Racism: Not what it used to be

By Michael J. Smith on Wednesday March 28, 2012 10:37 PM

Bill Maher has recently discovered that "the new racism is denying racism".

Denunciations of 'denialism' -- of this and that: the Shoah, global warming -- always set my alarm bells ringing. Seems a little too much like a thought crime.

Maher of course is a glib voluble shallow unthinking idiot, and in this case he's also well behind the curve. Racism denial has long been an indictable offense, on campus and in the corporate world anyway.

Racism is like Voltaire's God; if it didn't exist it would have to be invented. People's careers depend on it. Being against it is uncontroversial yet kindles a certain inner glow of enchaféd virtue.

Maybe it's time to retire the term, except in historical discourse. We're not in the 1920s or 1950s any more. We live -- us Amurricans, anyway; can't speak for the Krauts or the Frogs -- in a society which is, if not post-racial, at least post-racist.

Nobody, but nobody, is willing to come out as a racist; a hundred years ago, nearly everybody would. It's not an ideology anymore, but it certainly was back in the day; we have it to thank for Zionism, among other delights, and indeed Zionist discourse is almost the only kind of contemporary discourse not utterly marginal that could accurately be characterized as 'racist' in any un-tortured sense.

Does this mean the same thing has just gone underground? Maybe; but I don't think so. We're dealing with a different phenomenon now, I'd say, and it needs to be thought about in a different way.

It occurs to me, for example, that notions like 'structural racism' need to be related to notions like 'structural inequality'.

The melanin-advantaged still make less money on average than the melanin-challenged. Is this 'structural racism'? How much of it is due to the principle that those who were poor yesterday -- for whatever reason -- need to be, on average and apart from the occasional bootstrap superstar, even more poor tomorrow?

This is of course a principle broadly embraced, by many distinguished people, including the relatively melanin-advantaged current occupant of the Executive Mansion. Pull up those pants, son, and get a job!

Of course people's sense that the really bad stuff is all happening to Others -- towelheads or welfare queens -- makes it a lot more palatable. This seems to be a deformation professionnelle of spending your day as a human being, unfortunately.

Comments (32)


That's a rather ironic statement coming from somebody like Maher, too.


AMEN. I was wondering when the old left would come to its senses


I personally am a cadre of not just the Old Left, but the Downright Elderly Left.

The next step is realizing that it ("it" being whatever badness stood behind the bad actions) never really was racism. "Racism," and its associated adherents--including those who actually believed it as well as believed in it--was as much of an illusion then as it is now.

A tone deaf monstrosity of a failed post, Mr. Smith. Plenty of people (as in the exact opposite of "nobody but nobody") are willing to self-identify as racists. Take a gander at Stormfront. It'll cure this silly notion right quick.

It's just not perhaps the normal condition in the vicinity of the nouveau-riche and boat owning set of your Columbia neighborhood.


mr smith, a figure of parody.

decrees racism dead from west end ave perch. were he ever to venture forth a few blocks north....

decrees cops bad. sleeps soundly at nite knowing lower orders, the ones not victims of racism of course (that faith let's him sleep soundly too) are kept at bay by his fascists in blue.

derides education for everyone else but got his and his private school kiddies. rode the bus with bill keller donchaknow.
says obama's trayvon would comply with police. smith a real tough guy. he'd wet pants if coppers approached and turn over id even if not asked.

pampered protected educated wedge for uws gentrifiers.

racism dead says man from uws, u of c with the 20 buck vocab.

smbiva a comedy site, a parody. strictly for laughs, the joey adams of the left.


Okay, not 'nobody'. But a pretty marginal bunch.


