The Banality of Racism

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Critiquing the libertarian view of racism, Jon Chait says:


The most fevered opponents of civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s -- and, for that matter, the most fervent defenders of slavery a century before -- also usually made their case in in process terms rather than racist ones. They stood for the rights of the individual, or the rights of the states, against the federal Goliath.
I think this is a really important point, as we tend to think of racism as working, primarily, through volume and violence. James Byrd is the only undisputed victim of racism in recent memory. But the poll tax, the literacy tests, the grandfather clauses were all ostensibly color-blind and were explicitly designed for their authors to hide behind that fact. It's comforting to think of, say, "State's Rights" as a value neutral, ahistorical proposition. In fact, its always been tied to the aims of white supremacists:

I consider the Tariff, but as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States, and the consequent direction, which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, have placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in opposite relation to the majority of the Union; against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the States, they must in the end be forced to rebel, or submit to have their permanent interests sacraficed, their domestick institutions subverted by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves & children reduced to wretchedness. Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interfere constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all other causes.
That's John C. Calhoun in 1830, on the eve of the nullification crisis. To be clear, "the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States, and the consequent direction, which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry" is slavery. The "Nullification Crisis" is itself a euphemism for "The Crisis Over The Stolen Wages Of Black People." A little bombastic, but you get the point.

Racists -- and those who exploit racism -- are rarely about the business of openly declaring themselves as such, especially after their cause has been thumped, Before the Civil War, you could find all manner of Southerners exalting the "great moral truth of slavery." Afterwards, they claimed it was just "State's Rights." Before Reconstruction, the defeated Confederates employed explicit black codes that reduced African-Americans to slavery. After Redemption they moved to "vagrancy laws." "contracts" and "grandfather clauses."  In the 1960s George Wallace would loudly declare "segregation forever!" Now we say "the Civil Rights Act destroyed privacy." In the era of militia madness, Ron Paul defended his racist newsletters. In the era of Barack Obama, he didn't read them.

It certainly is possible that Ron Paul never read a publications produced in his own name, just as it's possible to sincerely believe that the Civil Rights Act destroyed personal liberties, and it's possible to sincerely believe that if you are going to vote, you should be able to read the names of the candidates, or that Lincoln destroyed the original values of the republic. But it's also true that those beliefs have long been used to shield more odious ones. Forgive me for being suspicious when I see them employed in combination. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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