Tag Archives: racism

Millennials Are More Racist Than They Think

News about race in America these days is almost universally negative. Longstanding wealthincome and employment gaps between whites and people of color are increasing, and tensions between police and minority communities around the country are on the rise. But many claim there’s a glimmer of hope: The next generation of Americans, they say, is “post-racial”—more tolerant, and therefore more capable of easing these race-based inequities. Unfortunately, closer examination of the data suggests that millennials aren’t racially tolerant, they’re racially apathetic: They simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it.

In 2010, a Pew Research report trumpeted that “the younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders.” In the Chicago Tribune, Ted Gregory seized on this to declare millennials “the most tolerant generation in history.” These types of arguments typically cling to the fact that young people are more likely than their elders to favor interracial marriage. But while millennials are indeed less likely than baby boomers to say that more people of different races marrying each other is a change for the worse (6 percent compared to 14 percent), their opinions on that score are basically no different than those of the generation immediately before them, the Gen Xers, who come in at 5 percent. On interracial dating, the trend is similar, with 92 percent of Gen Xers saying it’s “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” compared to 93 percent of millennials.

Furthermore, these questions don’t really say anything about racial justice: After all, interracial dating and marriage are unlikely to solve deep disparities in criminal justice, wealth, upward mobility, poverty and education—at least not in this century. (Black-white marriages currently make up just 2.2 percent of all marriages.) And when it comes to opinions on more structural issues, such as the role of government in solving social and economic inequality and the need for continued progress, millennials start to split along racial lines. When people are asked, for example, “How much needs to be done in order to achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality?” the gap between white millennials and millennials of color (all those who don’t identify as white) are wide. And once again, millennials are shown to be no more progressive than older generations: Among millennials, 42 percent of whites answer that “a lot” must be done to achieve racial equality, compared to 41 percent of white Gen Xers and 44 percent of white boomers.

The most significant change has been among nonwhite millennials, who are more racially optimistic than their parents. (Fifty-four percent of nonwhite millennials say “a lot” must be done, compared with 60 percent of nonwhite Gen Xers.) And this racial optimism isn’t exactly warranted. The racial wealth gap has increased since the 2007 financial crisis, and blacks who graduate from college have less wealth than whites who haven’t completed high school. A new paper by poverty experts Thomas Hirschl and Mark Rank estimates that whites are 6.74 times more likely to enter the top 1 percent of the income distribution ladder than nonwhites. And Bhashkar Mazumder finds that 60 percent of blacks whose parents were in the top half of income distribution end up in the bottom, compared with 36 percent of whites.

As to how well whites and nonwhites get along, only 13 percent of white millennials say “not well at all,” compared with 31 percent of nonwhite millennials. (Thirteen percent of white Gen Xers and 32 percent of nonwhite Gen Xers agree.)

In a 2009 study using American National Election Studies—a survey of Americans before and after each presidential election—Vincent Hutchings finds, “younger cohorts of Whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988.” My own analysis of the most recent data reveals a similar pattern: Gaps between young whites and old whites on support for programs that aim to further racial equality are very small compared to the gaps between young whites and young blacks.

And even though the gaps within the millennial generation are wide, as with the Pew data, there is also evidence that young blacks are more racially conservative than their parents, as they are less likely to support government aid to blacks.

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Spencer Piston, professor at the Campbell Institute at Syracuse University, used ANES data and found a similar pattern on issues relating to economic inequality. He examined a tax on millionaires, affirmative action, a limit to campaign contributions and a battery of questions that measure egalitarianism. He says, “the racial divide (in particular the black/white divide) dwarfs other divides in policy opinion. Age differences in public opinion are small in comparison to racial differences.” This finding is, he adds, “consistent with a long-standing finding in political science.” Piston finds that young whites have the same level of racial stereotypes as their parents.

 

There is reason for an even deeper worry: The possibility that the veneer of post-racial America will lead to more segregation. The post-racial narrative, when combined with deep structural racism, leads to what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists,” a system where racial gaps persist less because of explicit discrimination and more because of structural factors—things like the passage of wealth from generation to generation or neighborhoods that remain segregated because of past injustices.

 

We can see numerous examples of how the post-racial rhetoric is hampering a racial justice agenda. In Parents Involved in Community Schools Inc. v. Seattle School District, a 2007 case in which two school boards were sued for using racial quotas to ensure that schools were diverse, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This reasoning is pervasive in his decisions. When the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Roberts wrote that the country “has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” The results were immediate: Across the country, states began putting up barriers to voting, which the finds disproportionately affect black voters. Political scientists Keith Bentele and Erin O’Brien have concluded that the laws are indeed motivated by a desire to reduce black turnout—all proving that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was right when she noted in her dissent that the logic of the decision was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

 

It’s possible that the court will use the same “post-racial” logic someday for affirmative action, too. Or to strike down the Federal Housing Administration’s ban on housing actions that have a “disparate impact” on African-Americans, such as exclusionary zoning or lending practices that disproportionately penalize people of color. This is particularly important since the most important impediment to black upward mobility is neighborhood poverty.

 

The conservative stance on racism is to deny structural racism exists and therefore deny that the solution to racism lies in structural changes. Instead, conservatives view the way to end racial disparities as simply ignoring the issue and treating everyone equally. While this sentiment sounds nice, it means that children who are born into poverty and face structurally racist housing, criminal justice and education systems will never have equal opportunity. The conservative view was once lambasted by 19th-century economist Henry George as “insist[ing] that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and other artificially loaded with lead.”

 

Yet many millennials subscribe to this view, with an MTV/David Binder poll finding only 39 percent of white millennials believe “white people have more opportunities today than racial minority groups.” By contrast, 65 percent of people of color feel that whites have differential access to jobs and other opportunities. Further, 70 percent of all millennials say “it’s never fair to give preferential treatment to one race over another, regardless of historical inequalities.”

 

And the irony is that having a black president has made this failure to acknowledge structural barriers to opportunity worse. Numerous studies find that the election of President Barack Obama has made whites, particularly young whites, sanguine about racial disparities in America. One study surveyed 509 people of all races before and after the 2008 election about their perceptions of discrimination against blacks. The youngest third in the sample were 11.7 percent less likely to perceive discrimination in the wake of Obama’s election than they were before, while the oldest third was 8.5 percent less likely. A study of college students at the University of Washington, also based on surveys before and after the 2008 election, finds that those polled were less likely to see the need for continued racial progress after Obama’s election. In the recent MTV study cited above, 62 percent of millennials (58 percent of people of color, 64 percent of whites) agreed that “having a Black President demonstrates that racial minority groups have the same opportunities as white people.”

 

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A 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 58 percent of white millennials say discrimination affects whites as much as it affects people of color. Only 39 percent of Hispanic millennials and 24 percent of African-American millennials agree.

 

This is disturbing for the future of race in America. The Roberts vision of radical colorblindness has irreparably harmed racial progress. If young Americans buy into his vision of a colorblind society—and a large literature suggests they do—white America and black America will diverge further, creating a permanent underclass in which people of color are denied equitable access to the American dream.

This piece originally appeared on Politico

How Racism is Destroying the Middle Class

Progressives have long argued that conservatives play up racial resentments to undermine the welfare state. Conservatives tend to respond to such accusations with their own charges of liberal “race baiting.” But whatever right-wing voices might say on the matter,  a new analysis of the data suggests that racism does, in fact, strongly predict welfare spending.

Using two surveys from 2008, Douglas Spencer and Christopher Elmendorf estimatedracial resentment across the states by measuring responses to questions about the work ethic, intelligence and trustworthiness of blacks Americans. They estimate the portion of whites in each state that are in the top quartile of racial resentment (so a state with large amounts of racism would have more than 25 percent of whites espousing racially biased views).

