Semantics

08.07.13

Conservatives Have No Idea What ‘Racist’ Means

A Republican claims Obama's tax on tanning beds is 'racist'—because black people don't need to use them. Jamelle Bouie says it's another example of how the right has warped the word.

10 The Affordable Care Act includes a  10 percent excise tax on tanning beds.

If this sounds a little strange, just think about the health implications of sitting under ultraviolet light for hours at a time. Risk for melanoma increases by 75 percent when people begin tanning before the age of 35, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. One study found that tanning beds cause roughly 170,000 cases of skin cancer each year, and at one point the Food and Drug Administration proposed banning bed use by customers under 18. When it comes to lowering costs in the health-care system, reducing skin cancer incidence by encouraging people not to use tanning beds is low-hanging fruit.

Of course, for every sensible step taken by the Obama administration, there’s at least one Republican who sees it as a sinister plot to rob Americans of their freedom.

In this case, it’s Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, who recently revived the tired attack against the tax (John McCain and Snooki railed against it back in 2010) with a disturbing new twist. “It’s a racist tax,” Yoho, who is white, recently told a group of constituents, because dark-skinned people don’t need to tan. “I thought I might need to get to a tanning booth so I can come out and say I’ve been disenfranchised, because I got taxed because of the color of my skin.”

If white people were required to use tanning beds as a condition of their citizenship, Yoho might have a point. As it stands, this is stupid; this is a tax on tanning beds, paid by people who purchase them, and felt by people who use them. The only way to describe this as “racist” is to turn the word into a mindless insult.

But this, in fact, is what it’s become among a large number of Republicans. Since Barack Obama entered office, a vocal group of conservatives has been obsessed with proving him the “real racist.” After Obama gave his “race” speech in Philadelphia in 2008 following the controversy over Jeremiah Wright, Rush Limbaugh argued that it was an effort to hide the “other Obama,” who “has been … soaking up all of this hate-mongering racism from [Wright] for over 20 years.” The next year, Glenn Beck called now-President Obama a racist for his handling of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. “This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” Beck said. “I don’t know what it is.”

Which leads to a final conclusion: anyone who treats race as a social reality is a racist.

This echoed a comment from the late Andrew Breitbart, who built his popularity off of claims that Obama was a “race baiter” who sought reparations for African-Americans. On one edition of Fox Business Network’s America’s Nightly Scoreboard, Breitbart excoriated the president for not pursuing the New Black Panthers, and following a “scandal” manufactured by right-wing bloggers like himself. By “letting the [New] Black Panthers off,” he declared, Obama is “defending racists,” which is “virtually the same.”

At no point, in any of this, did the conservative commentators prove racial animus on the part of the president.

Yoho’s comment fits comfortably into this rhetoric, which includes the conservative response to President Obama’s remarks on the George Zimmerman verdict last month, which caused a paroxysm of outrage from right-wing websites, with the Daily Caller blaring, “Obama Goes Full Race-Baiter,” and the National Review going after the comments as another plank in “The Obama Administration’s Race-Baiting Campaign.”

The idea that Obama is a racist reads as baffling to most Americans, but it makes sense if you understand the particular racial beliefs of conservatives. If the liberal perspective on racism is that racial inequality is a genuine fact of contemporary American life—and requires race-specific remedies—then the conservative view can be expressed with a line from Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

In other words, only the “colorblind” are capable of stopping racism. What’s more, the inverse is also true: if you’re not colorblind, then you are incapable of stopping racism. Which leads to a final conclusion: anyone who treats race as a social reality is a racist. The corollary to this—seen here, for example—is that accusations of racism are more troubling than actual discrimination against minorities.

Because Obama acknowledges race as a force in American life—and because he even suggests that there are racists among us—he becomes the “real racist,” a construction designed to give conservatives moral high ground, while allowing them to insult Obama. After all, for them, “racist” is the worst accusation in American life.

This rhetoric, it should be said, extends beyond the fever swamps of the right wing. In his concurrence to Fisher v. Texas, the recently decided case on racial preferences in higher education, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas likens supporters of affirmative action to slaveholders and segregationists. “Slaveholders argued that slavery was a ‘positive good’ that civilized blacks and elevated them in every dimension of life,” wrote Thomas. “Segregationists likewise defended segregation on the ground that it provided more leadership opportunities for blacks.” In this telling, the real racism is using racial preferences to account for past discrimination.

With three years (and some change) left in President Obama’s term, we will see more of this rhetoric. Until then, however, it’s worth giving a quick primer on what racism is. Racism, as The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote last year, is the “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” It’s both the miasma of beliefs and assumptions about blacks and other minorities, and the policies passed in response to those beliefs and assumptions. It’s the white supremacist heritage of this country and the ways in which it continues to shape individual lives. It’s “cantaloupe calves,” “stop and frisk,” and the presumption of black criminality.

What it isn’t, by far, is a black president who talks about race, and tries—whenever possible—to talk about its role in American life.