Returning to Montgomery, Al for the wife's 50th high school reunion in '10 (where has the time gone?), I found that the racist attitudes remain potent just under a surface of tolerant verbiage. The windy speaker at the main event even made direct reference to the bad old days and the huge changes he and his classmates had lived through.. but I think it was mostly for the benefit of inattentive black serving staff whose behavior, like that of their grandparents in their own day, was "exemplary".
The neighborhood where I was a visitor was under constant security patrol, the domestic help and yardmen known and accepted, other dusky visitors sharply scrutinized.
White anxiety in the deep south after integration remains palpable and is constantly justified with examples from the news media and the rumor mill.
I was also much impressed with the level of evangelism on display even in casual converstation suitable to a reunion. Churchy talk came popping out everywhere. (Of course everyone present is in the waiting for God demographic.) I begin to think of such talk as a kind of code for the survival of the old values, a shibboleth, so to speak, in a verbal context where the 'n' word and its alternatives would mark one as low class.
My barber in tarheel-landia went to see the new Dolly Parton film, said he enjoyed it but was disturbed by the 'miscegenation' plot involving Dolly's grandchild and Queen Latifah's child (genders?).
In the interests of a complete haircut I allowed that the horse was out of the barn in that area of human relations.
The barber declared that his dad was a racist and he guesses he is too.


"Maybe it's time to retire the term, except in historical discourse."

Absolutely not.

I must confess, I am utterly perplexed by this post. Not sure where to begin, but it appears to run contrary to the actual experiences of black people in the good ole US of A, both institutionally and personally.

Race and class are ever balled together in a knot that seems damn near impossible to untangle.



I'm with the rest of the gang: this post is very weird.

It may be true that only "a pretty marginal bunch" are willing to self-identify publicly as "racist". But that doesn't mean that the country isn't filled with people (e.g. members of my own family) who will openly expound on the unsavory characteristics of "the blacks", "the Mexicans", and so on. And also people who will shoot members of those groups if they wander into the wrong neighborhood, to pick a readily-available example.

This is quite a different phenomenon from your example of black people just happening to have less money, on average, than white people. Class and economic inequality is complicated. Racism, sometimes, is not, even if its adherents aren't willing to call it by its name.


A white politician accused of playing the "race card". Perhaps his upset victory over a trained House Negro type has something to do with his stance on Zionism as well.


I agree with Picador, and would add: that "pretty marginal bunch" is generally irrelevant --- and often a maddening distraction --- to the matter at hand. The Maddows, O'Donnells, Charles Blows of the world obsess over that marginal bunch. They end up sounding like elitist snobs in the process. We've got bigger, institutional fish to fry.

But racism is alive and well, and is a "lived experience" by just about every black person in the US. I don't think that the "new racism is denying racism," but I do think that denying the persistence of racism is troubling, extremely problematic, and counter-productive. It also simply doesn't jibe with reality.


For the record
Father S is a fearless weirdo
The sight of cops only inflames him
Why I saw him taunt a mounted cop while nearly under the horses belly

Errr Ajax he's not ....but brave as a mother pig


I think u may ...with a certain historic justification,.......
conflate racism
with pre judgements and other stereo typing

Racism really is a short form for white supremacy
not to be confused
with notions of wealth and power inherent in any class based hierarchy
Much else that is unjjust nasty and brutal
in the social partitioning we carry not only in our minds
But in our administration of laws
And in the still wildly unequal group and community outcomes
Produced by history and our present civil institutions

Anti Racism is a fatigued rally pole like anti fascism

If I understand it
I like high arka's take

Let's us dissolve these features from their present binding word racism

Btw I for one still see the concept of nation as useful
The brother nation of mine here in eastern north amerika is the black nation
We share this piece of earth
They live with me
under my nations state

I expect some day
They will liberate themselves as a nation from my nation's state
and not dissolve into my nation


is a far deeper white bourgeois American " ism crime"
These days then racism or sexism

Unlike greenism for instance or anti consumerism
Meritism is not merely remote
from the daily struggle of us job class geefs and geefettes

Meritism is in fact the very the comfort food of todays system
of capitalist exploitation
For that system's
Mittel stand fellow travelers
It's 24/7 aiders and abeters


