On the New Racist Discourse in America

November 4, 2014 § 78 Comments

[Note: Comments have become out of control on this blog post, including some downright racist terminology that I have not allowed to be posted, as well as a few that include veiled, and occasionally direct, threats against me.]

So Ben Stein thinks that Obama is the most racist president in the history of this great republic.  He thinks so because allegedly Obama “is purposely trying to use race to divide Americans,” and is using the ‘race card’ to convince all African Americans to vote for the Democratic Party.  Ben Stein is wrong.

Obama is not the racist one, but Stein is tapping into a new discourse of racist ideology arising from the right in this country.  In this discourse, anyone who mentions race as an issue in contemporary American life risks being called a racist.  Anyone who points out racial inequality is at risk of being branded racist.  In the mindset of those who trumpet this new discourse, we’re all equal, no matter our ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or racial background.  And any attempt to point out inequality is therefore racist/sexist/homophobic, etc, by definition.

But what this discursive technique does is to deny the experiences of women and minorities in our society.  It says to those who have experiences different than white men that their experiences are invalid.  In short, this new racist discourse is meant to work as shorthand for racist viewpoints.  Thus, by claiming Obama is racist, Stein is both diverting attention from his own racism, and engaging in that very racism he blames on Obama.

More often than not, this discursive technique comes hand-in-hand with declarations of what is in the best interests of African Americans.  And in this sense, we return to the paternal racism of slave owners in the pre-Civil War era.  I’m not saying that Ben Stein = slave plantation owner.  I’m saying the tricks of technique here are very similar.  Last spring, we saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops up in Vermont.  Towards the end of the show, Rhiannon Giddens, the frontwoman of the band, told us of her own explorations of American history, and a book she read on slave narratives in the post-Civil War era.  One story in particular struck her, and she wrote the song “Julie” about it.

In the story, the mistress of the plantation is shocked at the fact that Julie, the former slave woman would have a will of her own.  She thought that she knew best for Julie, as did slave owners in general in a paternalist racist system.

And every time a white man or woman purports to know what’s best for African Americans, or any other minority, they’re engaging in this kind of paternalistic racism, which appears to be part and parcel of this new racist discourse from certain sectors of the political right in the United States.


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§ 78 Responses to On the New Racist Discourse in America

  • You have put your finger on what is still a real problem in the U.S.A. and it has been – ever since Obama took office – bubbling under the surface of US politics and opinion. I have contended since the start that the virulent anti-Democratic positions taken by Republicans have had an undertone of racism and it has become more intense in the past few years.

    I have often thought Obama has done far too little to reduce the racial tensions (such as Ferguson) but maybe his very low profile on this dossier is carefully thought out. His intervention would possibly increase tensions even more. But he will leave office as a black president that really did not stand up for blacks and racial minorities.

    And – with the projected upcoming Republican re surge – things will not get any better in the good old USA!

    Dave S

  • Brian Bixby says:

    And a parallel is the accusation of class warfare if one mentions income inequality, suggests it is a problem, or that it might be partially corrected by a heftier graduated income tax and estate tax.

    My most recent encounter with the new racism was the suggestion that black support for Planned Parenthood was really the KKK program for black race suicide, but that blacks don’t understand this.

  • Wilson says:

    Quite an impressive leap in logic. So white males are not allowed to comment or have an opinion on racial/gender issues? Or if they do and it doesn’t fit the established democratic/liberal narrative then they are racist/misogynistic? I guess thats one way to handle a contested issue.

    • Quite the leap in logic you make yourself. I said nothing of the sort. I am a white male, I clearly have an opinion, but you’ll note I don’t portend to know what’s right for African Americans, Latinos, or anyone else. So try reading what I said again, and you’ll see that that is what I said.

      • Wilson says:

        Ben stein didnt say anything about knowing what’s right for african americans either. He was simply voicing an opinion on Obama’s political tactics involving race. So try reading what you write before you post it.

      • Did I say Stein said that? Try again.

