In two of the Republican Party’s latest projects, both mainstreamed from the fringe — anger over the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and suspicion over whether the fact of one’s birth can suffice to make him “American” — some common threads emerge. First, both are conspicuously racial. Second, both are racist, in that they proceed from a generalization about an identity, to a specific, negative conclusion about each member.
But neither qualify as “racism,” at least in the traditional sense. The old racism looked for subjects: inferior persons and groups, who don’t deserve to participate in polite society. New racism, at least in these instances, contains no such assumption of white superiority. Quite the opposite: it looks for enemies. For example, in the “Ground Zero Mosque” narrative, Muslims aren’t doddering fools. They’re evil geniuses, exploiting our naive notions of religious freedom to crown an existential victory over The West. And then they’ll use the resulting apparatus to launch terror attacks, and otherwise subvert American culture. Genius!
Compared with old racism, in its governing principles, new racism seems to proceed from a place of less strength. Part of this we can read as a triumph. Equal protection law conclusively bars the majority from making theories of racial inferiority manifest in societal rules; if we no longer build or credit those theories, the law (combined with societal growth) has presumably generated some positive feedback.
However, neither this feedback, nor the intervening years since the civil rights movement, have done anything to quiet the underlying tensions. Equalizing the races has just flattened the conflict. The dangerous notion of cultural incompatibility persists, and simply finds its voice anew in the consequence of the flattening. If all are equal, the Other can’t be lessened; but he can be feared. Glenn Beck can’t say Obama’s race makes him inferior, but he can ask whether it means he hates white America. It’s the same story, just from a different perspective.
As of yet, we lack the vocabulary to deal with this new racism. Consequentially, we let it slide. Glenn Beck is still on the air. More and more Republicans rush to condemn the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and in so doing, acquire a campaign issue without having to actually think about policy (call this a side benefit). Sooner or later, though, someone will have to address it.