Only a willful simpleton would write off Father S's view of racism
As the "product of his personal comfort and privilege"
Such that it may be

Very much like the critique of Noam simply because he has not renounced
his MIT perch like
the fabled Italian named Francis mendicant by choice and life long
Nudist and friend of the birds of the air and mice of the field


I highly doubt MJS would deny that racism still exists. The point he is making, if I understand him correctly, is that it isn't quite the same beast it was back in the '20s, which is an accurate statement. Back then, racism was socially acceptable; today, it is not. While there is certainly a minority of people out there willing to self-identify as racist, the majority of people, including most racists, are not willing to openly out themselves because of the social stigma they can expect to face if they do. Among other things, it tends to be career suicide for many. Even on Stormfront, forum users are not allowed to use swastika-themed avatars because the owners of the site recognize that the association with Nazism is socially unacceptable to Americans, though how they imagine they avoid it otherwise is beyond me.

Racism is not as simple and monolithic as it is so often portrayed. The degree of self-righteous puritanism that revolves around issues of alleged racism is ridiculous. Anybody uttering anything even remotely racist is immediately denounced as though he were the bastard love child of Reinhard Heydrich and Bull Connor. While the self-congratulatory concern-trolling on behalf of blacks that tends to be such a fetish among middle class whites instantly elevates you to the level of righteous moral paragon. Racism is far more nuanced and complex than that, and the occasional racist utterance no more makes you a racist than occasionally saying something hateful to your friends and loved ones means you actually hate them. Racism in any meaningful sense ought to run far deeper than the kind of superficial offenses that can get your branded for life by the anti-racism police.

But the practical realities of racism and how it actually plays out in the world are treated as though they are irrelevant. This is why there is nothing more righteous for liberals than voting for a black guy who stabs black people in the back. This is how some working class stiff who mouths off about "the blacks" from time to time but otherwise has no bad feelings for them is denounced as the vilest racist scum imaginable while the condescending liberals who treat black people as pathetically sensitive children who need to be shielded from all criticism pat themselves on the back for their "tolerance" of blacks.

When 95 percent of Americans say they are willing to vote for a black guy and open expressions of racism are heavily stigmatized, that is evidence that racism is not as bad as it was years ago. But it isn't just careers that are on the line in maintaining the race divide in America through denial of racial progress, it is also the exalted status of "defender of the blacks" that will be lost the day we evolve to the point "race" no longer matters. None of this means racism doesn't exist, just that we need a more nuanced conception of actually existing racism than that being offered by the PC police.


Sean hits a homer
Quite mild non censorious Anti racism is costless
out in the job market
by the water bubbler
at the local ball park

Even exhibiting mild overt Racism uncautiously
at these same places is costly

That is a cultural sea change

But a sea change that in no way taxes the merit class liberal
There is no sacrifice for a merit class liberal in a bold profession of anti racism

How convenient


Sean hits a homer
Quite mild non censorious Anti racism is costless
out in the job market
by the water bubbler
at the local ball park

Even exhibiting mild overt Racism uncautiously
at these same places is costly

That is a cultural sea change

But a sea change that in no way taxes the merit class liberal
There is no sacrifice for a merit class liberal in a bold profession of anti racism

How convenient this is for the dear hearts


"The melanin-advantaged still make less money on average than the melanin-challenged. Is this 'structural racism'? How much of it is due to the principle that those who were poor yesterday -- for whatever reason -- need to be, on average and apart from the occasional bootstrap superstar, even more poor tomorrow?"

Let me hit you with a provocative question in response:

Who cares?

Unfortunately, your argument is basically definitional. Racism, in your definition, and op's, is essentially an ideology, and an action becomes racist if it stems from that ideology. If similar actions occur because of a different ideology, they can't be racist.

Another possible definition is to define racism by results; a policy is racist if it disproportionately effects one race, even if the people enacting it are doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with race.