      • Wilson says:

        Yeah you fumbled your way from his quote to somehow conclude that he and any white male who has an opinion on race different from yours is a racist who is paternalistically telling minorities what’s good for them. If thats you opinion its fine but it makes no logical sense.

      • Look, buddy, this isn’t Twitter, and I don’t give a rat’s arse what your twisted little brain thinks, or your apparent logic fail. You don’t like what I post, that’s fine, I’ll sleep just fine tonight.

      • Mr. Barlow I greatly appreciate post and respect your logic. I must say that I think it’s sad we have to indulge in these types of conversations.

      • I agree, the fact that this entire discussion happens saddens me. I keep thinking we, as a society, are making progress, coming to a day when all these inequalities will go away. And then I get these rude awakenings that they are not.

      • friedmansbff says:

        But you have an opinion on what’s right for women. I’m a white female and I am offended that you are placing me in the minority category. Stop classifying people. Never have I felt inferior by society or by the business environment or by politics.. I have felt discriminated by a few individuals, but I don’t look to conservatives as a whole as the culprit, or democracy as the culprit, or capitalism either. Those who place other people in these certain boxes and call them the minority and the vulnerable are the ones causing this problem.

      • I said nothing about women being in the minority. Women aren’t the minority, either, roughly 51% of the population of both Canada and the United States is female. But, having said that, there is a pretty systemic system of patriarchy at work in our world and I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that my female students feel they have to work twice as hard to get as far ahead in life as their male colleagues. For another example, take a look down the page and read the previous posting here.

      • Alexander says:

        You’ve absolutely made my day. I thought my head was about to explode with all things I felt like writing in response to this post, but you said it for me in your own way. Great comment. It really is time to stop boxing people in. As long as there are people doing so, children will continue to grow up believing they should have a chip on their shoulder for some reason, whether that’s race, gender, sexuality or anything else. The adults in the world need to set an example, and stop putting their perceived problems into the minds of children, who if subjected to this constant, tedious and pointless type of discussion will grow up and do exactly the same to the next generation.
        There is only a problem if we keep making the problem by never letting it go.

      • Until there are structural changes in our society to make the playing field equal for all of us, and not based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or class, we won’t be equal.

      • Alexander says:

        But you are pushing the idea that the playing field is not equal. That’s not really true. And I think it’s damaging to push that idea. Young people grow up believing that they must feel slighted, sidelined, that they must expect to encounter all these issues that they have not actually encountered yet, but the adults around them are insisting they will certainly have to deal with at some point. It’s not fair to do this to the younger generation. Allow them to grow up without this mind, and ultimately behaviour influencing fear.
        If someone believes they will be looked down upon, or discriminated against from an early age they will act differently, abd dearch out examples, they will find reasons to feel discriminated against. They will never have a chance to see what happens when they just go out into the world with an open and positive mind to be who they are and do what they will.

      • I am not pushing the idea the playing field isn’t equal. I know the playing field isn’t equal. I know it from my own existence growing up poor, I know it from what my students tell me in class about their experiences. We are not equal. I wish we were, but we are not.

      • Alexander says:

        There is no playing field, it’s in the mind. We make our own fields to play in as we grow up. And people can make a much better life for themselves and play a much better game when they are not poisoned with the idea that the world and the people in it are against them in some way. When children growing up are not told by the adults around them to feel like victims of others or of society in general before they’ve even begun playing, they will succeed in doing whatever they want to do in this world, no matter where, or under any circumstances under which they may start on this planet.

      • No. We don’t. Some people get better opportunities than others. I had to work twice as hard because I grew up poor than my friends who were not poor. I had to deal with a high school guidance counsellor who told me that “People like you don’t go to university.” We can make a better life, that much is true. But there are systemic issues that hinder many people in getting ahead in life. That doesn’t mean we should give up, it means we need to try harder, both as individuals to overcome inequity and as a society to reduce inequity.

      • friedmansbff says:

        “But what this discursive technique does is to deny the experiences of women and minorities in our society. It says to those who have experiences different than white men that their experiences are invalid.”