I combined this with data from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities showing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for a single-parent household of three. As the scatterplot below shows, these two variables are strongly correlated:

I asked Eric Stone, the lead data scientist at Smarterer and a former hedge fund manager and USDA statistician, to help me see if there was another factor driving this trend. He ran the numbers again, controlling for state revenues per capita (based on Tax Foundationdata, averaged from 2008-2010), as well as the average ideology of citizens and the average ideology of the state government (based on data from Richard Fording, again averaged over the period of 2008-2010).

Stone tells me that after controlling for these factors, “racial resentment is indeed the strongest predictor of TANF, at least in the context of this model.” He reports a p-value of <.001 (indicating there is a less than .1 percent chance that the relationship was observed by chance) and an R2 of .556 for the model (meaning that these variables collectively explain more than half of the variation in TANF spending).

The idea that racism strongly predicts opposition to welfare has strong support in the academic literature. In his book, “Dog Whistle Politics,” Ian Haney Lopez showed how conservatives have used racial animus to drive opposition to welfare. In an interview with Salon, he said,

Dog-whistle politics is not fundamentally about race. It’s fundamentally about attacking liberal government, attacking New Deal government, which is good for the country as a whole, but bad in the perception of some of the very rich. This is fundamentally about power, it’s fundamentally about how we are going to organize a society for everybody. The core point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class.

The research supporting Lopez’s argument is strong. Political scientists Richard Fording, Sanford Schram and Joe Soss find in their book “Disciplining the Poor,”

concerns over welfare were significantly more likely to be activated among respondents who perceived “most blacks” as lazier than “most whites.”

This aligns with Martin Gilens, who found that, “racial considerations are the single most important factor shaping whites’ views of welfare.” Media are certainly part of the explanation, as he finds elsewhere that “network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.” International research on the social safety net confirms this research.

Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser and Bruce Sacerdote find that racial fractionalization (a measure of racial diversity) strongly predicts social spending. This relationship also holds within the United States: states where a larger portion of the citizens are black spend less on welfare. Matthew Fellowes and Gretchen Rowe find that as the share of African Americans on TANF increased, states lowered benefits, made eligibility rules stricter and reduced the flexibility of work requirements. In another paper, Alesina and his co-author, Paola Giuliano, write, “When the poor are disproportionately concentrated in a racial minority, the majority, coeteris paribus, prefer less redistribution.” They further note, “ In the US the racial majority (whites) is much less favorable to redistribution than minorities.” The U.S. also has an unreasonably strong belief in the idea that hard work is the key to success, and therefore believes that those who are unsuccessful must be lazy.

Similarly, a Pew study finds that the global median of people disagreeing with the idea that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control” is 38 percent, in the U.S. it’s 57 percent; the percentage of people internationally agreeing that it’s “very important” to work hard to get ahead in life is 50 percent, in the U.S. it’s 73 percent. In a country where poverty is deeply pathologized, and people of color are more likely to be poor, racism will be more likely.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, almost half of Americans end up on welfare at some point in their lives, but of those, less than 5 percent spend 10 consecutive years on welfare. The idea of welfare dependence is an utter fabrication invented by rich Republicans to gut the social safety net. But this safety net has actually been incredibly effective. As Christopher Jenks notes, “With these corrections the official poverty rate falls from 14.5 to 4.8 percent, making the 2013 rate roughly a quarter of the 1964 rate (19.0 percent).” Such a dramatic reduction in poverty should be considered one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments (though there is still more to be done).

While the Tea Party, and Republicans, have denied that their war on the poor isn’t racially biased, they occasionally slip up (Rick Santorum’s famous “blahs,” comment for instance). But the data strongly suggest that opposition to the welfare state is tied up in the belief that it is simply a way to give “them” benefits. Indeed, Daniel Tope, Justin Pickett and Ted Chiricos recently confirmed that racial resentment was “among the strongest predictors” of Tea Party membership. But through the “submerged state,” the governmentprovides massive benefits to the middle class (not to mention the big bailouts to banks and corporations). Racism is still a major factor in American politics, and racial resentment continues to erode the safety net, for the benefit of the super-wealthy.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

How the Supreme Court is about to explode America’s racial wealth gap

When discussing race, the conservative argument is best expressed by the famous words of Chief Justice John Roberts: “The best way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Translation: America has done bad things in its history, but those bad things are gone now, so we should move past those horrors and look forward.

Conservatives believe that if blacks and Latinos simply work hard, get a good education and earn a good income, historical racial wealth gaps will disappear. The problem is that this sentiment ignores the ways that race continues to affect Americans today. A new report from Demos and Brandeis University, “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters,” makes this point strongly. The report shows that focusing on education alone will do little to reduce racial wealth gaps for households at the median, and that the Supreme Court, through upcoming decisions, could soon make the wealth gap explode.

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Wealth is the whole of an individual’s accumulated assets, not the amount of money they make each year. As such, in his recent book, “The Son Also Rises,” Gregory Clark finds that the residual benefits of wealth remain for 10 to 15 generations. To understand why that matters, consider the fact that Loretta Lynch, Obama’s recent nomination for U.S. attorney general, is the great-great-granddaughter of a slave who escaped to freedom. (That’s four generations). Consider also that most people on Social Security today went to segregated schools. (That’s two generations.) If Clark is correct in his thesis, then the impacts of wealth built on the foundations of American slavery and segregation will continue to affect Lynch’s great-great-great grandchildren.

It is therefore unsurprising that addressing just one aspect of this disparity cannot solve racial wealth gaps. Demos/Brandeis find that equalizing graduation rates would reduce the wealth gap between blacks and whites by 1 percent, and between Latinos and whites by 3 percent at the median. Equalizing the distribution of income would only reduce the wealth gap by 11 percent for blacks and 9 percent for Latinos. Part of the durability of wealth gaps is the disproportionate benefits that whites still enjoy: They face less job market discrimination and are more likely to reap a big inheritance, for example. This means that the returns to education and income are generally higher for whites. But even after controlling for these returns, income and education can’t explain the entire wealth gap.

Because America’s primary vehicle for wealth accumulation is our homes, much of the explanation of the racial wealth gap lies in unequal homeownership rates. According to the Brandeis/Demos analysis, equalizing homeownership would reduce the racial wealth gap by 31 percent for blacks and 28 percent for Latinos. This effect is muted because centuries of discrimination—including racial exclusion from neighborhoods where home values appreciate, redlining, and discriminatory lending practices—mean that people of color are segregated into relatively poor neighborhoods. Indeed, in 1969, civil rights activist John Lewis bought a three-bedroom house for $35,000 in Venetian Hills, Atlanta. He and his wife were the first black family in the middle-class neighborhood. In his book, “Walking with the Wind,” he notes that, “within two years… the white owners began moving out.” Had the value of his house simply kept up with inflation, it would be worth $222,881 today. But Zillow shows that three-bedroom houses in Venetian Hills, Atlanta, are currently selling for around $65,000 to $100,000.

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Systematic disinvestment in communities of color means that even when blacks and Latinos own their homes, they are worth far less than white homes. In addition, blacks and Latinos are targets of shady lending. They are more likely to be offered a subprime loan even if they are qualified to receive a better rate. In the wake of the financial crisis, big banks like Blackstone scooped up foreclosed homes and are now offering them to people of color to rent, further pulling wealth out of these communities to benefit rich whites.

The financial crisis had a disparate impact on people of color. A Center for Responsible Lending report examined the loans originated during the subprime boom (2005 to 2008), and found that blacks and Latinos were almost twice as likely to have foreclosed during the crisis. The New York Times reported that Wells Fargo “saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania.” They discovered that loan officers “pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages” and “stated in an affidavit… that employees had referred to blacks as ‘mud people’ and to subprime lending as ‘ghetto loans.’”