I think that the rationale behind a policy and the real-world effects of it are both important, and their importance is going to vary based on context.

I'm not an academic; I have no idea what the proper jargon is or should be to separate things that stem from a racist ideology and things that in practice negatively effect one race more than others. In common speech I think both are going to be referred to as "racism" whether you like it or not.

Should they maybe not be? Eh? There's arguments for and against that both make sense to me.


But a sea change that in no way taxes the merit class liberal
There is no sacrifice for a merit class liberal in a bold profession of anti racism

How convenient

That's the best kind of sea change!

You're kind of reminding me of all the liberals who gave Rand Paul shit when he got mad at the TSA.

Sure, he thinks the same things about the TSA as liberals do, for pretty much the same reasons, but isn't he just so... so... libertarian about it? Isn't that so gross?

What are you arguing? That the merit class should be more overtly racist? Or that they should be out in the streets, inciting an armed revolution aimed at destroying racist institutions?

Yeah, I don't like it when gross people agree with me, either. I still want to slap Jonah Goldberg even when he says reasonable things I agree with. It's not a very attractive attitude, though.


I'm not conflating anything. What black people n this country are subjected to is all of the above: predudice, stereotyping, and racism. I think this discussion is veering into the kind of academic hairsplitting and categorizing that SMBIVA usually gloriously and refreshingly mocks.


I think this "weaker racism of the present" argument reflects certain material and social conditions experienced by those making it. It's an argument of the Clerks, to allude to Mr. Smith's opus itself.

I'd not be surprised if they were mostly urban, mostly urbane and accustomed to a city life where overt expressions of racist sentiment are in fact passe.

Which experience communicates exactly fuck all about how most everyone else lives.

And it also says very little about structural, institutional and legal realities. In fact, it works hard to elide them.

I guess when one in three white men have to do a stint in prison, it might be halfway to time to suggest that "past racism was worse," or any other such tripe.


There's one benefit to a more nuanced approach to racism: it welcomes people who are becoming less bigoted. The reductionism of some leftists seems to arise out of a sense of duty. They may know that someone has said something only mildly offensive; but they can't help deconstructing it, examining its origins, tracing it back to the grossest bigotry and ending with a denunciation of those who would return us to the old days. There's a propulsiveness to it: once you're on that track, you can only keep going. Not much incentive for those who are trying to change themselves. Why bother? We lack a vocabulary in talking with those who are giving up their bigotries. As soon as they say something prejudiced, they've shown their true natures. Or so we claim.

It's the sort of thing quite often seen in the comments sections of blogs. A newcomer arrives with a question. The question itself will raise some alarm: a lingering prejudice, a lack of knowledge, a clumsy understanding. Is the newcomer helped out, wised up, set straight? He's treated as a virulent infection. Go back to your guard post at Auschwitz, you fucking troll.

You would never know, from reading some political blogs, that the people involved believe in anything — a movement, a goal, an aim. Those pages are clubhouses, treehouses. There they sit, pharisaically rigid, awaiting someone's gaffe. (It's becoming very much like that over at IOZ's.)

There's something seriously missing in our online politics: a greeting of people who are trying to find their way. You're one of the elect or one of the damned. You are, of course, one of the elect. There's even, among the pwogs, some giddy talk of predisposition: liberal vs. conservative brains. And yet there's room within the conservative tent for the prodigal son, the regenerate sinner, the awkward, ingenuous convert. Not among us lefties, though. We might as well be Calvinists. In theory, we hail new faces; but as soon as those faces have opened their mouths and say something or other unfortunate, they're back out on the curb.