        So… are women just a whole other confined box? Who is denying the experiences of women except you–you are denying my experience of being free from exploitation, and free from being defined as someone who needs you to speak for me, and you are denying my experience of feeling free from being branded as someone who is oppressed… Why? If women feel this way, then you need to bite your tongue and let them speak up because they are the ones who feel this way. Stop speaking for me to make yourself feel better, because it makes me feel worse.

      • Did you actually read what I’ve said? I do not speak for women (any more than I speak for anyone who is not myself). I don’t speak for you, my students, Anita Sarkeesian, but I know it’s wrong when people feel like their lives are at risk for being a woman with an opinion, or that they need to work harder to get ahead in life because they’re women. I’m glad, to be honest, you don’t feel that way. I look forward to a day when no one feels like they are oppressed or otherwise mistreated due to gender, sexuality, race, or class. But that day is not here yet.

    • urbannight says:

      That is not what is being said. What is being said is that white males are saying no one ELSE is allowed to comment or have an opinion on racial/gender issues because if those non-white or non-male people do make such comments they are the ones that will be labeled racist by the white male commentators.

  • klh048 says:

    I may be running off on a tangent here but first, I agree with your post and see things taking a strange phobic and hostile detour every time a racial issue is raised. Secondly, I do think that the race card gets played more often than need be. The issue of police brutality and excessive use of force is not a always a racial issue but the dialogue around the Ferguson incident — as it was projected nation-wide — made it seem as if race was the common motivating factor, which it generally is not.

    • I think that’s a tangent worth exploring, though I feel generally uncomfortable going down that road for the simple fact I’m a white man. I think, though, that any time a cop confronts a black man, race is an issue. Here’s why: I know this late middle-aged African American couple, both are professionals, make a comfortable living. But, when they had to deal with a government branch lately, in the waiting room, they noticed the colour of the skin of the other people waiting with them, and then they noticed the way the government employees treated blacks, Latino/Latinas, as opposed to how they treated white people. I think that this is real, and I think it colours almost all social interactions. So when you take stereotypes about young, black men, and combine it with a cop who is feeling slightly uneasy because of those stereotypes, he will be a lot more willing to pull out his gun, than if it is a young white man he is confronting for something.

      • Jean says:

        When the unarmed cadet was shot to death in front of the War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada in Oct., there was local tv footage of local people running away under cover downtown.

        For a flash 5 seconds I was shocked to see, that a white police officer had aimed his gun at a black pedestrian who was told to lie down on his stomache face down. Then he was allowed to leap up and join everyone else running away.

        What in the hell was the purpose in that??? NO ONE else (mostly white) was told at gunpoint by officer to stop in the melee. So absurd.

      • teeliciouss says:

        Hi, I do not want to be an intruder for this tangent though I am all in hands agree with you it is worth exploring. Your points make me recall an incidence of a young African-American got shot in Fruitvale , San Francisco by the White polices. There were a huge press around the calls. From the perspective of a movie made from that, a white man started the incidence got away whilst everyone was witnessing the polices took attention only to the African-American groups without a slight doubt on that White American-giving a fact that metro has built-in camera. I mean, every time a cop confronts a black man—an issue of whether its racing raise up(?) what is the solution, President Obama was oppressed to even touch the subject. He won an election (proud of him) yet in a most difficult times of American’s economy considering world war interfere. Time was consuming fast without a little bright good news for him. Anyhow, thanks for the topic, people need to realize it is a personal thought, you are able to voice opinion, not attack the blogger as him ain’t anchor or congressman.

      • Please note this is my experience and not an opinion. I’m a black man. I’m a proud American. Two facts about me that will not change. After years of living a lifestyle commonly associated with inner city, poverty stricken communities(i.e. excessive drinking and drug use) I decided I wanted better. To live better and to be a better person. I have experienced racism in various arenas and actually was quite racist myself. Race issues are common due the actions/behaviors of certain caucasians, black people, certain Muslims, Latinos, etc. Stereotypes are not always, but at times true.

