The New Racism

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.

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11 comments

  1. While I would agree that there is some prejudice behind the NYC issue (and for the record I am fully in favor of the Islamic cultural center in NYC) I think you have to be very careful to inject the charge of racism into either discussion.

    To be accurate, Muslims do not constitute a specific race. Islam is practiced by people of every skin tone, nation, etc. It’s a religion. Muslims are no more a race than Catholics or Jews or Baptists. What the opposition to the Islamic center in NYC represents is a prejudice towards a certain faith and probably towards the culture that surrounds it. I suggest this clarification because I think it’s important to fight ignorance on the propoer ground. Prejudices are usually based in a lack of knowledge. Educate someone and often those prejudices fade away. My hope is that this center woould accomplish just that (especially considering the group running it is considered very progressive).

    You may be right that the birther nonsense is based in racism. I try to ignore it so I’m not really knowledgable enough to give an opinion.

  2. Steve Jeffers · ·

    “Equalizing the races has just flattened the conflict”

    By removing disadvantages Christians, straights, whites and males no longer enjoy an advantage. So they seek new powers and rights to regain advantage.

    The right to impose their forms of education, the right to veto mosque building, the right to stop Hispanics in the street, the right to evade taxes, the right to use freedom of speech to make hate speech.

    They also seek to enshrine some of the old prejudices in the name of tolerance: the Catholic church’s statement that it’s part of their beliefs to be homophobic, so how dare government interfere.

  3. I think you underestimate the amount of fear that was in old-school racism. The reign of terror imposed by the Klan after the Civil War, or for that matter the slave patrols of the pre-Civil War era, were both predicated on a fear of the blacks getting out of control.

    1. Steve Jeffers · ·

      If you look at who was lynched, it was invariably either black business owners or blacks who dated whites. It wasn’t, in other words, blind fear – it was targeting those with economic and sexual freedom.

  4. New racism is from the perspective of America (WASP America) as victim. Everything evolves around that perspective. Fanatic Muslims are evil geniuses that the public must be protected from, and illegal aliens are cunning plotters who figure out how to cross the desert or be smuggled into the US just before giving birth so that they reap all the benefits (or so that they will turn into terrorists in 20 years and attack us then). Glen Beck markets America as being on the verge of being conquered (or controlled or dominated or something) – again, America is victim.

    Mike, unfortunately the general public (common folk, salt of the earth, you know… them) have equated Islam with being Arabic (or from the general Middle East – remember, common folk, salt-of-the-earth types) and thus entirely foreign and …sigh… eeeeviiilll. I don’t see the separation of that viewpoint from prejudice vs racism. Until the popular association of Islam with Middle East terrorists is broken, I think that racism will continue to be a factor in these confrontations.

    1. Do you think there would be an equivelant uproar if there was an Arab embassy going up in that location?

      1. An Arab (assuming Saudi Arabia) embassy two blocks from Ground Zero? Of course there would be an uproar – it would still circle around Islam=terrorists (this scenario would probably add the freakout of “OMG They’re trying to control Wall Street too!”) Prejudice may be based on ignorance of Islam, but these protests are based on racism. Remember, what’s the current base (in more ways than one) image of Islam among the salt-of-the-earth folks right now: Dark-skinned Middle-Eastern religious fanatics who hate women and America who want to get started on killing all Christians as soon as possible.

        1. This may also largely depend on the extent to which a particular Arab country is known as such. Mauritania may not cause a stir, although I suspect there might be anti-Islam watchdog groups that are more knowledgeable than the general population and which will call attention to the embassy.

    2. Erika is right; and the answer is yes. Some religions include a separate and distinct culture. Judaism is a religion AND a culture, I would say, for example, to the extent that one implies the other. That’s less true with Islam, but people have, unfortunately, assumed it is, and that the culture Islam entails is a violent one. That’s false, but the assumption carries consequences.

      1. “Judaism is a religion AND a culture”

        Judaism is a curious example, in that an interpretation of Torah indicate that anyone with a Jewish mother is also Jewish, regardless of religiosity or level of belief. In addition, many Jews from former USSR (myself included) are known as ethno-cultural Jews, and Judaism was designated as an official ethnicity by the Soviet government, which was reflected in official government identification papers.

        I my experience of debating white supremacists and holocaust deniers (not mutually exclusive) I noticed a preference among them for attributing to Judaism an ethnic or racial component regardless of actual belief in Judaism. I suspect there are several reason for this. First, presence of some genetic component common in the target group allows to attribute to it an inherited inferiority, which cannot be overcome by simply changing the belief system. Second, it effectively allows to separate oneself from that target group. I suspect similar modus operandi among opponents of Islam. Even if there is no factual basis for attributing a racial component to particular group, doing so (intentionally or out of ignorance) makes it easier to generalize and discriminate against the group.

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