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Hidden Explicit Messaging

A common refrain these days about racism in our society—to the extent that it's discussed at all—is that racist language is far less explicit today than it was in the past. There may be racism (way over there, and by those people) but let's be glad that people don't casually throw around the N-word anymore. Or so say people—good liberal people—like to frequently say.

But is racism less explicit today, really?

In my last post I gave an example of some extremely common, casual, yet racist messaging in the example of a white person claiming that a person of color only got a prestigious academic fellowship "because they're Black/Brown/Indigenous." Is this racist comment not explicit? The message here is that the only way a person of color could possibly get, say, an NSF Fellowship is because of affirmative action, whereby more qualified white people are pushed aside so a less qualified person can get the fellowship based on their race (or so the fictional, cartoon version of affirmative action goes). It couldn't have been because the person of color had a superior application package, with well-written broader impact and research statements, along with three strong letters of recommendation. No, it had to be due to an unfair advantage given to them, which was to the detriment of smarter, more qualified white people. 

Is that not messed up? Is that not the very definition of white supremacy? Sure, the person didn't explicitly say that white people are necessarily more qualified than any person of color. But what else could "You only won that fellowship because you are hispanic," possibly mean?

A half century ago when people called for a "separate but equal" society based on "states rights" and a desire to preserve "a Southern way of life," they didn't always explicitly say, "I don't want Black people to enjoy life as I do, live where I do, or be seen in my presence in anything other than a submissive, inferior role." But what else could their call for segregation mean, especially when the results of it were manifest in daily life, and in the life opportunities and outcomes of Black people at the time? That said, I'm sure there were liberal academics in 1950 who patted themselves and other white people on their collective backs for living in a world in which racism wasn't as explicit as it was in 1880, or 1830.

But what was the difference between 1830 and 1880, or 1880 and 1950? I can think of two things: the passage of time, and the form of racial control employed by greater society. What were the commonalities? That there existed a form of racial control that placed a higher value on the lives and contributions of white people over people of color, then as today (also known as the value gap). Another commonality is the need for ideological language to simultaneously justify and preserve that racial ordering, for culture can only exist through the words and actions of the people in it.

In 1880, people could look to science to provide evidence of white superiority based on biology. In 1950, people pointed to the inferior cultures of non-white people, which led to crime and poverty. Today, we use similar justifications, wrapped up in narratives that both justify and preserve the status quo. The difference in today's narratives and those of the past is not their explicitness, per se. It's just their form. But their purpose and outcomes are the same. 

All of that to set up the most racist comment I've seen by an average person in a public the past 24 hours. Behold this comment left after a friend of mine on Facebook cross-posted my recent post about NSF haters:
There are strong arguments in favor of affirmative action but this article makes one of the weakest arguments possible. The author points out that previously the scientific system excluded non-white people which he equates to pro-white affirmative action. This argument only makes any sense if you think racial discrimination is wrong but the whole point of the article is that it is in fact a great thing and that we should continue doing it.  
The article does make the much better argument that the old pro-white system effectively pumped low performing white people into STEM fields which hurts everyone. This isn't a moral argument like the one above, it's just a pragmatic argument and I think it's a much better way to frame the discussion.
Granted, this isn't as explicit as the racism overheard at, say, a Trump rally or David Duke speech. But let's be clear, the difference between the two is only a matter of degree, not a true difference in their nature.

First of all, It might not need saying, but the commentor is a white man. Then again, all people swim through the murky waters of white supremacy, so he could plausibly have been of any race. It's well worth noting that the maintenance of white supremacy is the only equal-opportunity employer in our country (see Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas, etc).

Okay, back to the comment. Note how my "article" was about the experiences of students of color, and contrast that with the commentor's need to center white people throughout his missive. He offers not a single word about the experiences of the students whose experiences directly inspired and informed my essay. White supremacy culture needs white people front and center at all times, and the author does his part to maintain this. This process of centering white people not only reinforces the dominant paradigm, but it reflects it as well: statistically speaking, the white commentor very likely has very few meaningful relationships or little regular contact with people of color (As Chris Rock put it: "All my black friends have a bunch of white friends. And all my white friends have one black friend."). That's because segregation is as real today as it was in 1950, which makes it hard to hear about experiences so foreign from your own, and much harder to empathize and reflect.

Next, check out the deft use of language to equate affirmative action and racial discrimination. That's an old trick, first used by the likes of Antonin Scalia back in the late 1970's, along with other white supremacists in the Republican party who were pushing back against the gains of the Civil Rights era in order to secure the white vote (they still have that vote today as a result). But logically, how can actively affirming a place for people who have been historically and presently discriminated against itself be discrimination? How else can the people who's lives need to be actively valued be identified except by the same means that they were identified for devaluing in the first place? The only ends the commentor's messaging serves is the maintenance of the status quo, in which white people are valued more and as a result advantaged. Simply put, it says: "Don't do anything to affirm a place for non-white people in society, because that's discrimination against white people."

Granted, the commenter didn't just come out say these words, and perhaps he was only reiterating the arguments of others. But what other message could such faulty logic convey? Why repeat it?

Finally, check out how dismissive he is about the use of any type of "moral argument," as opposed to a "pragmatic argument," to defend affirmative action. Note how that preferred pragmatism is in service of white people, not my students. The sentiment is: Keep morals out of the issue of devaluing non-white people! Convince white people to do the right thing on the basis that it helps them, but please don't mention the experiences of impacts on others. Further, by staying away from moral arguments, he can stay away from the immorality of societal exclusion, thereby preserving white innocence. How better to preserve an amoral system of racial control than to exclude morality from the argument against it!

Of course, I'm not accusing this person of being A Racist. I shouldn't have to explain this, but the fact is that I don't know how he lives his life. But what he said, and the message it conveys is unquestionably racist. Indeed, racist sentiment doesn't get much more explicit than this, for it serves no other end but preserving the status quo in which white people are valued more. And the only way white people can combat it is to learn how to hear it for what it is. That takes practice, but once you do it, every day starts sounding an awful lot like 1950. And I can find no reason to believe that 50 years from now "good liberal" people won't look back at this sort of thing and say, "Jeez, they were so racist back then. At least it's not as explicit now!"


I'll conclude here by addressing a predictable concern: John, why are you picking on some random Facebook commentor? Isn't this punching down? Isn't this setting up a straw-person argument?

Sure, this may be some random dude on Facebook, but doesn't that just make him an average American? I did check out his profile and I can confirm that he's educated, employed and in all respects looks like a middle-class white American.  He's just like that person next to you on the subway, or that guy in the BMW 3-series idling next to you in traffic, or that dude down the hall or in the next cube over.

As for his line of argumentation being straw-like, have you heard how white dudes talk about diversity programs? It's as predictable as it is ahistorical, amoral and down right stupid. Yet it's absolutely necessary for maintaining the whiteness of every aspect of power in our society.

Finally, how exactly can one punch on equal terms with something as logically bankrupt as the supremacy of whiteness? But since it's so pervasive, and since I don't see many white people calling this sort of stuff out for what it is, I'll go ahead and step in; to preserve my own sanity if nothing else.


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