Your Final Jeopardy Answer Is: 'Racism'

by Neil H. Buchanan
Contestant #1: "What is the reason that American democracy has never been universal?"
Contestant #2: "What is the device by which the wealthy divide and conquer those whom they oppress?"
Contestant #3: "What is assumed to be unchangeable and immutable, thus narrowing policy choices and lowering expectations?"
Ghost of Alex Trebek: "Judges?  I just want to check ...  Yes?  Yes!  For the first time ever, all three questions are correct, even though they are all different.  Congratulations to all of our contestants.  You entered Final Jeopardy in a three-way tie, and you all won by knowing at least one reason why racism is such a difficult problem for America and the world.  See you again on tomorrow's show.
Now that the Republican Party has decided that open race-baiting is no longer disqualifying -- indeed, that it might be all but required to satisfy much of their cult of White grievance -- this country's discussion of race has become both more difficult and more essential.
The Trumpist Right has decided to go after Critical Race Theory.  One of the most (in)famous conservative economists recently dismissed proposals to increase the minimum wage, smugly asserting that "groups including 'the poor' and 'the minorities' were not worthy of a $15 (£10.60) minimum wage for a first job."  It is a good thing that such a comment still engenders criticism, but none of his allies will "cancel" him, and he will continue to give terrible advice while gazing at the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Donald Trump tossed his way.

My central inspiration in writing today's column comes from having thought again about the hypothesis that, as one source put it, "it is often suggested that it is easier to build welfare societies in small and homogeneous countries such as the Nordics, compared to larger and more diverse countries."  I realize that there is controversy about that hypothesis, but I want to think about what it means for the United States if that claim is true -- or if enough politicians and analysts believe that it is true.

It recently struck me that, as I had Contestant #3 above argue, we simply assume that racism is unchangeable, forcing us to be less ambitious in thinking about social and economic change.  Why do we assume that to be the case?

Racists and those who (whatever hatred may or may not be "in their hearts") are willing to exploit racism have recently been engaging in a serious backlash -- against the Black Lives Matter movement, against the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd last year, against The New York Times's "1619 Project," against any notion of reparations, and on and on.  They correctly understand that racism is an essential element -- a necessary and possibly sufficient condition -- of their continued political viability and power.

This requires both arguing that there is no longer a problem with racism (if, indeed, they admit that there ever was one) and then going about reinvigorating racist policies and practices.  Chief Justice John Roberts's infamous claim in Shelby County v. Holder that the country's racism was no longer severe and pervasive enough to justify the key element of the Voting Rights Act was immediately mocked by North Carolina's "almost surgical precision" in denying Blacks the right to vote.  It was all completely predictable (and predicted), but it did not matter to Roberts or other movement conservatives.
And it is not merely a problem in the area of voting rights, although that is clearly the most practically important battleground in maintaining something resembling a pluralist democracy in the U.S.  People are often lulled into thinking that other areas of law are race-neutral, when that is not true even in the dry academic world in which I ply my trade: tax law and policy.  As one of my colleagues wrote recently in a not-yet-published piece: "[I]mplicit bias ... is baked into the tax law through its privileging of capital and its owners, among other things, producing an Internal Revenue Code that is racially blind but not racially neutral."

Again, however, even when we identify and analyze racism and its continuing effects on society, there is often more than a whiff of fatalism.  Racism seems frequently to be viewed as a "thing" that is simply out there in society, with the sometimes explicitly stated assumption being that nothing can change racism, forcing us to rethink what is possible and what is a pipe dream.

Paul Krugman's analyses often point out that much of the conservative backlash to our never-generous social welfare policies is driven by Republican efforts to tell White people that their hard-earned tax dollars are being handed out to "Those People."  He also points out that poor states that are net beneficiaries of federal social welfare programs counterintuitively produce White politicians who rail against those policies, because some of the federal spending goes to help the reviled racial minorities in those states (even though those policies also help many more White people).

This, then, dovetails with the claim that I summarized above, which is that there are political limits to poverty mitigation that are driven by racist attitudes.  Swedes, we are told, help poorer Swedes because they are "all Swedes," and as Sweden becomes somewhat more diverse through immigration, the Swedish welfare state becomes less generous.  The more they become like us as a matter of racial heterogeneity, the theory goes, the more like us they will become as a matter of screwing the poor.

Again, I acknowledge that this theory is hardly ironclad, and it would be nice if it turned out not to be true, or at least to be somewhat less true than it is assumed to be in the strong version of the theory.  What is interesting is what to do next.  Rather than saying, "Racism will stop us from becoming a more economically egalitarian society," why not say, "Racism might stop us from becoming a more equal society, so we need to fight racism head-on"?

It is true that the guys who marched in Charlottesville in khakis and white shirts seem unlikely to stop being racists, but is it too much to hope that there are less extreme people who currently are buying into racist propaganda mostly because that is what they are hearing?  This is not to say that we "understand" in an exculpatory sense why someone would be racist, but it does say that if racism has become worse over the last few years, it must be because something caused more people to become more racist and to act on whatever bigotry has been under the surface all along.  Is this a unidirectional phenomenon, where what metastasized after Trump's emergence is in no way reversible or remediable?  Maybe it is, buy I have yet to hear anyone even make the claim explicitly, much less try to defend it.

Yet that assumption is there, lurking in every discussion in which the answer to the question du jour is "because racism."  It is not true, however, that the racism that is out there is simply a fact on the ground, leaving us with no choice but to accept it and work around it.  It does not have to continue, and it is important to try to reverse it as much as possible.

As the words I put in Contestant #2's mouth suggest, a big part of the problem is that there are people who benefit from continued racial animosity by Whites.  And it is only marginally about the right-wing politicians.  The politicians who exploit that hatred are blameworthy, of course, but they are also to a certain degree stimulus-response machines.  That is, politicians who are confronted with citizens who exhibit less bigotry are either replaced with new politicians or adapt to the new reality.  The surprising death of same-sex marriage as a political wedge issue did not happen because Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy became less craven political opportunists.  The social landscape simply changed and took away that particular opportunity to ride hatred to political power.

This means that #2's statement that racism "is the device by which the wealthy divide and conquer those whom they oppress" is the big enchilada.  If Whites cannot be convinced to see everyone else as lazy, shiftless Others but as people who sometimes need a better set of supports in life (especially in overcoming and eventually eliminating early disadvantages), then economic elites will lose their ability to turn the exploited against each other.

I am not claiming, of course, that this in itself is a novel observation.  I often cite Thomas Frank's now-classic book What's the Matter With Kansas? in discussions of this sort, but Frank would surely acknowledge that he was not the first to see the divide-and-conquer nature of American racism and other cultural grievances.  White Kansans undermine themselves, it seems clear, because the hatred is more intense than the desire to use the government to help everyone (most definitely including themselves).

What I do think is interesting is in putting these two things together and seeing how each perversely complements the other.  "Because racism" counsels us to give up, because there is supposedly nothing we can do about "deep hatreds," causing us not to challenge the economic hierarchy.  Divide-and-conquer makes sure that those deep hatreds persist and continue to seem irreversible, causing us to give up and not challenge the economic hierarchy.

As frequent readers of this blog know, I happen to think that it is already too late to reverse the very immediate threats to our democracy.  If I am proved wrong, however, it will be essential to use the gift of additional time to undermine the unholy alliance between right-wing economic forces and right-wing social bigotry.  Even if racism could never be eliminated, I would hope that it can be reduced and mitigated.