These problems are troubling, but, as unlikely as it seems, things are about to get even worse. The Supreme Court is set to decide Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, a landmark case challenging the disparate impact test, which allows a practice to be considered discriminatory if it disproportionately and negatively impacts communities of color, even if a discriminatory intent can’t be proven.

The case involves an excellent example of why disparate impact is so important: Nearly all of the tax credits that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs had approved were in predominantly non-white neighborhoods. At the same time, the department disproportionately denied the claims in white neighborhoods. A federal judgedecided that regardless of racial intent, the result had a “disparate impact” and increased neighborhood segregation. As Nikole Hannah-Jones has extensively documented, disparate impact has been crucial in holding banks accountable. For instance, the Justice Department used it to settle with Bank of America for $335 million after it was discovered that a mortgage company purchased by BofA had been pushing blacks and Latinos into subprime loans when a similar white borrower would have qualified for a prime loan.Because there was no official policy that required blacks and Latinos to get worse loans, the case would not have been won but for the disparate-impact statute.

The Supreme Court has already decimated the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for onerous restrictions on voting. They upheld a law banning affirmative action at state universities and have already crushed integration efforts at K-12 schools. Worryingly, as Demos Senior Fellow Ian Haney López told ProPublica, “It is unusual for the Court to agree to hear a case when the law is clearly settled. It’s even more unusual to agree to hear the issue three years in a row.” Given the importance of neighborhood poverty to upward mobility and wealth building, this case had the potential to be the most destructive, dramatically curtailing opportunity and making the wealth gap into a chasm. As Patrick Sharkey notes, “Neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined.”

Demos and Brandeis suggest policies to boost homeownership, like better enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, lowering the cap on the mortgage interest deduction so blacks and Latinos can benefit and authorizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to allow homeowners to modify their loans. In addition, America needs to systematically invest in poor neighborhoods. Equalizing public school education funds for poor and nonwhite schools would increase home prices in poor neighborhoods. In addition, a baby bond program would directly reduce wealth gaps by giving children money that could be used for a down payment on a house or an investment in their education. What’s clear is that we cannot simply hope that wealth gaps will disappear. These gaps were created by racially biased federal policies and need to be remedied by public policy as well. Government created the white middle class in the 1950s; now it’s time to create a black and Latino middle class. The Supreme Court, with its supposedly race-neutral philosophy, will only make it more difficult to close racial wealth gaps.

Catherine Ruetschlin is a Senior Policy Analyst at Demos and co-author of the report “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters.

Our election system’s anti-minority bias is even worse than you think

In the wake of the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act, partisans were quick to jump on the opportunity to restrict unfavorable voters. Across the country, conservatives in particular have debated fiercely whether to pursue voter suppression to remain competitive in an increasingly diverse electorate. There was, however, another way out, as I’ve argued before: Socially and economically conservative values are not unpopular, and if conservatives were to cease supporting people who made speeches at KKK rallies, they could garner enough votes to remain competitive. I worried, though, that the temptation of voter suppression would be too great. And, indeed, a new paper by Ian Vandewalker and Keith Bentele indicates that partisans have chosen the path of voter suppression to an even greater extent than previous thought.

When the conservative Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, states flocked to impose voter ID laws. Early research by Bentele and Erin O’Brien found these laws were “highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” Another study finds that “where elections are competitive, the furtherance of restrictive voter ID laws is a means of maintaining Republican support while curtailing Democratic electoral gains.” Support for voter ID laws among the American population is strong, but also racially based: Voters are significantly more likely to support a voter ID law when they are shown pictures of black people voting than when shown white people voting.

Much of the extant literature has mainly been focused on voter ID laws; but Vandewalker and Bentele find that the strategy is actually more expansive than that. They have created an extensive metric that includes nine different measures of accessibility, including voter ID, absentee voting and same-day registration. They find that the accessibility of voting systems is negatively correlated with the share of the state’s population that is black (see chart). As the black population increases, voting systems become more inaccessible. The chart below includes all changes that were passed in the legislature; as of writing some of the changes were stalled in court.

The study finds that between 2006 and 2012, the most influential factor in determining whether a law would be passed was Republican control of government. It also finds that the level of anti-black stereotyping in a state (a measure based on survey respondents’ beliefs about work ethic and intelligence) strongly correlates with the proposal (though not the passage) of voting restrictions. Vandewalker and Bentele find that states with a recent increase in Democratic turnout were more likely to pass a restriction indicating “the passage of voter restrictions as a partisan response by Republicans to recent Democratic electoral gains.” States with large black populations were significantly more likely to pass restrictive laws. Finally, they note that what little voter fraud exists does not correlate at all with voter restrictions.

The GOP has dramatically expanded its control of state legislatures in recent years. Before the 2014 election, Republicans controlled 59 of the 98 state legislative chambers;they now control 67. MSNBC recently reported that Republicans are already working to pass voter ID laws in five major states. Bentele and Vandewalker’s analysis indicates that “restrictive voting laws are often discriminatory responses to minority voting strength.” They find that the correlation between anti-black attitudes in the state and a restrictive voting system increased between 2010 and 2013. Conservatives have moved beyond just pushing for voter ID and have also worked to curb early voting and other important methods to increase access.

To see the combined effect of all these different measures, I obtained the data that Vandewalker and Bentele compiled. I find that there is a strong raw correlation between their ease of electoral access index and voter turnout (see below). Using a variation of their analysis, I also find that electoral systems are significantly more open in states with a higher white population. The ease of accessibility index was also strongly correlated with voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election. Combined with the large academic literature showing that voting restrictions reduce turnout and that turnout affects the outcomes of elections, there is a strong case that the current push to reduce voting rights is rooted in partisan ambitions.

In America, it appears that nearly everything is now politicized, from sports to vaccines. However, the right to vote should not be a political pawn. To combat these attacks on voting rights, policymakers should expand early voting, enact same-day registration and reduce limits on felon voting. Congress should replace the old formula for pre-clearance with a new formula that takes into account how the racial composition of the electorate and non-white turnout affect the chance of voter restriction. All of these reforms can dramatically increase voter participation.

There is some hope: The Brennan Center for Justice recently found that “190 bills to expand voting access have been introduced in 31 states, compared to 49 restrictive measures in 19 states, the new analysis found.” This is a welcome development, however, my analysis of the Bentele dataset indicates that the overall change is positive, but modest. The chart below shows how voting access has changed between 2010 and 2014. States on the line remain the same, states above have seen voting rights contract, and states below the line have seen voting access increase. In total, 16 states increased accessibility while 14 states decreased accessibility. The mean score on the accessibility index shifted from 6.27 to 6.38 (assuming that all the passed laws go into effect).

Voting rights are still in grave danger. And in particular, the voting rights of black Americans remain precarious.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Millennials Are Less Racially Tolerant Than You Think

However frustrating the current state of race relations in the U.S., there is, according to various pundits and prognosticators, hope for the future: Millennials, they say, are the most tolerant, race-blind generation in human history. And when they grow up and constitute the bulk of the adult U.S. population, many of the problems that have plagued U.S. race-relations for centuries will simply melt away, relics of a less-enlightened past.

It’s a claim that shows up again and again. A 2010 Pew Research report trumpeted that more than two decades of research confirm that “the younger generation is more racially tolerant than their elders.” In the Chicago Tribune, Ted Gregory seized on this to declare millennials “the most tolerant generation in history.” David Burstein, the millennial author of Fast Futuresaid millennials are “more tolerant … than any generation before them.” Hannah Seligson, also a millennial, sounded a similar note in the Daily Beast, writing that research “reveals that we’ve emerged as the most diverse, tolerant, pioneering, educated, and innovative generation in history.” And it’s not just the pundits: A poll from Reason-Rupe shows that in every age bracket, a majority of respondents say that “tolerant” describes millennials “very well.”

