Conservatism does not equal racism. So why do many liberals assume it does?

Gerard Alexander
Washington Post
9/12/2010

From an immigration law in Arizona to a planned mosque near Ground Zero to Glenn Beck emoting at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the controversies roiling American politics in recent weeks and months have featured an ugly undertone, suggesting meanness, prejudice and, in the eyes of some, outright racism. And it is conservatives — whether Republican politicians, Fox News commentators or members of the “tea party” movement — who are invariably painted with that brush.

There is power in the accusation of racism against conservatives, one that liberals understand well. In an April 2008 post on Journolist, a private online community for liberal journalists, academics and activists, one writer proposed a way to distract conservatives from the campaign controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s pastor. “If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us,” Spencer Ackerman wrote. “Instead, take one of them — Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.”…

…After the mid-1970s, school desegregation and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act faded as the most decisive — or divisive — racial issues in the country. In the decades that followed, the conservative policy platform became the new focus of liberal cries of racism. Critics such as Thomas and Mary Edsall interpreted the Reagan agenda’s major elements as indirect attempts to maintain white privilege: Tax cuts denied resources to a government that could be an agent of social change and lift up the underprivileged. Calls to limit government, especially federal power, stood to do the same. Reagan’s attacks on “welfare queens” emphasized negative images of minorities and ultimately helped end an entitlement for the neediest. Campaigns against crime refreshed stereotypes of threatening African Americans and imprisoned millions along the way. Criticism of affirmative action assaulted a major mechanism of workplace advancement for minorities and women.

These policy positions remain central to the conservative domestic agenda, but calling them racist, the third assumption, presumes something very strange: that conservatives do not mean what they say about them. Welfare reform is deliberately anti-black (or anti-minority or anti-poor) only if conservatives secretly believe that welfare actually does help its beneficiaries and are being deceitful when they argue that long-term dependency devastates inner-city communities. Tax cuts are part of a racist agenda only if conservatives do not believe that lower taxes will enhance economic growth and social mobility for all. Conservative opposition to raising the minimum wage is anti-poor only if free-marketeers are feigning concern that increases will price less-skilled people out of the workforce (as when Milton Friedman called the minimum wage “one of the most . . . anti-black laws on the statute books”) and secretly agree with liberals that increases will benefit the working poor over the long term…

…Conservatives have taken the lead in two major recent controversies: opposition to a planned Islamic center near Ground Zero and support for Arizona’s law requiring immigrants to carry their papers and requiring police to question those they suspect of being here illegally. Liberal critics swiftly labeled both positions bigotry: Islamophobia and prejudice against immigrants from Latin America. To these critics, the racial resentment of past decades has simply been expanded into a more generalized prejudice against racial and religious minorities.

Of course, conservatives don’t see it that way. A long-held conservative belief holds that a minimal amount of shared cultural content is required for a healthy American society. This content includes an understanding of the nation’s history and virtues, including the opportunity and social mobility it has offered so many. This helps explain, for instance, why conservatives were long skeptical of bilingual education, suspecting that it slowed assimilation. They have logically been concerned about large numbers of immigrants whose presence in the United States is often transitory and whose relationship with the country is purely economic. And they have been cautious about high levels of even legal immigration when it involves people who arrive in large enough numbers and in a concentrated enough time and place to create zones in which pressures to assimilate are mitigated…

…Liberal interpretations that portray modern conservatism as standing athwart the “rights revolution” of the 1960s are hard pressed to explain the growing number of minority and female candidates favored by the conservative rank and file. Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, Tim Scott, Ryan Frazier, Raul Labrador and Jaime Herrera are GOP nominees for the Senate, governorships and the House because Republican voters preferred them over their white opponents. Allen West in Florida and Jon Barela in New Mexico were the consensus GOP choices to run for competitive House seats. Many of these candidates are well-positioned to win their races and help change the public face of modern conservatism…

Read the entire article at the Washington Post.

H/T The Dennis Miller Radio Show

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