In what ways is the rise of racist behavior among McCain/Palin supporters the same racism that one might have seen in the U.S. in the 1980s, the 60s, or even earlier? That’s one of the questions I’ve been asking myself lately while simultaneously wishing that this campaign season would get itself over with a little more quickly. It’s not a question I have a complete set of answers to (obviously) so much as a set of observations and speculations. I’m not trying here to take up the issues of structural or institutional racism but to look at ways in which racist attitudes showing themselves in this election season seem like or unlike past manifestations.
What’s new is calling a Presidential candidate a terrorist and associating African Americans and other minority groups with terrorism. This seems very much a post September 11 phenomenon.
What’s new also is the degree of fear and anger at the idea that a black man might be President. Of course that’s new because it’s never really been a possibility before.
What’s not new is the anger of economically marginal whites at finding themselves competing for jobs with minority groups and sometimes losing out and believing that such a situation is unacceptable. White people’s feelings about entitlement seem pretty similar to what they have often been.
What’s also not new is the lack of jobs and loss of opportunity in rural areas. That said, there’s certainly a new cycle going on in U.S.’ boom and bust tendencies that has different features than earlier. I’m not sure what those features are exactly, but they have to do with what kinds of jobs have vanished and what few kinds remain. With most industrial and agricultural jobs long gone, what remains other than low wage retail work and various small business attempts at making a few dollars? Still, that particular change isn’t all that new, although at the moment it may be particularly severe.
What is new is the degree to which the white middle class is disappearing in many small city and rural environments. The degree of division between a few elites and a struggling underclass is less hidden, while more small cities begin to resemble abandoned urban areas.
What is also new is the increasing number and types of minority group citizens in small city and rural areas. This demographic shift may suggest that even rural whites now encounter more types of minority groups than in the past.
What’s new also is the degree to which even racists often seem to understand that being labeled a racist is a bad thing. Racists are more quick than ever before to deny that they are racists and to make a public ruckus if anybody calls them racist. As unpleasant as that phenomenon is, it indicates a profound shift in U.S. history. Even many racists grant that racism is wrong and so in some instances have to struggle with how best to code racist language so that it doesn’t seem transparently racist.
But does the above also suggest that there may be less white racists than ever before? That’s something I don’t know.
What’s new also is the relationship between Americans and material goods. Of course if one compares standards of housing and kinds of available material goods between 2008 and the 1960s and further back, it would be immediately clear how many more material goods are available to economically marginal people than were 50 years ago. But, for instance, the explosion of the price of gas means that it’s more difficult to afford to drive a car, if you actually have one, so that a basic element of rural life seems endangered. And people are less likely to own their own homes and more likely to not be able to afford the homes they have recently tried to purchase.
What’s not new is the degree of scapegoating and its perpetual illogic: that minority groups are to blame for the problems of white people, rather than the financial and market practices of people who often may have a similar cultural background.
This list is hardly complete. Certainly I’m not talking here about the more subtle, sometimes even unconscious racism that continues to pervade U.S. culture: the identification of behavioral traits with race and racially coded behavioral preferences, etc. The effects of the less visible racism practiced by comfortably well-off suburban and urban people is also much harder to recognize and describe. And it’s difficult to know the degree to which any of these things will finally affect the voting on November 4. Still, it has been interesting (as well as troubling, obviously) this election season to witness the ways racism itself changes in relationship to other changing social dynamics.