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Racism: are we winning?

In light of Romney's 47% comment, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes an interesting point in a pair of posts.

He starts with the familiar quote from Lee Atwater describing the "Southern Strategy":

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" -- 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. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

(In his second post he has a similar quote from Nixon-era Pat Buchanan.)

But instead of just saying that what Romney is exploiting here is the obvious continuation of that, he uses it to say that it's actually a sign that racism is on decline, and politicians who exploit it have to get more and more abstract (and therefore include more and more collateral targets) to make it work.

I think what's often missed in analyzing these tactics is how they, themselves, are evidence of progress and the liberal dream of equal citizenship before the law. It's true that for a century after the Civil War, the South effectively erased the black vote...

More to the point, as tactics aimed at suppressing black citizenship become more abstract, they also have the side-effect of enveloping non-blacks. Atwater's point that the policies of the Southern Strategy hurt blacks more than whites is well taken. But some whites were hurt too. This is different than the explicit racism of slavery and segregation... at each level what you see is more non-black people being swept into the pool of victims and the pool expanding.

And then...

As I argued on Tuesday, as a racist appeal becomes more abstract, it doesn't simply become more devious, it becomes less racist, and thus less potent. Inveighing against the 47 percent isn't racist; "Welfare Queen" kind of is; William F. Buckley claiming black people don't want to vote really is; and John Booth mumbling, "That means nigger equality, by God I'll run him through" and then shooting the president in the head is straight white supremacist violence.

The Southern Strategy is often conceived as magic. I would argue that it is better conceived of as another engagement during white supremacy's fighting retreat into oblivion...

And so robbed of symbols, a previously racist attack disperses into a hazy diffusive blabbering. The most striking thing about Mary Matlin's "producer vs. the parasites" line is that she declines to say who the parasites are. Who specifically are the takers?

It felt like a lightbulb went off when i first read it but of course i want to ponder it a bit. Two initial trains of thought (not necessarily objections):

First, there are two categories of people who engage in this sort of dog whistle; the ones who are really racist and the ones who are just using racism as a way to further an anti-social program agenda (and surely there's overlap). Even if the racism aspect is on decline, it sure seems to me that the motivation behind it, the reason that second category employs the dog whistles, is stronger than ever. Republicans are attacking the very premise of the modern welfare state more than ever before and Democrats, as usual, are fighting back by offering deficit reduction during a recession. So it may be a win on the racism side but not on overall liberal goals.

Second, i was schooled years ago during a formative read of Lies My Teacher Told Me not to look at the fight against racism as a progression of events where things keep getting better. I'm sure Coates, who's been doing a lot of scholarly investigation into the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, would agree, but his formulation here sort of triggered that alarm bell for me. And at the same time Mitt Romney is reduced to using the 47% symbol, i think we've seen a lot more overt racism from other quarters.

Again, no conclusions; just rambling a bit (this is a blog, you know!). But i am intrigued by Coates' perspective.

By fnord12 | September 20, 2012, 11:40 AM | Liberal Outrage