The right's way of talking - and thinking - about race is just totally poisonous. The conservative movement has been recruiting working-class whites and Southern whites for decades by using anti-black dog-whistles, and by promoting the idea that government spending equals white-to-black racial redistribution. More recently, the Trump campaign has ridden - and possibly spurred - a wave of anti-immigrant xenophobia. In the online social science discussion, racial theorists like Steve Sailer have gained an inordinately huge amount of currency among right-leaning intellectuals. Then there are the Twitter Nazis and the Reddit Nazis (and let us speak no more of them). So it is basically now impossible to talk to people on the right about race in a rational way.
So people on the left are the only ones I can talk to. And the left isn't perfect in the way it talks about race (who is?), so I have some criticisms to make. And of course any criticisms I make will inevitably be viewed as "tone policing". To a lot of people, it makes no sense to complain about lefty foibles when the far more scary right is beating down the doors. But that's really all I can do, because there's just no talking to the right about this. Instead of convincing rightists to switch sides, a more realistic goal is to improve leftist racial discourse in order to make the left more appealing to the mass of mushy centrist Americans.
This is the thinking behind a recent Kevin Drum article on "political correctness". Drum is worried that thought-policing by lefties is driving people into the Trump camp.
And let's be honest: We liberals do tend to yell racism a little more often than we should. And we do tend to suggest that anyone who likes guns or Jesus is a rube. And the whole "privilege" thing sure does get tiresome sometimes. And we do get a little pedantic in our insistence that no conversation about anything is complete unless it specifically acknowledges the special problems of marginalized groups. It can be pretty suffocating at times.
For the most part, I don't mind this stuff...[but] Donald Trump is basically telling ordinary people that ordinary language is okay, and since that's the only language they know, it means they feel like they can finally talk again.
Matt Yglesias strongly disagrees, writing:
Liberals are excessively reluctant to "yell racism" and excessively deferential to deeply embedded structures of white supremacy...obviously it's a big country and there are some people out there who are calling something racist when it isn't. But the notion that on the whole this is a big social problem strikes me as a figment of white people's imagination.
I think neither writer captures the breadth, complexity, and subtlety of race relations in America today - how could they? But to the extent that I kinda-sorta agree with one of these people, I agree with Drum. Which is to say, Yglesias is focused on what is fair in his own value system and assessment of reality, while Drum is focused on the political effects of certain styles of discourse. Yglesias is like the kid who goes up to a woman in the mall and says "You're fat!", and when his mom gasps "Why did you say that?!", responds "Because it's TRUE!!"
(Confession: That kid was me.)
Here's a brief, encapsulated version of how I see lefty racial discourse in recent years. In the past, anti-racism efforts focused either on concrete policies (segregation, redlining) or on individual attitudes (bigotry). But the concrete racist policies are mostly gone, and people have become very adept at hiding their bigotry when they want to. So lefties who want to eliminate racial inequalities have fewer obvious targets.
The response has been to focus on what Yglesias, employing the jargon of the day, calls "the deeply embedded structures of white supremacy". The idea is - I think - that patterns of racial inequality are supported by a diffuse and varied combination of hidden bigotry, stereotypes, subtly discriminatory attitudes, government policy, and the physical legacy of past injustices (de facto segregation, wealth inequality, etc.). That idea is correct enough. What's not as clear is how we should refer to those patterns, and - most importantly - how we should go about changing them.
Some lefties use the word "structure" to mean the pattern of inequality, while others use the word to refer to the diffuse combination of causes. Still others use the word to refer vaguely to social forces that they don't understand and have not thought about rigorously, but which they imagine must be complex, powerful, and probably directed by certain nefarious individuals. This last usage, which reminds me of how rebellious teenagers talk about "The System" or "The Man", is inevitably the most common...but hey, what do you expect?
The problem, I think, starts when left-leaning people take their idea of racist "structures" and start to apply it in the real world. How do you challenge or change a "structure"? You could try to remove policies that support continued inequality, or craft policies that try to redress the legacy of past injustices. Or you could take the lowest-cost option, which is simply to yell about "structural racism" a lot, to anyone who happens to be listening.
Naturally, I come in contact with a lot of folks who have chosen the latter option.
Declaiming against "structural racism" feels good. Racism is generally recognized as being a bad thing, and declaiming against bad things makes one feel righteous (I certainly feel that way). It also allows one to link up with like-minded people, making you feel like you have an army on your side and are not just shouting into a wilderness.
But I think left-leaning people should think a little more carefully about the consequences of this approach. I think that it could end up pushing lots of non-committed Americans, whose hearts are in the right place, to the rightist camp.
Imagine a middle-aged, middle-class white man living in the suburbs. Let's call him Bob. Bob is not a racial bigot - he'd just as soon hire a black person as a white person, and he'd just as soon have a black neighbor as a white neighbor. He does not subscribe to Sailer-type racial theories, and is heavily skeptical of any racial stereotypes he encounters. He votes for the Democrats.
But Bob takes part in "racist structures". He pays lots of money to live in his mostly-white suburban neighborhood, not because he wants to live next to white people, but because he believes that the schools are high-quality and that the neighborhood is safe. He works in a company that disproportionately employs white people, because that company pays him a salary, and because he has not encountered bigotry there sufficient to make him think twice about working there.
So here is my worry. In his discussions with his Millennial kids, or on Facebook, Bob may be assailed as as enabler of "structural racism" or "white supremacy". More thoughtful, intelligent lefties may assail him because he participates in (and even benefits from) segregated housing and schooling. Less thoughtful, less intelligent lefties may simply view him as a target because he is white and middle-class (even though they themselves are also likely to be white and middle-class). Unable to identify or directly target the "racist structures" they know must exist, humans inevitably focus on doing what they know how to do - give other individual humans a hard time.
Bob's natural reaction, of course, will be something along the lines of: "What can I do? Can I be less racist than I already am? Am I expected to move my family to a poor black neighborhood? Am I expected to quit my job and join a communist revolution, dedicated to overthrowing and remaking society? What do these people want???"
In the end, Bob may simply conclude that he is a target - and will always be a target - because he is white. and because humans are inevitably drawn to the opponents of the people who are attacking them, Bob will drift slowly toward the right. He will nod approvingly when conservatives decry "political correctness". He will be just a little more irritated when the Oregon anti-government militia crazies are identified as "white people." He may even start to pick up just a little more on those Republican anti-black dog-whistles. Of course, this will only increase the degree to which he comes into conflict with lefties that he encounters, which will reinforce the cycle that pushes him inexorably to the right.
I view this as a bad outcome. No, people like Bob do not constitute a silent majority in the United States - middle-class white people are actually a minority. But they are a substantial minority, who are vulnerable to being taken in by the Donald Trumps and Ted Cruzes and Rush Limbaughs of this world. And if you think middle-class whites are the only people who might be pushed rightward by well-meaning lefty attacks on "structural racism", think again. Poor whites and rich whites are just as susceptible. And remember that more Hispanics are identifying as "white" as time goes on. Asians are probably safe from day-to-day harassment by angry white anti-racists...for now.
Anyway, this whole scenario of "Bob" was a conjecture - a fantasy. This is what I worry about happening. I see small and subtle signs of this everywhere, but that means little - I could simply be primed to believe that the world fits my fantasy. So please don't read this as a declaration that "this is what is happening in American racial discourse and American politics." Instead, read it as a caution about a negative scenario that I envision happening.
I think it is incumbent upon prominent left-leaning anti-racist writers - Jeet Heer, the folks at Gawker, etc. - to think about this possibility, and how this bad outcome can be insured against.