The Racism Myth

Listening to the radio the other day, I heard a professor from one of America’s more distinguished institutions of higher learning explain what is motivating the “angry mobs” who have been raucously denouncing President Obama’s health-care plans: racism. When asked for evidence, the professor offered this: Some of the angry people made it plain that they are opposed to illegal immigration; worse still, others speak of the need for personal responsibility. As everyone knows, “illegal immigration” and “personal responsibility” are code words. Translated into honest English, what these people are saying is: “We don’t like persons of color,” and “We don’t like Obama because he’s a person of color.”

So there you have it: A person of color happens to sit in the White House (God knows how he ever got there in such a racist country), and if he gets his way with health care, he’ll be taking money away from hardworking white people and giving it to his brown and black brothers and sisters.

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Why would anybody believe something as crazy as this? To answer the question, we have to look at who is apt to believe such a thing. There are three categories of people who still contend, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that the United States remains a terribly racist country:

1. There are so-called “civil-rights leaders” whose specialty is to do very bad imitations of a genuinely great man, Martin Luther King Jr. If it turns out that white Americans are no longer racist in a significant way, these guys will have to find a new job.

2. Then there are professors of “African-American Studies,” who rely very heavily on the white-racism paradigm when writing and teaching. White racism explains an awful lot when examining the historical experience of blacks in America, but it explains little about the current situation of African-Americans. But if you’re intellectually lazy, it’s so very convenient, instead of thinking through the new situation, just to use the old paradigm.

(These African-American Studies professors, by the way, unlike the civil-rights leaders, don’t have to worry about finding a new job if they finally face the fact that white racism is mostly a thing of the now-distant past, for the professors have tenure. They still have their classrooms — but what will they now say when they enter them?)

3. Finally there are white “progressives.” These are well-educated persons of upper- or upper-middle class socio-economic status. You’d think, given their intelligence and education, and given the further fact that every day they inform themselves about the world by reading the best newspapers and magazines, that they would have observed by now that anti-black racism has — thanks in great measure to King, who, marvelous to say, actually succeeded in his goal of changing the racist mind of white America — become a relatively insignificant thing in today’s America.

These people realize that their friends, like themselves, are non-racist. At the same time, they believe that just a few steps below them on the social ladder — that is, among the ill-educated unfortunates who populate the lower-middle and working classes — there is a seething mass of anti-black racism. These “inferior” people have learned not to express their racism in the blunt and disgusting language that was used in the days of their fathers and grandfathers, but the racism is still there. You can detect it in their code words. It is a natural consequence of the frustrated lives that these people live. Frustrated people become angry and aggressive; angry/aggressive people look for a scapegoat; and the traditional American scapegoat has been the black man. Progressives feel that they are sitting at the top of a racist volcano that might explode any day now.

The myth of white racism serves a number of valuable psychological purposes for high-status white progressives:


  • It gives them a great feeling of moral superiority. “Most white Americans are racist, but not us.”

  • It justifies their high levels of wealth and income. “We are good, and so we deserve to be rich. It’s almost enough to make one believe in the existence of God.”

  • It justifies their desire to keep political power out of the hands of the lower orders and as much as possible in the hands of judges and bureaucrats. “We believe in democracy, certainly; but we can’t let unlimited political power fall into the hands of racists.”

To a great extent, these progressives have taken control of the national Democratic Party. What used to be the party of America’s plain people has increasingly become the party of its privileged people. If non-progressive white Americans have increasingly abandoned the love affair many of their parents and grandparents used to have with the Democratic Party, this is in no small measure because these whites, having pretty much renounced racism, don’t like being told again and again by “civil-rights leaders” and very privileged whites that they remain racist. When civil-rights leaders tell them this, these whites get annoyed. When the higher classes tell them this, they feel worse than annoyed; they feel insulted.


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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