      • friedmansbff says:

        I like how you explained that you’ve experienced racism in various arenas and that racism is commonly due to actions/behaviors of certain individuals, and I think that’s very true and how discrimination can be stopped–by looking at the private sphere: the individual, the family… the values and practices that are instilled on an individual basis. I don’t think society as a whole can be corrected if individuals don’t first begin with themselves.

  • halfbakedlog says:

    Liberals can deduce racism, conservatives can’t – got it, thanks.

  • Jean says:

    I’m sure you’ll never the thread of comments on this blog post. 😀

  • ” In this discourse, anyone who mentions race as an issue in contemporary American life risks being called a racist. Anyone who points out racial inequality is at risk of being branded racist.”

    Oh, poor baby! Welcome to the party. For six years, if you didn’t kiss Obama’s butt, you were labeled a “racist”.

    Didn’t like Solyndra? “You’re a racist!”
    Didn’t like GM Bailout? “You’re a racist!”
    Didn’t like kowtowing to Muslims and backstabbing Israel? “You’re a racist!”

    I’ll be willing to discuss the idea that labeling the left as inherently racist is specious as soon at the left acknowledges that it is specious to label those opposed to Obama’s policies as racist. Not before.

    • Who said anything about labelling people who oppose Obama as racist? I said nothing of the sort. So, as I’ve said to others, try again. Or, perhaps, better yet, take your ignorance elsewhere.

    • btrippodo says:

      I’m disappointed that, as a librarian, you haven’t grasped the simple concept of reading comprehension. Not only did you completely mischaracterized what Dr. Barlow states in his article, but your response is tainted with you own agenda. I’m sorry that you don’t like President Obama, but you must admit that he did actually face racism, both overtly by means of racial epithets and subversively by questioning both this citizenship & religion.
      No one should be throwing around the term “racist” just for disagreeing with an opinion or policy, but there is a big difference between what you are wrongly claiming and what this article is actually about. Characterizing someone as a racist for pointing out racism is intellectually dishonest and really just a way of stopping the conversation from moving forward.
      No one is perfect, but if we wish to progress as a society and a country, then we all need to try and actively practice empathy especially when race is concerned. I might not experience racism in any tangible way myself, but what I can do is to listen and really take in the experiences of others who do experience it in their lives. When you disregard those feelings and experiences, what you are doing is disrespecting those people who experience life differently than you by promoting the attitude they just don’t matter.

  • wmamadmin says:

    Spot on. Great post.

  • ihelver says:

    Reblogged this on ihelver.

  • neighsayer says:

    yeah, it’s “the best defense is a good offense” crap, cynical as Hell. Disgusting.

    Nice work, thanks.

  • sandsalt says:

    Reblogged this on sandsalt and commented:

  • rakesh031987 says:

    Reblogged this on rakeshkhanapure and commented:

  • linguistmonk says:

    You have hit the nail so the head. A mate of my who is british brought this point in conversation the other day. Our American friend who considers himself liberal and free thinking immediately started saying how it is not true and by talking about it, we are encouraging racism and division.

  • sbsbsbaraza says:

    Why is it that racism in the USA is mostly a battle between black people and white people are there any other races other than this two in America?

    • I agree, this isn’t just a black/white thing, that binary is false. I think it’s more a person of colour issue, of all ethnicities that are not seen as ‘white,’ from Native Americans, Latinos/Latinas, African Americans, etc.

  • sbsbsbaraza says:

    I like your post though…

  • I can’t agree with you more. I’ve noticed this myself in some of the discussions on Ferguson and on African Americans in general. It’s really upsetting, and the same people who are saying that anyone who discusses race is a racist (by the very definition of a racist that is ridiculous) are also saying that the best way to beat racial problems are to ignore them. I’ve become quite fond of saying this, and I’ll say it again: ignoring racism or other problems of inequality in America is like ignoring cancer in your body. You can’t ignore it and expect to get better. You need to approach it, sometimes with multiple methods of approach, in order to cure it for real. And one way to approach it is to discuss it and point out the hypocrisy. Thank you for your post.

