Race and the Church of Denialism

David Sirota August 26, 2011

President Obama remembers how great it is to be a black American. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Repub­li­can guru Karl Rove recent­ly appeared on Fox News to dis­pute the idea that Amer­i­ca is a Chris­t­ian nation” – and he was right to do so, but not because our coun­try lacks an over­ar­ch­ing canon. We cer­tain­ly do have a nation­al reli­gion – it’s just not Chris­tian­i­ty. It’s Denialism.

Today, many reject the fact that black people typically face bigger obstacles to economic and political success than whites.

Some branch­es of this reli­gion deny the sci­ence doc­u­ment­ing humans’ role in cli­mate change. Oth­ers deny tax cuts’ con­nec­tion to deficits and deregulation’s role in the reces­sion. But regard­less of the issue, Denial­ists all share a hos­til­i­ty to facts. 

As this know-noth­ing the­ol­o­gy expands, none of its denom­i­na­tions claims a big­ger mem­ber­ship than the one obsessed with race. Today, many reject the fact that black peo­ple typ­i­cal­ly face big­ger obsta­cles to eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal suc­cess than whites. Instead, they insist that whites are oppressed.

If you’ve fol­lowed pol­i­tics, you’re famil­iar with this cat­e­chism. In the 1980s, law­mak­ers often implied that wel­fare per­se­cut­ed whites. In the 1990s, the same law­mak­ers demo­nized affir­ma­tive action ini­tia­tives that tried to counter col­lege admis­sion pref­er­ences for white lega­cy” fam­i­lies. These days, dem­a­gogues cite Barack Obama’s polit­i­cal ascen­dance as sup­posed proof that black peo­ple are unfair­ly privileged. 

The late Demo­c­rat Geral­dine Fer­raro first float­ed this spe­cif­ic fable in 2008 when she said that Oba­ma was very lucky” to be black and that if Oba­ma was a white man, he would not be in (his) posi­tion.” Oba­ma right­ly not­ed that any­body who knows the his­to­ry of this coun­try … would not take too seri­ous­ly the notion that (being black) has been a huge advan­tage.” But the meme nonethe­less per­sists. In May, Rep. Joe Walsh, R‑Ill., said Obama’s elec­tion comes back to who he was: he was black.” Now, it’s Sen. Tom Coburn, R‑Okla., who last week declared that as an African Amer­i­can male,” Oba­ma received a tremen­dous advan­tage from a lot of (gov­ern­ment) programs.” 

Though Coburn’s dog-whis­tle racism is (sad­ly) mun­dane, his state­ment is news because of its timing.

In the same week the Okla­homan insin­u­at­ed that gov­ern­ment gives African Amer­i­cans a tremen­dous advan­tage,” The New York Times report­ed on data show­ing black sci­en­tists are marked­ly less like­ly” to win gov­ern­ment grants than white sci­en­tists. A few weeks ear­li­er, the Pew Research Cen­ter report­ed that the medi­an wealth of white house­holds is 20 times that of black households.”

These rep­re­sen­ta­tive snap­shots remind us that despite Denial­ist rhetoric, insti­tu­tion­al racism and white priv­i­lege dom­i­nate Amer­i­can society.

This truth is every­where. You can see it in black unem­ploy­ment rates, which are twice as high as white unem­ploy­ment rates – a dis­par­i­ty that per­sists even when con­trol­ling for edu­ca­tion lev­els. You can see it in a 2004 MIT study show­ing that job-seek­ers with white names receive 50 per­cent more call­backs for inter­views” than job seek­ers with com­pa­ra­ble resumes and African Amer­i­can sound­ing names.” And you can see it in a news media that looks like an all-white coun­try club and a U.S. Sen­ate that includes no black legislators.

Denial­ists imply that this is all negat­ed by Obama’s suc­cess. But while his rise to the Oval Office cer­tain­ly was an achieve­ment, Oba­ma was cor­rect when, upon becom­ing Har­vard Law Review’s first black pres­i­dent in 1990, he said: It’s cru­cial that peo­ple don’t see my elec­tion as some­how a sym­bol of progress in the broad­er sense, that we don’t sort of point to a Barack Oba­ma any more than you point to a Bill Cos­by or a Michael Jor­dan and say Well, things are hunky dory.’”

Of course, things aren’t hunky dory” for most peo­ple in this reces­sion – but they are par­tic­u­lar­ly awful for black Amer­i­cans. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, if you refuse to acknowl­edge that truth, there’s a whole Church of Denial­ism ready to embrace you.

David Siro­ta is an award­win­ning inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and an In These Times senior edi­tor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 cam­paign. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @davidsirota.
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