Why deny obvious racism?

In the wake of the horrific white-supremacist terrorist attack in Charleston, a disturbing number of people — including the governor of South Carolina — seem dedicated to downplaying, ignoring, or even denying the obvious racist motivations of the attacker. Arguably the only thing he could have done to make his intentions more clear would be to tattoo “I am a racist” on his forehead. Why deny it?

This is especially strange to me because the usual reactionary strategy would be to seize upon this extreme and exceptional instance of racism in order to imply that only such extreme and exceptional cases are properly racist. Probably the best-known example of this dynamic is the treatment of rape, where the exceptional case of a stranger using extreme violence is taken as the normative case. In both instances, the intent is to take advantage of the existence of extreme cases in order to downplay more common, everyday cases.

This rhetorical strategy is deplorable, yet clearly effective. What’s more, the Charleston massacre seems like an absolutely classic occasion for its deployment. So why are so many people opting for the seemingly much less convincing strategy of outright obfuscation and denial?

This is a serious question. I discussed it briefly on Twitter, but my hope is that blog comments will provide a better forum.

13 thoughts on “Why deny obvious racism?

  1. I’ve been wondering what constituency is served by media and politicians insisting this can’t have been a racist act: that it doesn’t look like a hate crime, that it must be about religion instead of race, even that it must have been random. Do white supremacists have that much pull? Who exactly are the talking heads trying to keep happy?

  2. This might be a symptom of just how extreme, absolutist and unsubtle the Right has become. They obviously want to deny the existence of racism, and are so fundamentalist in that mission that they won’t even cede the ground of “a few violent extremists.” Someone like Richard Nixon would have played this the way you mention, I just don’t think the likes of Nikki Haley and Lindsey Graham have the savvy, acumen, and flexibility to do that. The modern Right’s infusion of Biblical fundamentalism may even effect the way it thinks about non-religious issues, namely that there is one absolutist truth (“racism doesn’t exist”) that can never be contradicted.

    Based on interactions I’ve had with family members who spend hours a day watching Fox News, that’s my impression.

  3. I think Conservatives have the model of those workplace safety signs (“It has been X days since the last American racial atrocity”) and are reluctant to flip the sign back to zero.

  4. Solipsism. They have bound themselves irrevocably to the idea that white Christians are the most persecuted people in America. No tragedy is so real to them as their own suffering. Contra Adam, the usual stratagem for avoiding the obvious would be the same one they’ve deployed in every shooting for the last six years – blame the victims, turn the tables, make the killer into a martyr and themselves into confessors. This time even the Fox News crowd can see that they would look like monsters if they tried, and they are at a loss.

  5. If nothing else, at least no one’s claiming the shooting didn’t take place at all.

    There’s a gut level conservative revulsion towards being called on to care about social/ moral issues not amenable to their ideology, racism being the prime example, but LGBT and environmental issues, too. It’s as if the liberal thought police insist on forcing us to feel invested in such things! They see it almost as blackmail or a trick. ( I, too, have several Fox devoted relatives.)

  6. Perhaps it’s an effect of the increasing polalrization of the American ideological camps. Today, everything is read as a symptom of a larger subterranean problem. Nothing remains at the surface, nor is it allowed to be seen as a simple isolated phenomenon but has to be untangled and traced, showing the way it runs through everything else. In this climate, every admission of a problem is to give far more ground to those who purport to be able to solve it than might be desirable (to the one on the defensive). Perhaps in the present climate that “classic” move of pointing to the extremes increasingly fails and has its opposite effect. Every single little agression is to be read as a fragment of the macro (extreme) one. To acknolwedge that this was racist might be to admit the “need for a conversation” and “soul searching.” It might be to hand the ideological enemy the thread with which to begin the unravelling. These days everyone is capable of finding a mile within a foot. Awareness of this might alter classic strategies.

  7. All of the above. And with the presidential race beginning, we should remember that South Carolina is a state that often makes or breaks Republican primary candidates: Huckabee became a one-issue candidate on his support of the Confederate flag there; Bush staffers called voters back in 2000 to rumor that McCain “has a black baby,” and that loss cemented GW Bush’s primary victory.

