comfortable with, can, under present conditions, only be a racist policy.
Ergo, reparations. If our goal is to end white superiority, then there’s no reason to beat around the bush. If we don’t want white people to be advantaged over black people, then we should take the advantages white people have historically accumulated via racist exploitation and give them to black people. The fact that such a policy would feel unfair and would make white people feel attacked is the point; making peace with racists necessarily means supporting racism. Racists don’t need to be negotiated with, they need to be convinced where possible and defeated where necessary.
This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates was getting at when he criticized Bernie Sanders for dismissing the possibility of reparations. Ever since Coates started on this angle, people have been pretty consistently missing his point (intentionally or otherwise). The issue is not that there’s a “correct” policy that everyone should support; the issue is that we have not yet reached the point where anti-racist economic policy can be articulated. And the problem with comments like Sanders’ is that they prevent us from getting there.
“Reparations” by itself is not one policy, which is another point that Coates has made and that not a lot of people have picked up on. Rather, taking the idea of reparations seriously would result in multiple different sets of demands, each of which would have to be assessed on its own merits. There could certainly be such a thing as a bad reparations policy, but we can’t start talking about policy until we’ve decided the moral question. This is not stereotypical leftist squabbling over minor points of procedure; there is a bright line dividing the idea that the past is past and we should just try to create the fairest policy based on current conditions from the idea that we occupy a historical system of injustice which must be dismantled, even when doing so requires sacrifice.
In fact, this is the same bright line as the one dividing the idea that capitalism is sometimes “corrupt” and should be made more “fair” from the idea that capitalism is fundamentally based on exploitation, and that even the fairly accumulated resources of the rich should therefore be reappropriated. The difference between improving current conditions and remaking society is supposed to be what defines radicalism. The point of revolutionary thinking is that, when the problems you’re facing are interlocking parts of a self-sustaining system, the only solution is to address everything at once.
So part of what matters about a reparations program is actually calling it reparations. A program of the sort that Sanders advocates – taxing rich people, who are mostly white, and using the money to invest in impoverished communities, which are disproportionately populated by black people – would have a partial reparations-like effect, but by casting the problem as a matter of general inequality, such a program avoids confronting racism. It lets white people off the hook. And because racism is baked in to our society, leaving it alone allows it to perpetuate itself. What’s required is a reckoning, using the exact literal meaning of that word: a settling of accounts.
We like to think of racism as though it were an evil demon from a fairy tale: it used to be a vicious tyrant, but the heroes of the past defeated it, and the evil that remains today is merely its shadow, a fading darkness that only weird cultists still worship. The truth is that the demon has been severely weakened, but it is far from dead, and its power is still enough to provide real advantages, both material and metaphysical, to white people. And because this is the case, it’s inevitable that reactionary sentiment will flare up in times of uncertainty. Overt racists are not fringe wackos, they’re just the least sophisticated manifestation of the real enemy. We should do ourselves the favor of taking them seriously.