So much for having a national conversation about race.
Conservative commentators claimed they'd welcome an honest discussion about the thorny issue in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. But within moments last week of President Obama offering up his personal reflection about the trial and how the killing of Trayvon Martin had been viewed within the African-American community, right-wing voices responded with almost feral anger and resentment.
Among those most incensed by Obama's thoughtful reflections was Jennifer Rubin who writes for the Washington Post. She called Obama's comments “disgusting.” Furious at America's first black president for discussing the topic of race following a passionate trial verdict (he's “not a good person,” Rubin stressed), the columnist lashed out at Obama for addressing a problem she claimed is no longer even relevant to the American experience.
Lamenting that Obama's won't allow people “get out of this racial archaeology,” Rubin claimed Americans are “held prisoners forever in a past that most Americans have never personally experienced.” (Fact: “Most Americans” haven't personally experienced anti-Semitism, but that doesn't stop Rubin from crusading against what she sees as outbreaks of it.)
Rather than addressing the substance of Obama's comments about how “the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away,” Rubin simply dismissed the idea that racial prejudice has to be talked about, let alone discouraged, anymore. Like Prohibition and the Red Scare, racism apparently represents a distant chapter in America's past.
Rubin is hardly alone in her proud and public denial.
That right-wing refutation has been found on the fringes of the conservative movement for years, if not decades. And skeptics have often tried to downplay the significance of the problem, insisting that liberals use the issue to attack their political opponents. But in recent weeks, much the way the denial of global warming has become a conservative cornerstone, the blanket denial of the existence of racism has been mainstreamed and embraced as an empirical far-right truth: Racism against minorities has been relegated to America's past. It's now filed under “archeology,” as Rubin put it, something historians and academics might study one day.
Noting the dubious trend, the Chicago Tribune's Rex Huppke recently quipped that saying racism is over is the new way of saying you have 'a black friend.'
That desire to scrub racism from American society, or more precisely the desire to claim racism has been scrubbed from American society, has only accelerated since the completion of the Zimmerman trial. With a not guilty verdict in hand, commentators have used that as further proof that Zimmerman did nothing wrong the night of the killing and that the whole controversy was a case of drummed-up anger over non-existent racism.
On his Forbes.com blog, Peter Ferrara of the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative think tank, reported “racist attitudes” no longer “have any power or influence in American society.”
During an O'Reilly Factor discussion this week, National Review's Heath McDonald attacked the media for being dedicated to the “myth” that racism is “the thing holding blacks back.” On National Review's site, McDonald had dismissed as nonsense the claim that the U.S. “criminal-justice system discriminates against blacks.”
And Breitbart's John Nolte announced on Twitter, “I like living in a country where a black president elected twice complains about racism.”
Yes, that really does capture the purposefully shallow depths of the conservative debate, or “discussion,” about race: Because there are numerous rich and successful black entertainers and athletes (and one U.S. president), that confirms the claims of the racism deniers. (So says Ted Nugent.)
But the fact that the person who now sits in the Oval Office experienced being following around in stores to make sure he didn't steal things, and who heard car door locks click as he walked by, is indicative of the persistent problem of racism.
By the way, the irony here is thick: The claim that racism in America no longer exist often comes from the same right-wing sites whose comment sections for years have functioned as cauldrons of openly racist commentary and insults. (See the duplicitous ugliness here, here and here.)
Why the recent rise in deniers? Just as climate denial fits a larger political agenda, so too does the denial of racism. In the long term, the denial will likely be used as justification to wallow in even more name-calling and demagoguery by conservatives; to lash out at civil rights leaders as “race hustlers” and “pimps.” After all, they're trying to eradicate something that doesn't exist, right?
But it was the circumstances surrounding the Martin killing that forced the deniers to the forefront in the short term. As Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab wrote last year, there was “no good way for gun proponents to spin the death of an unarmed teenager.” Indeed, the Martin killing didn't fit the far right's usual narrative about violence and minorities and how white America is allegedly under physical assault from Obama's violent African-American base.
So Martin became the conservative media target and the denial charge became central to the 16-month smear campaign against the victim, portraying him as courting a death wish via his allegedly thuggish behavior.
As Michelle Goldberg wrote for Salon last year when the conservative press began blaming the unarmed teenager for being shot, “some on the right are deeply invested in the idea that anti-black racism is no longer much of a problem in the United States, and certainly not a problem on the scale of false accusations of racism.” (Goldberg dubbed these advocates “anti-anti-racists.” )
Consequently, she wrote, “If you don't want to believe that racism is a problem in the United States, it helps to believe that Martin had it coming.”
Today, a chorus of conservative voices insist racism isn't a problem and that Martin had it coming.