    • Thanks for reading. I like what you say about ignoring issues like racism is like ignoring cancer in the body. Racism, or any other inequality, is a dangerous thing for society, it promotes inequality, it promotes stereotypes, and it is dangerous for us all, not just the people on the receiving end of injustice.

  • Cloud says:

    Very interesting topic. It sounds cheesy, but maybe one day we all just see each other as human beings and are able to look beyond the skin color, religion etc without being suspicious of whoever is different from us…when that day is here, no one can blame anyone anymore to be a racist and cannot use that argument in politics anymore neither. But that day unfortunately seems to be far… in the US, in Europe, in Africa and anywhere else.

  • thrive2inspire says:

    This article is a must read. Thank you for sharing. As African Americans we never encourage our stereotypes to be who we are yet it is forced on us daily.

    • Thank you, I truly appreciate that, especially given a lot of the commentary here. I am not an American, I’m an immigrant here, and it’s not like I come from a land of no racism, etc. (Canada), but it is so much more shockingly prevalent here.

  • Choxley says:

    I get you post, ty
    This may be off topic, but I am a American of the brown color and I was befriended by a “white ” couple(have always had friends of every color). We became great friends and apart of each others family. Years later they told me they had no friends of color or any other groups and decided to change that. I remember them saying “Its so when the(their) kids see someone that needs help that is different from them they will not fear or make choices out of fear” I think that is beautiful.

  • This mental constellation of thinking we know what’s best for others–is there a gene discovered yet for that? Just kidding, but there seems to be something very “human nature” about that tendency. Or should I say something very much “a part of all human cultures”?

    The end of the post (with the Carolina Chocolate Drops video) put me in mind of all the “isms” connected to the master-mistress thinking of “I Know Best” — colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, communism… . And then there were the Crusades and the Inquisition.

    Don’t tribes/cultures hold that their god is always the one true god and yours is not? Anthropologist-input needed here.

    The American experiment (room for divergent beliefs)–if we don’t annihilate each other over differences of “gods,” it is going to get even more interesting. And, oh my, what a voice she has — this Rhiannon Giddens!

    • Indeed. I’m not an anthropologist, I’m an historian, but from what I see across history, each group does tend to believe that its god is the one true god, or that they are the chosen people, etc.

  • Reblogged this on Progressive Action New Hampshire and commented:
    Can’t be said enough.

  • Your voice against racism is mesmerizing.
    People like you are less found because who stands against racism are the first being the victim of it.

    • Well, to be fair, I won’t ever be the victim of racism. I’m white.

      • Kelsey says:

        For myself, I have experienced racism as a white person. Most times that it’s happened in this country, where I am in the majority, it has been by other white people who don’t think I fit into their idea of white behavior – as one example, I was pulled over by a white police officer as I was parking in front of my apartment because, in her opinion, I must be buying drugs if I was in ‘that neighborhood’. When I accused her of racial profiling, she said that racial profiling is part of what makes neighborhoods safer. I don’t mean to detract from your main point, but I hate when people say that racism doesn’t affect them because they are white. Unfortunately, racism puts everyone into boxes, and when minorities are seen as ‘less than’ by whites it holds everyone back, even other whites.

      • I know you won’t be but who knows what is going to happen?
        Maybe African americans point you out.

  • Reblogged this on whatiwaswaitingfor and commented:
    Such nice words against racism.
    This guy can be a better revolutionary.

  • I am glad you have written about this. Racism has been playing a significant negative role everywhere but with Obama it has become a very tricky tool to confuse and distract people.
    I am from Israel and I know from pur struggles how important it is to battle racism. Thank you for taking it on as well

  • I wholeheartedly agree with you. But what is so surprising to me is the level of disrespect that is thrown at his and his family on a daily basis.

  • […] couple of week ago, I published this piece on the new racist discourse in the United States, thinking that this was pretty bloody obvious to […]

  • […] like last time I posted on race, I will get trolled by the racists.  This time, I will not post racist comments […]

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