Given that race-based gaps pertaining to employment opportunities, income, education, incarceration, and wealth are either persisting or growing, there’s a welcome sense that help is on the way in the form of a more racially enlightened populace.

The problem with these rosy sentiments is that they’re at least partly false. Those who claim that the rise of the millennials will usher in a new age of racial harmony are cherry-picking or misreading statistics. They’re doing so primarily in two ways: by lumping together all millennials when they report survey findings rather than breaking out white millennials views on racial issues, or by focusing narrowly on a small set of questions about explicit racial beliefs that don’t tell the full story. The fact of the matter is that millennials who are white — that is, members of the group that has always had the most regressive racial beliefs, and who will constitute a majority of U.S. voters for at least another couple of decades — are, on key questions involving race, no more open-minded than their parents. The only real difference, in fact, is that they think they are.

When it comes to certain surface-level statistics, it’s true that millennials as a group are more racially progressive than their parents. Pew data show they are more likely to support interracial marriage and dating and are more in favor of immigration. Nearly all agree that “everyone should be treated equally, regardless of their race.”

Dig just a few inches deeper, though, and there’s plenty of fodder for pessimism. Just ask Spencer Piston, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University. He examined the 2012 American National Election Studies racial stereotype battery, in which survey respondents are asked to rate whites, African-American, Hispanics, and Asians according to how hard-working or intelligent they are, and found something startling: Younger (under-30) whites are just as likely as older ones to view whites as more intelligent and harder-working than African-Americans (among the older cohort, 64 percent felt this way, and among the younger cohort the number was 61 percent — not a statistically significant difference). “White millennials appear to be no less prejudiced than the rest of the white population,” Piston told Science of Us in an email, “at least using this dataset and this measure of prejudice.”

Asking people racially tinged questions directly can only get you so far, of course. Social scientists have known for a long time that there frequently exists a gap between how people respond to questions and how they really feel — people are swayed by the expectation of how they should answer. A favorite way around this is to measure implicit bias — that is, forms of bias that the holder might not even be aware of and that can manifest themselves in split-second decision-making. In the most common examples of so-called implicit association tests, words or images are briefly flashed, “priming” subjects to respond to subsequent stimuli — if you’re quicker to pair a black face with the word criminal, to take a hypothetical example, you’re exhibiting more implicit bias, and researchers think these effects extend out of the lab into everyday interactions.

If white millennials were, in fact, significantly more racially tolerant than previous generations, it would show up in implicit association tests. And yet they do no better than many of their older counterparts. For example, a study of 2.5 million voluntary IAT tests from between July 2000 and May 2006 shows very little difference across age groups, with the exception of those 60 or older. Other age cutoffs show a similar result: With the exception of the elderly, who do exhibit significantly more racial animosity, there is little generational difference in implicit bias. What does divide old and young is differences in the accuracy of their self-evaluation of racial bias. While older people underestimate their bias by an average of .38 points on a four-point scale, the youngest two brackets under-report their bias by an average of .52 points on average. Younger people, in other words, are simply more deluded about their own beliefs.

 

None of this has stopped white millennials from congratulating themselves for being so racially progressive, nor has it staunched their racial optimism. Tellingly, nonwhite millennials aren’t quite so optimistic. According to Pew data, when millennials are asked how well they think whites and African-American get along, just 13 percent of whites answer “Not too well/not at all well,” compared to 30 percent of nonwhite millennials. So there are some obvious disconnects here — both between what white millennials see when they look in the mirror and their real-life beliefs, and between how white and nonwhite millennials view the current pace of progress.

It’s true that America is becoming a more racially diverse place — as is frequently pointed out, it is likely that by sometime around 2050, whites will be in the minority. Hopefully, this diversity will bring with it more understanding. But many observers, appealing to stereotypes about millennials that have dubious empirical grounding, are creating a veneer of false progress. Millennials may eventually usher in a more racially enlightened age, but such a shift will require a deeper understanding of race and racism than many white millennials exhibit, rather than the self-congratulatory rhetoric of a postracial society.

This piece originally appeared on New York.

The right’s dog-whistle trick: How it exploits racism to rip apart the social safety net

In his newest book, “Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney Lopez argues that politicians on the right have used coded racial appeals to tear at the fabric of the social safety net. Lopez, the John H. Boalt Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of the Fletcher Foundation’s Alphonse Fletcher Sr. Fellowship and is a leading thinker on issues of racial justice and the legal system. (He’s also a senior fellow at Demos, where I am a research intern.)

Salon spoke with Lopez about “Dog Whistle Politics,” conservatism and racial politics in the United States. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

I think the best place to start with this book and with the history of dog-whistle politics is Barry Goldwater. That’s the first time you have this melding of the plutocratic agenda with dog-whistle politics. 

I think that’s exactly right. Goldwater shows you both elements. I think people have really only paid attention to one side. People have paid attention to the fact that there is this coded racial appeal and they react by saying that race plays out only at the margins. But when you look at Goldwater and you see that these racial appeals are tied to an attack on liberalism, are tied to an attack on the activist state, then you see that this is not a minor, vestigial effect on campaigns, but  rather it’s central to the ideological project of conservatism. And then you can start to see the power of dog-whistle politics.

Richard Hofstadter’s essay on Goldwater [“Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics”] doesn’t focus as much on the racial aspect, he focuses on the pseudo-conservative nature and ties it into what he calls the “paranoid style” in American politics. How much of a factor is dog-whistle politics and how does it interact with these other parts of conservatism?

When you look at Goldwater you are looking at the inception of coded racial appeals. When you look at Goldwater’s national campaign, which Hofstadter does, the paranoia is focused on communism. His national campaign commercials are pitched toward national security, not race. Nationally, that’s the issue around which he presents himself. It’s the South where he is particularly aggressive in pushing a racial element in his campaign. So I wouldn’t make the statement that Goldwater launches a national racist campaign; that dishonor goes to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. When Nixon talks about “law and order” it’s both code for race and code for the civil disturbances of the antiwar movement, the protest movements. They interact in the sense that these are efforts at faux-populism. These are efforts to explore popular anxiety through appeals that stir fear in order to generate votes for policies that are going to undermine the liberal state. What’s important here is that they are operating in code, but the agenda is, the substance of the proposal is, “Let’s dismantle the New Deal state.” But rather than say, “Let’s dismantle the New Deal state,” they say, “We need to worry about minorities, we need to worry about threats to your freedom. Society is being taken over by these foreign elements.” I think that is how these interact.

Joe McGinniss discusses in “The Selling of the President 1968″ how Nixon’s campaign tailored their ads to the South, but the age of the Internet makes that more difficult. If you try to run a racially coded ad in the South, Northerners are going to notice that. How has that changed dog-whistle politics?

I think it does. It cuts both ways. On the one hand, you can do much more granular targeting of audiences. On the other hand, it’s much easier for others to find that material. The incident with the Obama-phone lady became a national incident, but it was a TV commercial run in just one state. It came to people’s attention: “Hey, look, a Tea Party group is running this as a TV commercial.”

Martin Gilens has an essay [“How the Poor Became Black”] about how media influences racial perceptions, and he talks on the national level about how when CBS reports on the undeserving poor it’s more likely to be a black face and when it’s the working poor or hard times it’s more likely to be a white face. What effect does the national media have on dog-whistle politics? How have they been complicit in this?

The impact is tremendous. Politicians can seed the media with these frames and because these frames have a strong racial logic behind them, they end up being picked up by the media and amplified dramatically. An example would be Ronald Reagan’s warnings about undocumented immigrants and the threat of them pouring across the border. He essentially creates that issue as a sort of a media frame. When he’s first elected people don’t have a sense that this is a major social problem facing the United States, but by [Reagan] constantly talking about it, the media begins to pick up on it and report stories on it and it becomes a national hysteria. I would say he does the same thing with crime. The more he talks about crime, the more it becomes an issue, the more the media find that it’s actually easy to report on crime stories. Reporting on crime stories goes up by 200 or 300 percent while the incidence of crime doesn’t. That generates a tremendous amount of fear around these coded threats that the politicians are using to campaign on.

