Ignorance is usually thought of as the passive obverse of knowledge, the darkness retreating before the spread of Enlightenment. But… Imagine an ignorance that resists. Imagine an ignorance that fights back. Imagine an ignorance militant, aggressive, not to be intimidated, an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go quietly — not at all confined to the illiterate and uneducated but propagated at the highest levels of the land, indeed presenting itself unblushingly as knowledge…
— Charles W. Mills
By: Edward-Yemil Rosario
I have a confession to make: I’m not circumcised…
Yes, I have an aardvark. My Willie has a ‘hood. I mention this particular tidbit of (admittedly TMI) information not because I’m trying to be vulgar, or indulging myself, but because I’ve just realized that if I were to run for president, the state of Arizona would most likely not deem my run legitimate.
Really. I. Kid. You. Not.
Arizona, that great American experiment in political consanguinity, had deliberated and passed a “birther bill” which listed several documents necessary for proof of citizenship. One of these was, yes, you guessed it, Virginia: a certificate of circumcision.
In what can only be characterized as an isolated moment of lucidity floundering in an otherwise roiling sea of stupidity, Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the bill. Some say her epiphany was a direct result of having a cattle prod shoved up her wrinkled ass, but I don’t know…
Seriously, I am loathe to wade into something as idiotic as the birther issue, but it can’t be helped. Just the other day, Obama, who had already given more than enough proof of his legitimacy, released the “long form” version of his birth certificate despite the fact that the birth certificate he had released years ago is considered prima facie evidence of his birth.
But my interest isn’t debating about President Obama’s “legitimacy.” Rather, my interest lies in using the birther issue as a jumping off point to explore the undercurrent racism that drives US conservatism .I’m sure there are more theories about the “usurpation” that will replace the birth certificate issue. This is racism, pure and simple — it’s classic racism. The cognitive motivation behind their defense of a primitive belief that this man is not a legally elected president is based on a core fundamental conservative belief that a “real” American is by definition a white, Christian conservative. There’s no way they will ever be able to square the idea that a black center/ right Democrat could legitimately represent a majority the American people. And, by Jeebus (!!), they will rewrite history and the constitution if they have to in order to make that case.
President While Black
The reality is that there are many who will never accept a black in a position of authority and countless others, who though find birther “reasoning” laughable will resist admitting that the right is a manifestation of racism. This is the form of “ignorance” alluded to by Mills. It’s an active racism, a “racial contract” wherein those who benefit most agree to remain ignorant of its effects. I find it utterly idiotic to suggest that the only president to ever have his legitimacy questioned has nothing to do with his skin color. Obama releasing his long form birth certificate (which will do nothing to quell the racism) is commensurate to driving while black. We’ve all heard of the practice of African Americans being stopped on our nation’s highways for no other reason than because they are black. I have an African American friend, a lawyer, who drives a beautiful sports car, who is stopped at least once a week.
There’s a corollary with Obama. It’s as if he’s earned his ride (the presidency) fair and square, but huge swaths of whites don’t like the spectacle of him driving that gorgeous car. If this were the Jim Crow era, it would be expressed: The nigger doesn’t know his place, so there is a demand for “papers.” This happens with regularity in black and brown neighborhoods across the nation. It’s been happening for centuries: “What are you doing here, boy?!!”
This virulent form of ignorance is found even in people who claim to be liberal or progressive. In addition to the many birthers (a plurality of registered republicans and right leaning independents subscribe to the conspiracy theory), there are those with a less extreme bent who belittle them, but deny racism is the mitigating factor. I heard one such person claim that the “right hates everyone equally. It has little to do with racism.”
Yet when looked at from an empirical standpoint, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, one recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that “Whites who were prejudiced against Blacks were more likely to see Obama as un-American, and in turn, evaluated Obama as performing more poorly as president. Whites who were not prejudiced, and Blacks in general, did not do so. Additionally and importantly, this relationship was only found with Obama, as prejudiced Whites did not see Vice-President Joe Biden as un-American, despite the fact that Obama and Biden share political party affiliation and agenda.” [emphasis added] So the white guy gets a pass though he’s perceived as a liberal? US conservatism historically has been hostile to civil rights struggles. Today, racial prejudice is often manifested in subtle, indirect forms of bias. Due to prevailing norms of equality, most Whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of Blacks because of concern regarding social censure. Consequently, Whites’ prejudice is more likely to be expressed in discriminatory responses when these actions can be justified by other factors.” You can see this at play in conservative talking points. In fact, modern US conservatism is a predicated on a series of white backlashes to gains made by marginalized people, reaching full development by the time Reagan was elected into office and is more racially virulent today.
The study cited previously only reinforces a large body of previously conducted studies on conservatism. As I have reported before, at the core of political conservatism is resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, with some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism including:
- Fear and aggression
- Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity Uncertainty avoidance
- Need for cognitive closure
- Terror management
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
This ignorance is so pervasive, working-class white Americans often vote against their own economic interests because of it. We all have theories about why right-wing whites are so easily duped by their corporate manipulators, most ranging from noting their stupidity to — well, noting their stupidity. That observation is facile and overly simplistic. There are a significant number of whites (and a lesser number of dark-skinned conservatives) who aren’t stupid who vote against their self-interests. In order to adequately understand this phenomenon, one has to return to Mills’ construct of an “epistemology of ignorance.” It’s not a passive ignorance, or a simple gap in knowledge, it is a silent agreement to ignore aspects of reality. The fact is that the reason why white Americans don’t care about income and wealth inequality is because they have been convinced to believe that Blacks and other people of color resent their whiteness. Tune in to Limbaugh (or any conservative talk show host) on any given day, and you’ll hear him consistently pounding away at that. This is how something like health-care reform is easily adapted to wage the culture war: It’s “big government” and that can only mean taking money from hardworking white people (“real” Americans) and giving it to undeserving, shiftless black people (the Other). That’s why Limbaugh and his kind so often refer to health-care reform as “reparations.” Obama is an angry black man who ants to stick it to white people in vengeance for slavery and discrimination. This is why you see all those angry teabaggers with signs saying, “I want my country back.”
One study reports that “opinions and beliefs about the poor differ sharply between the United States and Europe. In Europe the poor are generally thought to be unfortunate, but not personally responsible for their own condition. For example, according to the World Values Survey, whereas 70% of Germans express the belief that people are poor because of imperfections in society, not their own laziness, 70% of Americans hold the opposite view. In addition, 71% of Americans but only 40% of Europeans believe poor people could work their way out of poverty.”
The researchers conclude, “… Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution.”
It’s important to recognize the different standard applied to President Obama because he’s the first black president. Obama has a political complication that no other president has faced. I personally do not agree with many of Obama’s policy decisions. His positions are so far to the right, the right has to act the crazy just to differentiate themselves. It’s beyond ironic that he’s perceived as a liberal to those too blind to see. Birthers and those on the right serve as a distraction to the really important tissue here: It’s important to recognize that progressivism itself is opposed for many of the same fundamental reasons. Historical opposition to the welfare state was always largely been motivated by racism and so progressive ideals, which promote the welfare state and equal rights is suspect as well. There’s much more at stake here.
And that’s it in a nutshell. Therein lies the cognitive motivation for birthers superficially and conservatives in general. Race is America’s deepest psychic lesion. It is the festering, running wound of Langston Hughes’ iconic poem: and it festers again… and again. And while racism has lost much of its original blistering heat, it is still there, buried and waiting to explode.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…