This first appeared on Splice Today. The time references are a little old, but I think the overall issues are still relevant.
“Barack Obama is the food-stamp president,” Newt Gingrich declared last week on his way to the South Carolina primary. Some have called this a racial dog-whistle. Others might argue that, given its quintessential Newt subtlety, it is more of a racial slime-trail. Either way, you still apparently can’t go wrong in South Carolina by equating black people with big government. John Calhoun is no doubt chuckling with senile glee on his traitor’s dung heap in hell.
Andrew Sullivan made the argument recently that libertarianism is not inherently racist. He argues that he would not legislate against private expressions of racism…but that is not because he supports racism, but because he believes that such legislation would backfire, resulting in less freedom for all.
The social power of homophobia and hetero-sexism in a free culture is crushing. I oppose it; and recognize it. I have spent a great deal of my life pushing back culturally and intellectually and morally against it. But I do not want to compel it into submission. I want to persuade it into toleration. And that is the core difference between power exerted by the state and power exerted by non-state actors: the former is ultimately backed by physical force deployed by the government; the latter by public opinion, economic and social power, and the willingness of minorities to buy into the ideology of their oppressors or haters.
Sullivan’s certainly right on the philosophical point; there’s nothing structurally or logically that says that a desire for small government has to coincide with racism. Indeed, you can imagine societies — say, apartheid-era South Africa, or Nazi Germany — where opposition to government control and opposition to racism would be entirely congruent.
The problem is that those societies are not the society in which we live, and that history matters. Tim Wise makes this painfully clear in his brisk new book Dear White America. Addressing his fellow white people (like me!), Wise not so gently informs us that most of our presumptions and self-congratulatory musings on race are bunk. Barack Obama’s election has not ended racism (he lost among almost all white demographics except the young.) Asian Americans are not a model minority (they’re relatively high income is because they are concentrated in high-income cities; adjusted for location, their poverty rates are double those for whites.) And in America, where “state’s rights” was used as a rallying cry for slavers, fighting against the central government does in fact have something to do with racism. Which is why when Ron Paul says, “South Carolina is known for its respect for liberty,” it’s hard not to think that he’s speaking not for all people, but for white people in particular.
Along these lines, Wise points out that Tea Party activists who oppose high taxes and big government are not actually interested in going back to a time when government was really small — to the nineteenth century, for example, when there were no regulations preventing children from working in industry (even the pro-child-labor Gingrich isn’t agitating for us to start chucking ten-year-olds back into coal mines — at least not white ten-year-olds.)
Instead, when Conservatives say they want to roll government back, they generally mean back to a time before the 1960s. Of course, as Wise says, tax rates in the 1950s were exponentially higher than they are today — the highest was ninety-one percent. But there was something different in the 1950s. There were big government hand-outs…but they were restricted to whites. White folks, Wise says, supported the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave Indian and Mexican land to white people. White folks supported the New Deal programs of the 1930s. They supported the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration Home loans which were largely responsible for creating the affluent American middle class. “In other words,” Wise says
government had always been big for people like us, and we were fine with that. But beginning in the 1960s, as people of color began to gain access to the benefits for which we had always been eligible, suddenly we discovered our inner libertarian and decided that government intervention was bad, perhaps even the cause of social decay and irresponsible behavior on the part of those who reaped its largesse. [….]
Doesn’t it seem convenient that growing opposition to government intervention in the economy, the housing market, the job market and other aspects of American life parallels almost directly the racialization of social policy, and the increasing association in the white mind between such efforts and handouts to the undeserving “other”?
I can’t deny any of that. Which makes my own flirtations with libertarianism (including reading Andrew Sullivan and kind of liking Ron Paul) somewhat embarrassing. Wise turns the screws further in a recent blog post on Ron Paul in which he points out that racist shithead David Duke opposes imperialism abroad and the government security state at home, just like Paul. He adds:
And yes, I realize that Ron Paul — this election season’s physical embodiment of the broken clock — is not, literally, as bad as David Duke. Yes, he supports all those incredibly ass-backwards policies rattled off above (about welfare, immigration, abortion, taxes and education), but he is not, like Duke, a Nazi. He is supported by Nazis, like Stormfront — the nation’s largest white nationalist outfit, which is led by Don Black, who’s one of Duke’s best friends, and is married to Duke’s ex-wife, and is Duke’s daughters’ step-dad — but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence. Surely it’s not because Paul wants to repeal the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, and allow companies to discriminate in the name of “free association.” And it couldn’t have anything to do with those newsletters that went out under his name, with all kinds of blatantly bigoted commentary about black people being IQ-deficient predators, at a time when he was promoting those very newsletters (and so, presumably, reading them), and not objecting in the least.
And yet, while I am chastened, I’m not necessarily convinced. Yes, it’s true that libertarianism, freedom, and self-determination in this country have all been soaked in racism. You can’t use those terms in reference to the United States without taking part in the history and ideology of white supremacy. Wise is right about that.
But…the problem is that the alternatives to libertarianism, freedom, and self-determination aren’t exactly pure either. As mentioned above, Wise himself points out that most big government interventions, from the Homestead Act to the FHA housing subsidies, were explicitly white supremacist in intention and in effect. Slavery was enabled by large-scale government intervention. So were our many, many big government, racially inflected imperial adventures — from Columbus’ extermination of the Arawaks which kicked off white folks’ control of this continent to our current bloody slog in Afghanistan. So, for that matter, is the drug war.
There certainly have been anti-racist big government interventions. The Civil War was one. Civil Rights legislation was another. But, by the same token, there have been anti-racist anti-government movements as well — such as the Civil Rights movement. But the Civil War doesn’t excuse our adventure in Iraq from its racist imperial tradition any more than the Civil Rights movement excuses the Tea Party from its racist libertarian tradition.
The difficulty in America (and not just in America, but America is where we live) is that there is no ideological path you can take that isn’t tied to the history of racism, because racism is our history. This country was built on the genocidal elimination of Native Americans and on the enslavement of Africans. It wasn’t built on only those things, but still, those things were pretty important. And when a President — even a black President — sends drones halfway across the world to intentionally kill terrorists and happens to kill other people who don’t look like us, that history is implicated, and implicates us.
The point here isn’t that Paul and Obama are equally racist, or that their supporters are equally hypocrites. Rather, the point is that it behooves every white person, whoever they support, to think about their ideologies not just as abstract systems, but as living histories, with all the bloodshed and compromise that that implies. Wise is doing God’s work when he vilifies the racism of Conservative libertarianism, but I wish he’d found it in his heart to spend a bit more time vilifying the racism of bi-partisan big-government as well. I guess white people, to no one’s surprise, find it easier to see the beam in the other person’s eye. That’s why whites need to follow Wise’s example and check each other.