  8. John McNasser’s point about gun violence seems important to me (but then, I spend a lot of time thinking about guns and the right). For many Republicans and right-wingers, one priority whenever there’s a mass shooting is to figure some way to spin it so that people won’t be able to talk effectively about gun control. To make this move work, you’ve got to have some other issue that you can spin it toward. You don’t want to spin it toward anything with the word “racism” in it that isn’t prefixed with “reverse”, because the belief is that 1.) Racism doesn’t exist; 2.) If racism exists, it’s against white people. So in a case like this, you have to find another issue. The War on Christianity is an idea that plays well with the base, so that’s one way. It lets you talk about the importance of faith (applause from the base!) while also showing at least some sympathy for black victims without having to talk about racism (which, of course, doesn’t exist).

    If somehow you’re forced to talk about gun violence, then you’ve got to bring up mental health to move the discussion away from gun control — “let’s get the guns out of the hands of the crazy people” is a good compromise position when more preferred talking points fail, because it’s a pretty effective way to derail the conversation and it sounds at least more reasonable than “No matter how many people die, you’re not getting my guns!” But pretty much every legislator knows that there’s almost no practical way to put through anything other than the most ineffective sort of mental health prohibitions on guns. Why? Various reasons, including privacy rights and the lack of any infrastructure to make mental health records easily searchable or able to be integrated with the federal and state criminal records used for background checks. It’s theoretically possible, but not in any practical way possible (that I know of, at least). So derailing the conversation toward mental health a good way to keep it distracted from the things you don’t want to talk about at any cost: practical gun control (say, treating guns like cars) or the existence of racism.

  9. First, the easiest explanation for denial is mass media itself. I grew up reading Chomsky, and in particular, _Manufacturing_Consent_, and so the media’s denial to the realities of racism doesn’t surprise me. Media consumption tends to be white and middle-class, so something like failure to call out racism doesn’t seem surprising, since mass media has largely been about crafting what ideas are acceptable and what ideas are unacceptable. I think there is a common perception among white communities that race relations have legitimately gotten better (my parents certainly hold these view, as does much of my family). The fact that this narrative is perpetuated in mass media doesn’t seem too terribly surprising.

    For reactionaries, it seems in part related to the American Exceptionalism that seems so prevalent in reactionary circles. Many of us obviously take issue with this meta-narrative because the romantic view of the US’s past or its specialness ignores the harsh realities for minorities, and I think racism is the most prevalent example (I am inclined to think that racism is the US’s original sin, although I am not sure I like that narrative too much, since can normalize white supremacy by making it an inevitability). I think to speak of racism in any way means having to problematize the reactionary meta-narrative of American Exceptionalism, since the prevalence of white supremacy indicates to most people, at least in a public way, that American Exceptionalism is non-existent: the US has never been great for a majority of its people. I mean there are other meta-narratives at play too, including the Lost Cause narrative. I have seen so many defenses of the Confederate Flag for instance. Obviously these have been floating around for a while, and it led Ta-Nehisi Coates to argue that it actually is a symbol of racism using primary sources (Confederate constitutions).

    I guess another part of it that I think about is how much the Republican Party relies on white reactionaries. To call out racism is to alienate a large part of its base, who seem to truly believe we live in a post-racial United States. This might account in part for the tepid response from most politicians in general, and Bernie Sanders seems to have been the only one to really outrightly discuss racism (I swear I am not shipping him).

    This are the sort of half-intelligible thoughts I have at the moment, but they might be gut reactions.

  10. It does seem clear that there are no longer any conservative politicians in office smart enough to deal with this sort of thing according to their ideological interests, which itself is a result of having a base that is invincibly stupid.

  11. Looking at this tragedy from outside of the USA it would seem to be a clear case of a domestic racist terrorist attack; that is an act of terror (designed to spread terror) undertaken in the name of an ideology or worldview. Consider an inverse event- a non-white person undertaking an attack on a white church accusing those murdered as representatives of a race undertaking violence against the race of the attacker…how would Fox and the Conservatives react?

  12. It is worth noting that fired radio shock jock Anthony Cumia, one of the stars of the far-right/white supremacist “comedy” firmament, pursued exactly this line of analysis (“Now, THIS is racism, PC police”) on social media.

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