American racism is getting more coverage on the mainstream news than it has since the Civil Rights era.   And, that’s not surprising given antics like this image included in a mailing from the Chaffey Community Republican Women, a regional arm of the GOP in California (more on the story and image source here).  For her part, the group’s president, Diane Fedele, draws on the rhetoric of “race-blindness” to defend her actions.  She reportedly said that she received the illustration in a number of chain e-mails and decided to reprint it for her members in the group’s newsletter because she was offended that Obama would draw attention to his own race. She said she doesn’t think in racist terms, pointing out she once supported Republican Alan Keyes, an African-American who previously ran for president. She continues this “race-blind” rhetorical strategy when she says:

“I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,” she said. “It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.”

Now, the somewhat encouraging news is that lots of people are pointing out this overt racism and calling it what it is, including those on rather mainstream (albeit left-leaning) blogs and cable news networks.

However, the way stories like the one about the circulation of this image of “Obama bucks” are overly focused on individual racism, rooted in psychological explanations.  For example, Fedele made the top of Olbermann’s “Worst Person” list on his nightly broadcast, as have others in this political season who’ve been guilty of engaging in the most overt racist tactics.  And, in a perfectly fine piece at the Huffington Post, Peter Wolson has a thorough discussion of the psychology of “othering.”   I don’t disagree with either of these. Indeed, I welcome more discussion of American racism in as many venues as possible.  The problem with these is that the focus on the individual and psychological aspects of racism within a larger political discourse of “race-blindness” elides the way in which racism is systemic, built in, institutionalized, and structural.

The focus on the individual expressions of overt racism and the psychological roots of such expressions also forestall any sort of discussions about responses to racism by society as a whole. To illustrate this, note the contrasting response to individual racism in Denmark recently.  A 33-year-old woman was convicted under Danish laws against racism after posting racist remarks on her personal web page (she was given a fine).   Unfortunately, in the U.S. we seem reluctant to adopt such a societal-level response to overt expressions of racism, even in this political season and even when many, many people see such expressions as wrong and immoral.   Instead, there is a knee-jerk, libertarian response to any call for accountability under the law for such expressions in the United States.  In point of fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of decisions that restrict certain types of racist speech that don’t make a contribution to the public sphere.    Yet, prominent figures such as Rush Limbaugh, get away with what amounts to enciting racist hatred with their speech, such as this recent tirade against black children allegedly “raised as militants.”

Identifying individuals who engage in overt racism is important, and understanding the psychology of such expressions is valuable, but coming to terms with American racism takes much more than that.  And, dealing with it will require a broad-based political will and systemic social change.   We’re not there yet.

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In her “The Last Word” column at Newsweek this week Anna Quindlen gave us a new and useful concept to describe what many whites do—the “Caucasian card” (H/T Jose Cobas). When African Americans object to racist framing, antiblack commentary, or antiblack practices, whites accuse them of “playing the race card.” This is a white-framed, whitewashed phrase designed to deflect objections to everyday racism. It was doubtless invented by whites for that purpose. (Can anyone tell me its first use?) (photo: kevinthoule)

Quindlen cites the way that African Americans carry a heavy load of racial hostility and discrimination on their shoulders:

When one of the white guys blows an account, the office line is that he’s a loser. But when a black guy does it, it means that they—that’s the all-purpose “they,” sometimes used interchangeably with “those people”—don’t seem to be able to close the deal.

This burden of everyday racism makes a black person’s life quite different from that of a white person. Somehow most whites assume their lives are the same. They assert that blacks have equal opportunities compared to whites–in education, employment, housing or health care.

She later notes that Senator McCain justifiably likes to cite his long trials in a Viet Cong prison with it torture of a physical and psychological kind for five years. That, he and his supporters plausibly assert, “builds character.” But they forget or intentionally ignore the huge burden of contending with white hostility and discrimination that black men and women face (as well as other Americans of color). They face it for lifetimes, for far more than five years. This heavy burden often involves physical and psychological torture of its own kind. This should be fully recognized by the white media and voters, but is not.

Quindlen then comments on the McCain campaign’s reaction to Senator Obama’s recent and reasonable commentary on being viewed by many (whites) as not looking like other presidents on U.S. money and as being portrayed by McCain supporters and others as somehow foreign and “other.”

The man is black. His candidacy is indivisible from that fact, given the history and pathology of this country.… The suggestion of [his doing] something untoward was pandering to stereotypes and fear. Senator McCain was playing the Caucasian card.

She nails it this time. Whites invented the racist system of this country and have maintained that system, with great white privileges, since the 1600s. They have “played the white card” in every era. They played it in the abolitionist era of the 1850s-1860s, and they played it in the civil rights era of the 1950s-1960s. With no sense of irony, privileged whites (coming from what one blogger bobbosphere calls the “deal”) still play that white card today when they regularly accuse African Americans who critique the racist system and try to bring it down as “playing the race card” and being unfair to our “really democratic” system.

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