Thomas Frank has argued that the plutocratic agenda hasn’t melded with race, but rather with social issues. Do you see race in these social issues?

I think Thomas Frank’s analysis is terrific, but I think he’s fundamentally wrong on race. Race is one of the many social issues in which the plutocratic agenda has been enveloped, but it’s more than just one of them — it’s the primary one. This isn’t to downplay the influence of religion or guns or abortion or gay marriage or any of those other red meat issues. But it’s race that provides the most powerful dog-whistle and the paradigm around which these other coded campaigns were based. Frank is wrong because he understands racism as “hate every black person” racism.

He understands it as the commitment to white supremacy. He has this phrase in his book where he says, “America doesn’t have Trent Lott disease” and he’s referring to Trent Lott’s slip in which he extolled the Dixiecrat campaign of 1948. I agree. America doesn’t have Trent Lott disease. You don’t have widespread commitment to continued white supremacy. But that is vastly different from saying America doesn’t have a race problem. Race has evolved dramatically in the past 50 years since the civil rights movement. It evolved dramatically during the course of the civil rights movement. That doesn’t mean it has gone away, but rather that the form it has taken has changed. But its impact, its ability to shape American politics and get many people out to vote in ways that harm themselves and help the very rich, has remained and, in fact, even grown over the last 50 years.

You talk about the connection between social issues and race …

If you think about race and religion, for example, what happens with religion is that as soon as public schools are ordered integrated in the South, many whites flee to white academies that are very often Christian academies, so you have this very tight connection between race and Christian academies as a way to avoid integration. Ronald Reagan knows this and he makes it part of his agenda to reach out to these schools and tells them that they will get his support and receive state funding. He is going to support them maintaining these segregated spaces; I think it’s a very close connection. I don’t want to overstate it and say that race underlies everything. The force of these social issues are partially autonomous from race. But there are also very strong overlaps. Gun rights and race also have strong overlaps.

What about the George W. Bush administration? Bush is known for spending a lot on Africa and HIV/AIDS as well as working for comprehensive immigration reform. Did he rely on dog-whistle cues?

Bush is someone who in some ways appreciated that conservatism needed to moderate, that it was becoming too extreme. You see that in the slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” as well as in what he tried to do around education, and you see it in his move away from the egregious race-baiting of his father in the Willie Horton ad. Coming out of Texas and realizing the increasing political power of blacks and Latinos, Bush was initially much more careful not to engage in that sort of really aggressive race-baiting. That shifted after 9/11. It shifted first around Muslims. What you see is the Bush administration now casting itself in a role as the “defender of the homeland,” which requires an enemy, and it’s not enough that the enemy remain external, that enemy has to be internal as well.

The Bush administration begins to cast itself as involved in  a “clash of civilizations” in which there are internal enemies as well and we need to show that there are these terrorist sleeper cells, and how do we do that? We increase hysteria, we increase prosecutions and we establish these security and secrecy protocols so we can’t actually tell you about the people that we are prosecuting. But we assure you that they are incredibly dangerous. All of the rhetoric then feeds into and adds a tremendous amount of political legitimacy to the latent hysteria in the U.S. about non-whites residents of the U.S. who are perceived as irredeemably foreign, as permanently foreign, and as threatening. That really accelerates around Muslims and it very easily adds fuel to social hysteria around Latinos — and Ronald Reagan had done his part to create that fear, so it was already simmering. But now you add the narrative of “We are a nation embattled” and the rhetoric of the homeland, which has a racial cast to it.

Almost immediately, politicians begin to say that the threat is our southern border, and when we try to stop “illegal aliens,” we are trying to stop terrorism. So the Bush administration ends up being a time of intense racial hysteria, now not so much about African-Americans, although that continues, but about these foreign but internal threats from brown foreigners, be they Muslim or Latino. That’s how race ends up working over the course of the Bush administration.

The Tea Party shares a lot with the Barry Goldwater style of conservatism, except now the racism has expanded to include Hispanics and Muslims.

With the Tea Party there is both a racial hysteria that is occurring on a national level and at a more regional level. On a national level, you have organizations like Fox News, which understand perfectly well that they can energize and mobilize a large portion of the white population by constantly hammering away at racial issues. That’s exactly what it does with Obama, with the notion that he is foreign, with the notion that he is Muslim, with Sarah Palin’s notion that he is “palling around with terrorists.” She makes that comment with respect to a white activist [Bill Ayers], but with respect to the time, terrorist codes as “Muslim.” On a national level, a lot of energy is being expended by Tea Party mobilizers to motivate people in terms of race.

It’s worth remembering that Roger Ailes was a person who was key in developing Nixon’s strategy and now he is head of Fox News, so it’s not entirely surprising.

Absolutely. There is a direct connection there.

The Tea Party seems to have a rift with the more “moderate” national party.

There is an autonomy as to which politicians dog-whistle and how they see their electoral prospects. So states like Arizona or Georgia, these are states in which politicians can be incredibly aggressive in the ways that they dog-whistle around Latinos and the slurs they use when they talk about illegal immigrants and the sort of harsh and punitive laws they pass. That will play well in terms of their local populations and will get them elected and reelected. Until it doesn’t. The national party looks around and sees that the political power of Latinos is increasing and we need to scale it back. But in some sense it’s not up to the national party to scale it back now. You do get these autonomous elements and politicians have their own political calculus and it might be such that it allows them to engage in much more egregious race-baiting than the national conservative movement might deem most effective. You have this process in which faux populism can escape the control of national central organizers.

The toughest part is identifying the solution. As soon as you start talking about the Tea Party and race they turn around and say, “You are the racist for saying that we are the racists.” Can you elaborate on some solutions?

The solution is clear, although it’s not short-term. We have changed the way race operates. The rhetoric of race has changed dramatically in a way that racial justice projects have lost, but also, and more fundamentally, liberalism has lost. It’s lost because race has shifted to a coded and expressed register and on both registers the language of race is controlled by conservatives. So on the coded register, you have this constant drumbeat of insinuations that taint liberalism as a giveaway to minorities through language like “welfare” or “amnesty” or “causing terrorism.” And you don’t see liberals using a coded racial language to rebut that. Then on the express level, conservatives have made racism mean only an open reference to race itself. What that means is that whenever liberals or racial progressives say, “Hey, you know racism remains a big problem in our society,” something as innocuous as that, they immediately get slammed for playing the race card and conservatives run around saying, “Hey, we’re a post-racial society, but you just introduced race into the conversation.”

An interesting example was when Obama made the brief remark that he doesn’t look like all the other presidents on the dollar bills. He doesn’t! We ought to be able to say that, and we ought to be able to say that there has been a practice of scaring people around race. The minute he said that, he was the racist, he was the one injecting race into the conversation and poisoning the post-racial harmony that otherwise defines the U.S. as far as conservatives were concerned. We cannot restore a robust commitment to progressive government that helps everybody until we can challenge that rhetoric. And we can’t challenge that rhetoric until we once again engage with the power of race in our society. And that is a medium-term project. But it requires the commitment of lots of different actors, from politicians themselves, from foundations, from unions and from the media to really reengage with the role that race is playing and to be much more sophisticated in our understanding of how racism works and the many different forms of racisms. We have to get away from this idea that there is one sort of racism and it wears a Klan hood. Of course, that is an egregious form of racism, but there are many other forms of racism. There are racisms. And until we recognize that and start talking about it we’re going to see that some of those forms of racisms are easily used to manipulate broad swaths of the American electorate.

