What Gatesgate Reveals About Racism in America
(AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
The white man is the most discriminated against citizen in the United States. Or at least, that was the main take away from some recent news events. Recently, after the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his Cambridge home, National Review editor Rich Lowry says the incident has become one of “America’s Racial Moments, an occasion for ritualistic hand-wringing and self-flagellation over the country’s racist past and present.” Washington Times columnist Andrew Breitbart uses the occasion to criticize the media for ignoring the real scourge of reverse racism. In Breitbart’s narrative, Sgt. Crowley (the officer who arrested Gates) is the “Rosa Parks of rush-to-judgment ‘reverse racism.’”
It was more or less the same with Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. During the four-day-long hearings, nearly every question directed at Sotomayor from her conservative questioners focused on the unfair treatment white men have endured at the hands of elected officials and, more relevantly for Sotomayor, unelected judges. Indeed, if we’re going solely by the statements made and questions asked by the conservative members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, then it’s completely accurate to describe white men as having been discriminated against in all walks of life, from college admissions to civil service promotions.
Of course, these “insights” sound absolutely absurd; it doesn’t take anything more than a quick glance to reveal that white men (especially straight, upper middle class white men) are far from being discriminated against. They still occupy most positions of power and influence in the United States. White men still hold a solid majority of congressional seats, are still a significant number of the president’s top aides, and still dominate the nation’s highest court. White men still hold the majority of spots on the nation’s major op-ed pages, and are still the odds on favorite to sit on the board of a Fortune 1000 company. The list could go on and on. The simple fact is that there is hardly a single area of American life where white men aren’t at least somewhat advantaged over their non-white, non-male fellow citizens.
Moreover, if you look at the status of white men relative to most minorities, especially African-Americans and Latinos, it’s clear that aside from the occasional exception (like Barack Obama or Sonia Sotomayor), white men don’t have much reason for their status anxiety. African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, to lack access to affordable health care, and to live in neighborhoods with under-performing or failing schools. They are dramatically more likely to live in hyper-segregated areas, areas of concentrated poverty, or both, and are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. What’s more, there is a persistent income gap between whites and blacks (African-American men make approximately 72 cents on the dollar compared to their white peers) and a colossal wealth and asset gap.
That said, it’s not exactly a shock to see conservative politicians preoccupy themselves with the trials and tribulations of the white man. After all, using white racial resentment to win elections is nothing new, and many of the conservative senators questioning Sotomayor cut their teeth in an environment where stirring racial resentment was basically the norm in conservative political campaigns.
What is new, and somewhat troubling, is the extent to which many mainstream conservatives feel comfortable openly exploiting racial fears, and the extent to which many grassroots conservatives feel comfortable expressing outright racism. It is only a mild exaggeration to say that hardly a day goes by without one conservative or another apologizing for his (or her) "racially insensitive" comments. Earlier this month, the vice chairman of the Young Republicans came under widespread fire for laughing about racial slurs made about President Obama on her Facebook page (soon thereafter she was elected chairman). The very next week, a Republican city councilman in Atwater, California made news after he sent an explicitly racist email to colleagues. Most recently, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show to defend his assertion that conservatives should exploit white racial fears to gin up votes.
One would think that this would prompt a response from conservative pundits. After all, most conservative pundits understand they are in for hard times if they don’t make a sustained effort to attract minority voters. Simply repudiating the racially insensitive elements of their party—or taking accusations of racism seriously—would do a lot to repair the conservative movement’s image among minorities. On the contrary, mainstream pundits have been almost completely unwilling to do either. For instance, last week on Larry King Live rising conservative star Liz Cheney refused to denounce the "birthers," a right-wing fringe movement pushing the idea that President Obama isn’t a native American citizen (which would make him ineligible for the presidency). And on Hardball last week, Rep. John Campbell all but admitted that he was skeptical of President Obama’s citizenship.
All of this begs the question, Why are grassroots conservatives suddenly more comfortable expressing outright racism, and why are conservative pundits so reluctant to call foul? Obviously, a good deal of the noise coming from grassroots conservatives has to do with the fact that the president of the United States is a black man. As we saw during last year’s presidential campaign, many Americans were deeply uncomfortable with the prospect (or even possibility) of a black president. That discomfort, coupled with economic anxiety, is probably what’s fueling the birther protests and other expressions of prejudice.
As for conservative pundits, it might simply be the case that they don’t see racial discrimination as a problem, or at least not a serious one. Think Progress‘ Matthew Yglesias has repeatedly noted that conservative pundits are far more likely to condemn accusations of racism than they are actual instances of racism. Indeed, you’ll often find conservative pundits reverse the charge, and claim that the real problem is that minorities are just far too "sensitive" about race, or the accusation of racism itself.
The conservative response to Sotomayor and Gates has been disappointing, yes, but it only reveals something we already knew: the conservative movement has always been more concerned about accusations of racism against white people, and has never invested much time or effort into trying to fix the problem of racial discrimination against non-whites. This has been the case for more than four decades, and we shouldn’t expect it to change any time soon. Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer with Campus Progress. He graduated from the University of Virginia this spring.