There’s a part in The Audacity Of Hope, where writing about race, Obama notes that, rightly or wrongly, a significant swath of white people are exhausted, and repeatedly scolding them (even if you’re right) is unlikely to alter the poverty stats. What we need, Obama argued, is a different strategy, one that connects our practical interests with the practical interests of the broader country–less energy on Don Imus and more on Harlem hospital. This sounds like a surrender, but it’s really a re-affirmation of strategy that goes back to Douglass. The point was never to wash white people, (an arrogant pursuit, at any rate) but to free ourselves. My interest in anti-racism is passing. My interest in black people is essential.
As much as I am sympathetic to Ta-Nehisi’s aversion to focusing on anti-racism, I think he is a little too quick to divorce anti-racism from the broader struggle for the practical interests of black people. That is, if you were going to translate “practical interests of black people” into a legislative program, it would look pretty similar to the platform liberals have been pushing for the better part of a century: universal health care, robust public education, and generous income supports (EITC, unemployment benefits, welfare, etc.). And so when Obama says that we should connect the practical issues of African-Americans to those of the country, what he means – really – is the opposite: the practical issues of the country are those of black people; and programs designed to benefit the country at large will also benefit (maybe even disproportionately) black people.
But here is where anti-racism and public policy is directly connected. It’s not just that racial prejudice makes it incredibly difficult to pass legislation that directly addresses problems within minority communities – no, racial prejudice makes it incredibly difficult to pass legislation which directly benefits the majority of Americans. And most of us know this. The easiest way to sink an expansion of the welfare state is by attacking it as a give away to African-Americans (or more recently, Hispanic immigrants). Political scientists have consistently shown that latent prejudice can be “primed” and channeled into a generalized opposition to almost any kind of social spending. Indeed, the positive relationship between high levels of “racial conservatism” and opposition to the welfare state is one of the closest things to received wisdom that you can find in political science.
More importantly, however, is the fact that actively calling out a racial appeal can serve to defuse its power. Tali Mendelberg addresses this with considerable detail in her book The Race Card, but it suffices to say that a large part of the power of racial appeals stems from their subtlety. No one likes to think of themselves as a racist, or even as someone who harbors racial prejudice, and a skillful racial appeal takes account of this by offering a plausible non-racial narrative. If someone makes the racial narrative explicit (which isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds), it is possible to defuse the appeal, and make its intended targets inclined to reject it.
Insofar that the “anti-racism project” is important, it’s precisely because stopping (or diminishing the force of) racial appeals is an integral part of building support for greater social spending and greater investment in underprivileged communities. That’s not to say that we should devote much – or any – of our time to the Don Imus’ and Rush Limbaughs of the world, but that advancing the practical interests of the country, and thus the practical interests of black people, requires us to spend real time and devote real energy to pushing against racially negative language and racially negative narratives.