The question Cliven Bundy put to his audience last week—Was the black family better off as property?—is as immoral as it unoriginal. As both Adam Serwer and Jamelle Bouie point out, the roster of conservative theorists who imply that black people were better off being whipped, worked, and raped are legion. Their ranks include economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, former congressman Allen West, sitting Representative Trent Franks, singer Ted Nugent, and presidential aspirants Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.
A fair-minded reader will note that each of these conservatives is careful to not praise slavery and to note his or her disgust at the practice. This is neither distinction nor difference. Cliven Bundy's disquisition begins with a similar hedge: "We've progressed quite a bit from that day until now and we sure don't want to go back." With so little substantive difference between Bundy and other conservatives, it becomes tough to understand last week's backpedaling in any intellectually coherent way.
But style is the hero. Cliven Bundy is old, white, and male. He likes to wave an American flag while spurning the American government and pals around with the militia movement. He does not so much use the word "Negro"—which would be bad enough—but "nigra," in the manner of villain from Mississippi Burning or A Time to Kill. In short, Cliven Bundy looks, and sounds, much like what white people take racism to be.
The problem with Cliven Bundy isn't that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state's rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond's singularly segregationist candidacy.
Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.
"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," John Roberts elegantly wrote. Liberals have yet to come up with a credible retort. That is because the theories of John Roberts are prettier than the theories of most liberals. But more, it is because liberals do not understand that America has never discriminated on the basis of race (which does not exist) but on the basis of racism (which most certainly does.)
Ideologies of hatred have never required coherent definitions of the hated. Islamophobes kill Sikhs as easily as they kill Muslims. Stalin needed no consistent definition of "Kulaks" to launch a war of Dekulakization. "I decide who is a Jew," Karl Lueger said. Slaveholders decided who was a nigger and who wasn't. The decision was arbitrary. The effects are not. Ahistorical liberals—like most Americans—still believe that race invented racism, when in fact the reverse is true. The hallmark of elegant racism is the acceptance of mainstream consensus, and exploitation of all its intellectual fault lines.
Here is a lovely illustration of elegant racism:
This graph is from Robert J. Sampson's essential 2011 profile of Chicago, Great American City. Sampson's data depicts incarceration rates in the early to mid-'90s in Chicago among black (black dots) and white neighborhoods (white dots.) Increasingly, sociologists like Sampson are showing us how our brute and strained vocabulary fails to articulate the problem of racism. Conservatives and liberals frequently wonder how it could be that unequal outcomes endure for blacks and whites, even after controlling for income or "class." That is because conservatives and liberals underestimate the achievements of white supremacy and still believe that comparisons between a "black middle class" and a "white middle class" have actual meaning. In fact, black and white people—of any class—live in wholly different worlds.