Monday, May 3, 2010

The Conservation of Racism

Here’s how Wikipedia defines the “conservation of energy”:

“The law of conservation of energy is an empirical law of physics. It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time (is said to be conserved over time). A consequence of this law is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed from one state to another. The only thing that can happen to energy in a closed system is that it can change form, for instance chemical energy can become kinetic energy.”
I’m no physicist, but I don’t think that calling the conservation of energy an “empirical law of physics” means that real physicists treat it as a hypothesis that stands in need of empirical confirmation. If a physicist’s experiment seemed to show that the total amount of energy in a closed system had dissipated, he’d assume that the experiment's design or the instruments he was using to measure energy were faulty, not that the “law of conservation of energy" was wrong.  For the physicist, the idea that energy “can neither be created nor destroyed” functions less like a fact in the world than a description of what's empirically inconceivable.

I submit that a principle I’ll call the conservation of racism plays roughly the same role in liberal ideology that the conservation of energy plays in physics. According to that principle, the total amount of racism in American society is constant although from time to time it changes its predominat form. Peter Beinart provides a striking application of that principle when he suggests that nativist hostility to immigrants and hostility to African-Americans are different manifestations of the same reservoir of American racism:

“Why are large chunks of the American right so freaked out by illegal immigrants? Because they are no longer so freaked out by African-Americans. And in this regard, the politics of 2010 are more like 1910 than 1970. Over the last century, American politics has tended to see-saw between panics about immigrants and panics about blacks. . . .

“Just look at the attacks on Barack Obama. During the campaign, the race-baiting right attacked him as both a closet black militant (via Jeremiah Wright) and a closet Muslim (via his middle name). But eighteen months later, barely anyone mentions Wright anymore. What has stuck is the charge that Obama was born overseas. This month, the geniuses in the Arizona House passed a law requiring presidential candidates to show their birth certificates to get on the state ballot (the bill was set aside by the state Senate—for now, anyway).”
I’ve commented on manifestations of this idea before here and here. You might have thought of the last presidential election as a political experiment that revealed that we’re a less racist society now than we once were. Some such notion probably inspired the tears flowing down Jesse Jackson’s face during the election-night celebration in Grant Park. But liberals don’t permit themselves to contemplate that possibility for long. When they’ve regained their ideological wits about them, they remember to interpret any political opposition to Obama’s agenda as an expression of racism, nativism or homophobia.

Isn’t it a little strange that self-styled “progressives” have come to understand race (and nationality and gender) in terms that deny the very possibility of social progress?


KenB said...

Hmm.. I generally agree with you and appreciate your posts, but in this case, I wonder if you're reaching a bit -- the accusations of racism that I come across from the lefter half these days seem to be directed not at society in general but at conservatives in particular (though often not at particular conservatives -- Beinart is typical in accusing the undifferentiated and unquantified American Right, and no doubt he can draw examples from the worst of them, without in any way demonstrating that they're representative of the group as a whole). Critics of Obama from the left are generally assumed to be pure of heart, though they may be mistaken or misguided.

Ron Replogle said...

KenB: I'll grant you that your interpretation fits the Beinart passage I quoted better than mine. But I think the rest of the article suggests that,when he speaks of the "American Right," Beinart's referring not just to conservative ideologues but to the broader population that processes the encoded racist, sexist and nativist signals transmitted by conservative elites. That explains, I think, why liberals can't get over Nixon's southern strategy, Lee Atwater's Willie Horton add and Karl Rove's tactic of mounting same-sex state ballot initiatives during the 2004 election; they're repelled by the cynicism of conservative elites that should know better than to exploit the latent racism/homophobia/etc. of the general population. And Beinart, at least, seems to think that there's a relatively constant supply of those unwholesome passions.