Is there as much racism as before? I'd say it never left. A little more self-conscious, to be sure. That's about it. "Don't get me wrong. I haven't got a prejudiced bone in my body. But..." The customary preamble to benighted drivel. Old rotgut in new bottles. Check out the comments sections of Yahoo News articles if you want to see unabashed bigotry. Does it help that the commenters are anonymous? No doubt. Racism has gone underground a bit more, but racists like it there anyway. They're the ones who are persecuted, you see. They like their secret conventicles: the ideal place for the bogusly aggrieved. If anything, the illusion they're being hunted down has given them a stronger sense of purpose.

As Jack says, look to the structures of society. If they're intact, the inhabitants can play at being enlightened. You can treat people like dirt; but don't call them bad names, because then you've crossed the line.

I highly doubt MJS would deny that racism still exists.
I certainly wouldn't deny that black folks are, on average, a lot worse off than white folks, for systematic reasons which are not at all their fault. In this respect I differ from the staunchly anti-racist Obie, who seems to believe that if black folks just pulled up their pants and kept the kids a little harder at the homework grind, all would be well.

Using the same term for a different thing is a sure road to stultification.


A couple of links for those who can put up with academic jargon:


The writing on new racism shows how contemporary manifestations of race are coded in a language that aims to circumvent accusations of racism. In the case of new racism, race is coded as culture.

And here:

Ideologically, current racism...fits into a framework of 'racism without races'...It is a racism whose dominant theme is not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences

Racism without race! What a Protean thing this 'racism' is.

You seem to have confused "protean" with "nonexistent."

American racism was justified in terms of the Enlightenment or theology when that seemed plausible; then it was justified genetically until science evolved enough to show that was insupportable (you cannot be unaware of this); and if the biology diffuses and people go on to accept "race doesn't exist" (or just don't like be seen as old-school racists), one will of course wind up with "racism without race." Race is a social reality and racism is a pattern of behavior that continue under any opportunistic justification.

The important part of racism isn't the ideology, it's the behavior. What matters is what people do. I half-remember a famous quote from a civil rights leader that he preferred the open racists to the white liberals, because at least then he knew who his enemies were. The racism of the white liberals was still a problem, despite their not openly displaying it. You seem to think that if somebody doesn't openly identify as a racist, then they're just not, and cumulative disaster that results from racist behavior must be attributed something else, because our society is past open racism. But in doing that you've basically just chosen your own definition for the term, against common usage. I don't see why. Why should it matter whether open racism is not marginal discourse if its effects are felt just the same?

"How much of it is due to the principle that those who were poor yesterday -- for whatever reason -- need to be, on average and apart from the occasional bootstrap superstar, even more poor tomorrow?"

Seriously, submitting duplicate resumes with only the names changed to black-sounding ones will result in different acceptance rates. This isn't just a systematic thing that isn't the fault of black people, it's active racism. Black people in the same positions get paid less for the same work than white people. It's not because the people poor yesterday will remain poor today, because they're doing the same jobs. If "racism" isn't a relevant word for this, what is?

You've seen the news over the past few decades. You know that, disproportionately, being black will get you gunned down by police in a way that has nothing to do with being poor. Do you need a new vocabulary to describe this? Do the cops need white hoods and copies of The Turner Diaries to be acting racist? I'm sure a lot of them go home and tell themselves the person being black had nothing to do with it (a lot of them don't, you can hear them spewing racial abuse on the recordings); does that make them not racist?

My father's entire family is racist. My aunt is, the who told me when I was a teen that my shorts made me look like a "spo" (What's that? "You'd see one hanging off the side of a garbage truck."), who called my father's friend a "stupid nigger" when he screwed up a business deal. My grandfather was. My grandmother's boyfriend made a joke with a paper towel and a sprinkling of pepper to equate the Million Man March with the unemployment line. My uncle later recounted with outrage how a black guy with new equipment asked him how to find "where the clams be at." My other uncle: "'Just keep your head underwater long enough and you'll see them.'" They live in suburban Connecticut and they don't burn crosses, but they don't shy from letting you know once you've gotten to know them. Good job living where you live and knowing who you know, I guess.

