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The New Racism

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I’m working on a chapter for an edited volume on the Tea Party. My essay seeks to place the Tea Party within the context of American conservatism over the past 60 years, with nods to pre-World War II issues such as New Deal policy and white racial formation in the 19th century. It’s essentially a synthetic piece with my own spin on these issues, which will lead to throwing an concept off you all for comment and critique.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of the literature on the rise of conservatism within the urban landscape: Kevin Kruse’s White Flight (on Atlanta), Robert Self’s American Babylon (Oakland), Thomas Sugrue’s The Origin of the Urban Crisis (Detroit), etc. These historians have creating one of the most vibrant historiographies of the past 15 years, asking important questions about whether “white flight” as we commonly conceive of it existed, the role of the federal government in pulling whites out to the suburbs by subsidizing their housing through the Federal Housing Administration, the GI Bill, the Interstate Highway Act, etc., and how these cities changed neighborhood by neighborhood. Great stuff.

Another key question for many of these historians is how the move of whites to the suburbs, the rise of public housing in the cities, and the role the federal government played in shaping cities and suburbs in mid-century America played in the rise of conservatism. Merging with broader histories of conservatism and the suburbs like Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors, these books demonstrate in detail how people on the ground in these cities began to embrace a race-based conservatism that (despite the fact that the federal government subsidized every bit of their American Dream) saw the federal government as helping blacks at the direct cost of hurting whites. This zero-sum game of racial politics expressed itself on the local level as early as the late 1930s when the government began opening public housing to blacks and then manifested itself on an increasingly national level, most famously in George Wallace’s presidential campaign of 1968, the Reagan Democrat phenomenon, etc.

Kruse in particular shows how these new conservatives began to talk about race in a post-civil rights society when polite discourse no longer allowed for using the “N” word, lynching, blackface routines, or so many other hallmarks of pre-Civil Rights American racism. Rather, they began combining ideas of personal preference and individual rights with race. Suddenly, terms like “property values” and “law and order” became code words for segregation. “Welfare queen” became identified as a black woman mooching off the state. “Individual rights” meant that I could keep my neighborhood and school white and resist school busing or housing desegregation because as an American, I have the right to defend my property and family from interlopers.

While less obviously ugly than more common manifestations of racism, this language has served to keep America unequal. Prison incarceration rates, educational inequality, de facto neighborhood segregation, etc., are all huge problems in this county.

Building on these scholars, I am calling this language and its aftermath today “The New Racism.” Moreover, I am arguing that Tea Party members embody these ideas today for a number of reasons: their aim to destroy government programs that help the poor (which are of course mostly people of color), their polled opinions about non-whites, and the images and speeches of their rallies. Tea Party members point to people like Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, and Allen West as examples of how calling them racists is absurd, which of course brings us to meanings of the word. Can one be racist and be married to someone of a different color? Can a white conservative be racist if they vote for someone of another race?

I also recognize that Tea Party founders really were primarily critiquing economic rather than social issues, though one can’t separate the two given issues of funding social programs and deciding who gets what percentage of the national pie. But of course any analysis of the signs, t-shirts, slogans, and speeches of the Tea Party rallies show this strictly economic definition of the Tea Party to be not very useful. Or at least, so I believe.

Charging the Tea Party and much of modern conservatism as directly racist could be controversial, despite what I see as a preponderance of evidence for the fact. So a few questions to throw off you all:

1. Does the term “New Racism” make sense given how I described it?

2. How useful does it seem in analyzing modern conservative politics, particularly given the much publicized existence of a (very few) prominent black conservatives?

3. How do we define racism today? Do my definitions of racism, to the extent I really articulate that in the post, make sense here?

I am happy to elaborate in comments if anything is unclear. Again, none of this is really new per se, but I think that it is useful in thinking about where Tea Party ideas fit in the history of American conservatism. There’s much more to the article than this, but this is the central idea for which I most need feedback.

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