Of course, during the Jim Crow South, a lot of the efforts used to disenfranchise black people ended up disenfranchising poor whites. You argue that the plutocratic agenda is being wielded to harm poor whites.

I would say this point is so central that I would put the point even more strongly. Dog-whistle politics is not fundamentally about race. It’s fundamentally about attacking liberal government, attacking New Deal government, which is good for the country as a whole, but bad in the perception of some of the very rich. This is fundamentally about power, it’s fundamentally about how we are going to organize a society for everybody. The core point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class.

I want to emphasize that, because when people hear race, they think about poor minorities. And then the next thing they think is, “I don’t really get it, that’s not me, I’m pretty different, I’m going to tune out.” But the central point here is that race is being used to wreck the middle class. This has been the way conservatives have found that they can attack commitments to education, commitments to a social safety net, commitments to infrastructure, commitments to job programs, commitments to progressive taxation that taxes the most wealthy to help the rest of society. This is about all of us, and if we continue to think, “race is the way they go after poor minorities, and yeah, that’s bad, and I’ll get to that next, but I don’t have a job and my unemployment insurance has just been cut and my kids don’t have good public schools to go to and I can’t afford private schools,” we’ve missed the point, and we’ve missed the way that race has been used to destroy a society that promotes the middle class.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Religion is historically contingent

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, thedisbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. This sounds extreme, but of course it is not. A brief glimpse at the history of theology shows that it has always been embedded and interpreted by a society under ideological blinders. Views on the trinity were decided by Constantine. The initial Sunni-Shiite divide was largely a political one, not a question of doctrine. This isn’t to degrade religion, but simply acknowledge the fact that it is understood by humans, with their attendant biases. As an example, Paul’s dictum, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is popular with both V.I. Lenin and Michele Bachmann. Religion is not simply something given from above, it is something believers wrestle and engage with.

In the U.S. we can see a rather sad example of the power of material conditions to create ideology and shape religious beliefs. The United States was built on the economic exploitation of slaves. To defend the practice of slavery, Europeans and Americans devised the ideology of race. Race does not exist biologically – the color of someone’s skin says nothing of their genetic makeup, intelligence, etc. Race had to be created, and religion and science provided the justification. Science spent decades trying to prove that blacks were inferior, using objective methods like brain size, skull shape and other pseudo-scientific ideas. As Paul Finkelman notes,

Lo and behold, [Louis Agassiz] discovers that white American males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously, some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French are really smarter than both.

The example of race is actually interesting because some Christians didn’t buy it. They believed that God had created humans on the same day; this was Louis Agassiz’s original position. It was the “objective” scientists who pored over skull fragments to prove that blacks were inferior. But many Christians also accepted the myth of race, and read these ideas into their Bibles. The “curse of Ham” was claimed as proof that racial hierarchy was acceptable and blacks were inferior. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.”

However, the Bible can just as easily be used to critique slavery. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As David Brion Davis has shown, this curse has been used to justify oppression against Jews and the poor as well. He argues that these sentiments didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but were added in later. This is not to say science is evil, or that scientists are evil — any more than the Crusades prove that religion is evil. It is simply to say that humans qua humans will never think without being deeply ingrained in cultural circumstances. We’re simply too flawed.

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. But it is Maher and Harris (and, of course, Hitchens) who support these very policies. Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Why the GOP hates U.S. history: Inconvenient truths that freak out American conservatives

Conservative hero Ben Carson is worried about American teenagers joining ISIS. But it’s not because of “radical Islam.” It’s because of new high school history standards.

American’s right wing, you see, is terrified of history because it is always sentimentalizing it. Many of its arguments rely on a feeling of nostalgia for “good old days,” that appeals almost exclusively to aging whites. That means that a more accurate history, one that considers groups that are traditionally marginalized — women, people of color, Native Americans, immigrants and the poor — don’t necessarily sit that well. Their stories, the stories of the downtrodden, crush the false narrative that many conservatives like to imagine — that of a idyllic past marred by the New Deal, women’s liberation and civil rights.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, a school board recently tried to limit the historical curriculum to only events that would, “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” Needless to say, much of American history — the Great Depression, the Trail of Tears and the internment of Japanese-Americans — would, under those parameters, need to obfuscated. The Republic National Committee, meanwhile, has issued a statement calling the new Advanced Placement U.S. History standards ”radically revisionist.” But conservatives may want to take the plank out of their own eye before examining the speck in their neighbors. Here are the most important distortions of history the right has promoted recently.

Before Welfare, Everything Was Awesome 

Example: Marvin Olasky’s “Tragedy of American Compassion,” which argues, “Americans in urban areas a century ago faced many of the problems we face today, and they came up with truly compassionate solutions.”

The Problem: As with most conservative revisionism, the idea is that before nasty programs like welfare, the poor did just fine, because private charity aided them. Many conservatives will argue that the War on Poverty has done nothing to reduce poverty and instead we should rely on private charity. But the War on Poverty has actually done much to eliminate poverty and private charity could never fill that chasm that would open up if federal poverty programs were eliminated. So how did we get rid of poverty before government? The answer is that there never was a mythical time without government.

As Mike Konczal writes,

“There has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century.”

Later, Congress established a pension system for civil war veterans that consumed about 25 percent of all government spending. Rather than “welfare queens” being a post New-Deal development, some 40 states had programs to support single mothers in 1920. In fact, far from being an invention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and liberals, social insurance programs are staple in civil society. Frederik Pedersen finds that back in the 10th through 12th centuries, Iceland had an extensive social welfare program. Rome, too, had a system of public support designed to aid poor children.

Elizabeth Bruenig notes that the purely voluntary Church-based social insurance many Christians adore never existed. Conservatives ignore the fact that the church was often acting in accord with the state, “You couldn’t just not tithe; the Church would get it out of you somehow, and even had specific statutes related to methods of tithing which fit it into the schema of secular taxation.” Islamic public assistance was also a hybrid church-state institution. The idea that there has ever been a successful purely voluntary public assistance program is a conservative myth invented to justify dismantling anti-poverty programs in the name of a utopian fantasy.

Basically everything about slavery 

Example: Recently convicted felon and conservative columnist Dinesh D’Souza’s book, “The End of Racism,” provides some great examples of rewriting race. D’Souza says of slavery, “No free workers enjoyed a comparable social security system from birth until death.” Later, he writes, “Masters … encouraged the family unit which basically remained intact.” He concludes, “In summary, the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”

The Problem: Conservatives in the U.S. have a race problem, specifically that many of them believe that blacks are “primarily responsible for their own success or failure” and that government programs only get in the way. And conservative politicians tend to racialize welfare programs to decrease support for them. To believe that black Americans would have been better off without government intervention, you have to pretend history doesn’t matter.

As Marx notes, people, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” There simply is little mobility for black Americans today because the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and housing segregation still weighs heavily. A recent study finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Further, white people in these counties harbor more racial resentment.

That’s because when slavery permeated society — the legal structure, culture, science — nothing was left untouched by racism and racial hierarchy. The conservative “I built this myself” mentality denies that most wealth is passed from generation to generation, and so is privilege. Erasing the memory of racial hierarchy allows conservatives and Americans to pretend that individual effort, rather than structural racism, is keeping black people down.

So what was slavery really like? Jennifer Hallam writes, “Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves.” Rather than being “relatively mild,” slavery relied on brutality and violence, the horrors of which are described in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood with each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

And, of course, racism and racial hierarchy didn’t end when slavery was formally abolished, but rather continued through local policies, terrorism and violence. This violence was often orchestrated at the highest levels of government. Consider, for example, the FBI’s attempts to discredit MLK or the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton.

In his response to Phil Robertson’s sentimentalism about the Jim Crow era last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates cites Freddie Moore:

“The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche. Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl.”