It is telling that the people I have found in the US who are willing to tell me that racism is over, or the word has lost its meaning, or whatever, are all white. I was going to suggest you go find some minorities to share your theory with, but they put up with enough. Listen to some minorities from the US. They're telling their stories all over the web if you're willing to listen. And every once in a while a white liberal commentator comes onto these blogs and says something like what you said, and they hand his ass to him. Because he doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about.

"staunchly anti-racist Obie"

Okay, now where the hell are you getting this from? Obama's policies are racist. Obama is happy to toss out speeches about how terrible black fathers are to assuage conservatives. He's staunchly in favor of capitalism, empire, and expedience, and probably not much else. If liberal "anti-racists" don't call Obama out on this shit, it doesn't make Obama anti-racist. He's done literally nothing to deserve this title besides you not liking him and not liking the word "racism."

Finally, Zionism is racism, and it's not just "not utterly marginal," it's fucking universal in our political discourse.

In the midst of all this, my unabridged dictionaries, Wiktionary, and Google Translate can't locate "enchaféd," so you're just going to have to tell me what that is.


Yeah, racism is better analyzed as a set of behaviors than as an immutable personality trait. We're all gradually improvable.

And no one wants to hear they're a racist, even if it seems pretty obvious to someone else. Increasingly few people identify as racists. The right move is to say they've done something racist, explain why, and hope they take it constructively.

On the internet, it is just very, very easy to just shout someone down for having done the wrong thing, and it builds ingroup solidarity too. Which is why blogs all turn into these insular clusterfucks.


Obie wants to publicly affirm

The existence of
not only the values in himself of the merit system
But confirm the merit systems imperfect but vital existence here
In America the bettering


If culture is a code word for racism then what use publicly is the word racism

As a liberals insult ?
Like fascism is a progressives insult ?

Culturalism as a branch of meritism is enough
Of a stand alone Bad for me

The culture line is of course part of the deadly duo
Genes and Household
Racism had a very strong love affair with genes
But today
That gets sticky fast

And what a change we have there since the battle between genes and free will
Back in the 1920's

Now we try to contain genes not appeal to god's rewards to effort
Conservative and liberal meritists agree on the standards and choose to
Disagree on the causes

Unequal at birth either way
Liberals toy with remediation systems that employ meritoids in large numbers
Costless values are ubiquitous of course precisely because they are costless

But liberals will put your money where the it mouth wants it to go

Liberals like taxing to fund social transfers
Taxes from all of us to benefit the merit system
Because the merit system builds a better citizenry
A responsible citizenry that pays taxes

Populists like transfers taxes on the rich and thrill rent sumps


Costless values are nice values
Being against racism and urging the state
Pay for remdiations like pre school to combat
unequal early conditions
Can co exist in the same merit head


I have to admit puzzlement at the dressings down Mr. Smith gets here. I didn't find this piece at all weird. Is all this due to misinterpretation of his original post? Or is it that the ideas in his original post are "…badly formed and worse phrased," as he says in his latest post (and therefore, perhaps, leading to understandable misinterpretation)? Or is it a close-to-home example of that thing of which several commenters speak, that tribal pouncing on anyone deemed insufficiently enlightened?

I'll go with misinterpretation, though I will also admit to having had to read the original few paragraphs several times in order to "get" what I thought was the central thesis (so maybe the prose was somewhat unfortunately phrased, maybe not). But I got the underlying notion just fine. Perhaps it just needed a bit of re-reading and fleshing out (subsequently provided in comments, and in the new piece, by MJS).

By the way, though there were several other correspondents who seemed to "get" it, I am especially impressed with the thinking and the clarity in the comments by Sean and Antonello.


FWIW, I appreciate the post too, and MJS' willingness to wander off the Lefty reservation. More of this is needed. The most unnecessary post in the universe would be a post about how "racism is still alive" -- it's a truism at this point; it might as well not be said. Therefore it's boring and not useful, IMHO.

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