And racial violence didn’t end in the ’30s, but continued until through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and, well, two months ago.

U.S. foreign policy

Example: Conservative foreign policy is dictated by a small coterie of conquistadors. These people are called “neo-conservatives.” Some people claim neoconservatives have no uniting vision; in fact, the basis of neo-conservativism is a belief that imperial violence can spread democracy. To maintain this myth, the long history of imperialism must be re-written. Thus the official RNC statement on the AP controversy laments that “the [AP] Framework excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) …” and “presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including American involvement in WWII, and the development of and victory in the Cold War.”

The Problem: Imperial violence cannot spread democracy. America’s foreign policy history is littered with failed attempts to impose our ideas on others — often with the ulterior motive of stealing resources. As Mark Twain writes, “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” Among the other examples of horrifying and cynical use of American power conservatives may wish to avoid:

  • Reagan supporting the Contras, a fascist junta: Much of Reagan’s presidency is now hagiography, rather than history. Because of this, it’s often hard to remember how awful the group that Reagan called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” truly was. Truth is, the Nicaraguan Contras were known for their brutality. And where did Reagan get the money to support the brutes? Why, by selling weapons to Iran. Yes, the Iran that George W. Bush later called a member of the Axis of Evil. The International Court of Justice ruled against the U.S. for violating another country’s sovereignty and laying mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, but the U.S. ignored the decision.
  • Chemical weapons: Before the U.S. joined forces with Assad to fight ISIS, he was public enemy number one for allegedly using chemical weapons on civilian populations. But the U.S. has used chemical weapons on a range and scale that Assad could hardly even fathom. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. dumped between 12 and 18 million gallons of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. At least 1 million Vietnamese had defects or disabilities caused by U.S. chemical attacks. And those chemical weapons we judged Saddam Hussein so harshly for using? The U.S. not only knew the attacks were coming, we gave Hussein intelligence on strategic sites to attack.
  • Screwing up democracy: Sure, America supports democracy — unless that democracy will do something to hurt business interests. Among acts that qualify: nationalizing oil fieldsraising minimum wages and boosting literacy. In place, we installed brutal, murderous dictators — but only ones that would push through economic “reforms” and play ball when we needed.
  • Prolonging the Vietnam War: Richard Nixon intentionally sabotaged the Paris Peace Accords to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s chances of winning the Presidency. In the wake of the failure, the war continued for two long and bloody years, made more horrifying by Nixon’s secret carpet bombing of Cambodia.

Then there’s the support of genocidal maniacs like SuhartoMontt and Khan. And that’s just the last half century!

Conclusion 

English philosopher Michael Oakeshott defines conservatism as “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

There was a time when conservatism was a philosophy concerned primarily with wrestling with and understanding tradition and the limits of human reason and ability. However, these days conservatism is reactionary — it has been imbued with racism, conspiratorial thinking and a hyper-individualistic capitalism. Instead of questioning the limits of reason, it has jettisoned it. In its place remains free market dogmabad Biblical interpretation and a sentimentalized past. In place of reason and argument, most conservatives rely on fantasy and reminiscence. Allowing conservatives to redefine the past will be incredibly harmful.

As George Orwell notes, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

This article originally appeared on Salon. 

Will Racism Kill Social Democracy?

Over the weekend I read Lane Kenworthy’s Social Democratic America, a fantastic book that touches on a broad range of material in an academic, but brisk and readable fashion. It also has a fantastic bibliography for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the issues he discusses. Matt Bruenig has already touched on the general thesis, with which I have broad agreement. I want to dig into one objection that Kenworthy subtly misunderstands: how racial heterogenity could hamper social social democracy.

Throughout the book, Kenworthy dismisses the importance of racial homogeneity in the Nordic countries which he frequently cites as examples of successful social democracies. In his recent Foreign Affairs article he writes,

Some observers, even many on the left, worry about the applicability of Nordic-style policies — which have succeeded in the context of small, relatively homogeneous countries — to a large, diverse nation such as the United States. Yet moving toward social democracy in the United States would mostly mean asking the federal government to do more of what it already does. It would not require shifting to a qualitatively different social contract.

Before diving into the implications for the U.S., it’s worth noting that racial animosity is already threatening social democracy in Nordic countries. Reuters reports that,

Consensus around the post-war Nordic model of high taxes and generous welfare was long sustained by a homogenous society. But immigration, global competition and fear for jobs have put that ideal of equality based on civic trust under strain… Rising immigration has been coupled with economic troubles that have seen iconic Nordic companies such as Ericsson and Nokia shed jobs. Worries about the affordability of welfare have put the once taboo subject of immigration high on the agenda.

The Economist reports that,

High immigration is threatening the principle of redistribution that is at the heart of the welfare state. Income inequalities in the Nordic countries are generally lower than elsewhere… but Matz Dahlberg, of Uppsala University, reckons that immigration is making people less willing to support redistribution.

All of this is worrying if you believe, as Kenworthy does, that social democracy is inevitable. Last week I noted how increasing inequality tears at the social fabric and causes a decline in support for universalistic welfare programs. But as the Nordic countries shows, there’s another factor at work, and our newest fellow Ian Haney Lopez has a book about it: dog-whistle politics. Lopez’s book is specific to America, and traces dog-whistle politics from Wallace, through Goldwater and Nixon to its apotheosis with Reagan. Lopez shows how racial prejudice undermines universalistic welfare programs. Here’s a short excerpt showing how the right, particularly Reagan, used racial prejudice to attack poverty:

Reagan also trumpeted his racial appeals in blasts against welfare cheats. On the stump, Reagan repeatedly invoked a story of a “Chicago welfare queen” with “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards [who] is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands… Beyond propagating the stereotypical image of a lazy, larcenous black woman ripping off society’s generosity without remorse, Reagan also implied another stereotype, this one about whites: they were the workers, the taxpayers, the persons playing by the rules and struggling to make ends meet while brazen minorities partied with their hard-earned tax dollars.

Here we see the trick to undermining any universalistic program: creating an “us against them” narrative. The program thereby loses its universality and therefore its support. That being said, to a casual observer, and particularly a white one, this narrative may seem like a weak collection of anecdotes, rather than a trend. But as Republican political consultant Lee Atwater famously admitted,

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N-, n-, n-.” By 1968, you can’t say “n-” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N-, n-.”

He actually admitted that. But politicians and strategists don’t talk that way anymore (for the most part; see below). So the the second objection to this narrative is that it’s not nice to throw out the race card. “The Republicans aren’t racists,” we’re told, “so don’t bring it up.” And most aren’t. They are not “racist” in the vein of late-Wallace or Lott or Thurmond. Rather, they refuse to acknowledge the structural racism in our society. They don’t notice the fact that the mainstream media shows poor blacks when it talks about welfare cheats and poor whites when they talk about the “working poor.” They don’t know that all of those great New Deal programs were designed to keep out blacks.

I noted in my last post how our belief in a “just world,” causes us to impute negative qualities on the poor. Our history is not one that is particularly just. From exterminating the native population to enslaving another to colonization and neo-colonialism we have failed to uphold our values. But instead of critically examining our past and how it shapes our future, we make excuses. Frances Fox Piven explains how that works in a segregated society:

When a racial group is kept at the bottom of the labor system and excluded from its social and political and political institutes, the result may be to create, or at least to nourish, the racist popular culture that is then said to be the cause of labor market and political discrimination.

That is why this melding of race and poverty is one of the most sadly durable memes in U.S. politics. It cropped up numerous times in the 2012 campaign, and has been expanded to include other out-groups, such as Hispanics (implications that “illegal immigrants” take from the welfare system).  As Lopez told me in our interview, “Dog-whistle politics is not fundamentally about race. It’s fundamentally about attacking liberal government, attacking New Deal government, which is good for the country as a whole, but bad in the perception of some of the very rich.”

There is also empirical support for Lopez’s thesis. A 2005 study by Woojin Lee, John Roemer and Karine van der Straeten finds that, “the conservative economic agenda has been given new life because of racist and xenophobic views of polities.” In the UK, France, and Denmark they find a similar trend, but the effect is not as strong.

Kenworthy’s book is valuable, if for no other reason, it explodes an argument recently put forward by Kevin Williamson in The National Review that, “the fact is that as a practical matter we are running out of ways to spend money on the needy.” If Williamson truly believes this, Kenworthy will serve as an antidote. But creating social democracy will not be easy, nor should it be considered inevitable.

Kenworthy’s proposals will require the government to take in more than 10 percent of GDP in increased revenues; not an easy task in the current political climate. The past two years have brought vicious attacks on some of the most important (and successful) parts of our weak social democracy, often in the guise of racially-charged language. It’s unlikely those will abate in the future. Nevertheless, Kenworthy shows that it can be done, if we just get the political will to do it.

 

The GOP and Tea Party Are Heading for a Split

The conventional wisdom right now is that, although there appears to be a rift in the Republican party, it’s not going to break-up. The Slatepitchy proposition is that Republicans disagree about “tactics not goals.” To quote Jonathan Chait,

Mainstream Republicans and the tea party have fallen out almost entirely over political tactics. Tea partiers and conventional Republicans alike want to abolish Obamacare, cut taxes, eliminate Dodd-Frank, stop any regulation of carbon emissions, and impose cuts to social programs for the poor.

Matthew Yglesias writes in Slate essentially the same thing as Bernstein in Salon, “The tensions between Ted Cruz and John Boehner and Peter King and Mitch McConnell and whomever are all about tactics.”

But this overstates the case: the Tea Party is a nationalistic fringe right-wing party and will inevitably have to split with the GOP.

I realize the World Net Daily is a crazy website, but I think this op-ed by Joseph Farrah summarizes my argument here, and provides definitive proof that the Tea Party and GOP are never, ever, ever getting back together:

There are groups and individuals who would like to constrict the tea-party movement to fiscal issues.

That would be a huge mistake.

It’s not just about government spending, even though it was government spending that precipitated the unprecedented, spontaneous, grass-roots uprising.

More precisely, it’s about the law of the land and the will of the people.

It’s about a nation whose government has lost its moorings.

Remember the list of policies that Yglesias and Chait think the Tea Party and Moderate Republicans agree on? Maybe they should consult TeaParty.org where these fifteen non-negotiables are dilineated:

1. Illegal aliens are here illegally.

2. Pro-domestic employment is indispensable.

3. A strong military is essential.

4. Special interests must be eliminated.

5. Gun ownership is sacred.

6. Government must be downsized.

7. The national budget must be balanced.

8. Deficit spending must end.

9. Bailout and stimulus plans are illegal.

10. Reducing personal income taxes is a must.

11. Reducing business income taxes is mandatory.

12. Political offices must be available to average citizens.

13. Intrusive government must be stopped.

14. English as our core language is required.

15. Traditional family values are encouraged.

Those goals aren’t at all in line with the policies pushed forward by the GOP. They are not the goals of a major political party, but rather a fringe nationalistic movement. In fact, similar nationalist movements are cropping up all over Europe, fueled by the influx of immigration, especially of Muslims.  Such movements are not historically unique either.

We can see a similar movement in Britain in the 1960s. when Britain’s Conservative Party faced the same struggle the GOP face today. In 1964, Peter Griffiths, a Tory, won a seat with the slogan: “If you want a n*gger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” In 1966, when the moderate Conservative party lost, A.K. Chesterton (winner of the creepiest lips award), along with John Tyndall decided that they would be better off splitting off from the Tories and forming their own National Front, which later evolved into the BNP.

The Conservatives worked to create a more center-right party and worked, haltingly, to rid itself of racist past and towards a more centrist agenda. In contrast, the BNP is pro-life, pro-capital punishment,  a strictly anti-immigration pose, reject any government spending that doesn’t serve British interests, teach the British heritage in schools, support stand your ground laws and believe all races are equal, but they just shouldn’t mingle. Sound familiar? Try to see if you can tell the difference between a Tea Party manifesto and the BNP manifesto.

Viewed in the light or the BNP, the Tea Party’s odd desire to maintain farm subsidies while cutting aid to the poor makes sense: any government program which supports the “other” is bad. Programs to support middle-class (read: white) farmers or homeowners are fine, supporting the poor hispanic and black population is terrible. The goal isn’t to shrink government, it’s to cleanse government. This also helps explain the Tea Party fascination with birtherism, strange theories about neo-colonialism, and they are absolutely terrified of the U.N.

The Tea Party has all of the hallmarks of a nationalist xenophobic (dare I say Fascist) movement:  89% white, 58% keep a gun in their house, a faction believe that violence  against the government is justified, most believe America is a country in decline, they are anti-immigrant, authoritarian, opposed to social progress, anti-gay and anti-abortion. overwhelmingly support the death penalty, really dislike Muslims, very much dislike immigrants (to the point of militarizing the border) and they’re really, really racist. Obviously, the Tea Party is not a single cohesive group, but it’s clear that the anti-immigrant wing holds major influence in the coalition of crazy. Sinclair Lewis summed up the situation a century ago, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

While the “Tea Party” sentiment has existed for a long time in the Republican party, but it has remained dormant, largely placated by the race-baiting language of Republican candidates. Reagan promised to cut benefits for the welfare queens (black women) and imprison crack addicts (black men). The recent rise of the Tea Party was ignited by three things:

1. The failure of the George Bush Presidency

The Republican has courted racial votes for a long-time, but recently has failed to deliver what they desire. George Bush’s push for immigration reform, his pivot toward India and China, embrace of compassionate conservatism and focus towards nation-building abroad all frustrated the nationalist right.

2. The election of Barack Obama

The election of Obama and his re-election provided both racial animus (s is it any wonder that the enemy of the Tea Party is not a liberal, but rather an immigrant black Muslim), but also the hopelessness of trusting the establishment. The reason for the National Front splitting with the Tories is disturbingly prescient: A.K. Chesterton was convinced that a purer party would  more successfully compete in national elections.

3. The destruction of the Middle Class

The middle class got screwed in 2008, and they saw their government support the wealthiest and the poorest and leave the middle-class out in the cold. If you look at the economic policies of the Tea Party, it’s broadly similar to that of the BNP – government support isn’t inherently bad, it’s bad if it goes to support immigrants, poor or blacks. Thus, the bailout of banks was not bad but the bailout of poor homeowners (who were, in the Conservative narrative, because of the Community Reinvestment Act were primarily minority) ignited the anger and fear.

If America was a parliamentary democracy (as it should be), the current split would have happened a long time ago. We would have four parties: a nationalistic “Tea Party,” a center-right “Rockefeller Republican” party, a center-left “New Democratic” party and a green party. Instead, we have two parties that . On the left, the green party has been so terrified of the right it grasped for the Clintons,  and Kerrys (and the center-lefties sat through McGovern and Dukakis). The right has had to grapple with something far more difficult. Middle-class and working-class nationalists have watched Republican presidents work towards immigration reform (to win the votes of Hispanics), send jobs overseas, work tirelessly to export American ideas to the Middle East and give up the fight on social issues. Now, they also have something else none of the other far-right movements in America have had, the mobilization capacity to shut down the government. The GOP has tried to placate the Tea Party while also bringing the party into the 21st century. How long will it be until the Tea Party decides, like A.K. Chesterton, that they’d be better off on their own? How far will the GOP go to win over the votes of disenchanted Southerners, afraid of the increase of secularism, the infiltration of foreign peoples and races into their society and the decline of the white middle class? To quote the Gospel of Mark, “A house is divided against itself cannot stand.”