We've all heard any number of right-wing "libertarians" who cling to the fantasy that the magic of the marketplace would eventually magically erase racial discrimination as a business practice, if only we would let it work. That's why you'll
May 25, 2011

We've all heard any number of right-wing "libertarians" who cling to the fantasy that the magic of the marketplace would eventually magically erase racial discrimination as a business practice, if only we would let it work.

That's why you'll hear Ron Paul ardently contend that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was bad law, since it forced private business owners to cease discriminating on the basis of race. It's how a guy like John Stossel can argue with a straight face that if there hadn't been any government loans at all, black farmers wouldn't have been discriminated against.

Of course, what really happens when modern business owners engage in open displays of bigotry is a very different dynamic:

  • First, they attract attention to their previously anonymous business.
  • When news gets around, they are interviewed by right-wing talk-show hosts and their story featured by all varieties of right-wing apologists, employing a variety of shopworn rationales (i.e., they are pals with all kinds of minorities, it's not intended to discourage minorities, it's just a straight business practice, blah blah blah).
  • -- Then their business gets a huge boost from white customers who flock to the place in support as a kind of racial political statement.
  • Eventually they get an appearance on Fox News and perhaps CNN and become mini-national celebrities, and their businesses prosper even more wildly.

You can see that dynamic at work in the case of the Reedy Creek Family Diner in Lexington, N.C., where the owner -- frustrated by some failed and angry interactions with Latino customers who spoke no English -- post a sign declaring: "No Speak English, No Service".

Sure enough, soon its owner -- an amiable-seeming fellow named Greg Simons -- was being interviewed by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and putting the sign back up after initially taking it down. Then writers like Esther Cepeda chimed in, describing it all as just a misunderstanding:

He says he never meant to imply that people who don't speak English fluently are not welcome in his restaurant or that such diners would be denied service if some other language was spoken at the table. He just wanted patrons to know that his staff is monolingual.

Simons' story is that a few weeks ago, on separate occasions, two different groups of Spanish-only speakers came into his Southern comfort food restaurant. Despite his best efforts at pointing and miming, he could not take their order. In both cases, the frustrated diners left in a torrent of Spanish-language cussing, which Simons recognized as a snub because, as the great-grandson of French Canadian and Swedish immigrants, he knows “enough French and Spanish to know when I'm being insulted.”

That's when Simons put up the sign. First, ironically, just in English and then in the five other languages, so as to not single out any particular ethnic group in a state that has seen its Latino population explode by 111 percent in the last decade to total 8.4 percent.

Once the media firestorm began, Simons, who describes himself as a multiculturally aware guy who dates women of other races and maintains friendships with Latinos and other minorities, says he got a handful of nasty calls, including a bomb threat. He was then humbled by an outpouring of support from people who were angered that anyone would be labeled a racist for demanding communication in English.

I'm sorry, but a sign declaring "No Speak English, No Service" is a sign declaring non-English speakers unwelcome in any language -- and no amount of mealy-mouthed weasel words can alter that fact. Nor can a handful of the most stereotypically vapid excuses -- "Some of my best friends are Latinos".

But notice how the libertarian "post racial" fantasy doesn't exactly work out? Instead of this business owner being shamed and suffering a loss of business, the right-wing need to declare that liberals are "waving the bloody shirt" any time they attempt to hold people responsible for their bigoted speech actually ensures that these people not only won't be hurt, they will prosper tremendously for it. (Tim Wise has another example of this.)

Moreover, such is the state of modern conservatism that it thoroughly embraces these libertarian "post-racial" fantasies about how all would be swell if we just let capitalism work its magic, now that everyone knows that ethnic, religious and sexual bigotry are bad things -- even in the face of overwhelming factual evidence, both historical and current, that just the opposite is true: Bigotry can be very a lucrative way of doing business.

It can also be a very powerful political strategy when tendered with dog whistles and subtle racial appeals -- particularly to white Americans' fears that they are being racially overwhelmed. An anonymous member of Congress who writes for Huffington Post under the nom de plume "Anonymous Radicalized Marginal Democratic House Member" expressed this vividly the other day when explaining why Democrats have been so impotent when it comes to moving any kind of immigration legislation forward:

"Easy: because desperate Republicans two years ago had to swap dog whistles for bull horns to reach their virulent nativist base voters, and now nativism has become a litmus test for Republicans.

"Anti-immigrant groups were building blocks of the Tea Party. Tea Party Republicans foam at the mouth when they have to press one for English.They want to arrest and deport anyone buying Tecate beer with cash at WalMart. It's the culture, stupid."

Indeed, just the other day, Science Daily reported on a study finding that whites now believe they are the victims of racism more than blacks!

Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America, according to a new study from researchers at Tufts University's School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. The findings, say the authors, show that America has not achieved the "post-racial" society that some predicted in the wake of Barack Obama's election.

Both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last 60 years, according to the study. However, whites believe that anti-white racism has increased and is now a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

"It's a pretty surprising finding when you think of the wide range of disparities that still exist in society, most of which show black Americans with worse outcomes than whites in areas such as income, home ownership, health and employment," said Tufts Associate Professor of Psychology Samuel Sommers, Ph.D., co-author of "Whites See Racism as a Zero-sum Game that They Are Now Losing," which appears in the May 2011 issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Sommers and co-author Michael I. Norton of Harvard asked a nation-wide sample of 208 blacks and 209 whites to indicate the extent to which they felt blacks and whites were the targets of discrimination in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. A scale of 1 to 10 was used, with 1 being "not at all" and 10 being "very much."

White and black estimates of bias in the 1950s were similar. Both groups acknowledged little racism against whites at that time but substantial racism against blacks. Respondents also generally agreed that racism against blacks has decreased over time, although whites believed it has declined faster than blacks do.

However, whites believed that racism against whites has increased significantly as racism against blacks has decreased. On average, whites rated anti-white bias as more prevalent in the 2000s than anti-black bias by more than a full point on the 10-point scale. Moreover, some 11 percent of whites gave anti-white bias the maximum rating of 10 compared to only 2 percent of whites who rated anti-black bias a 10. Blacks, however, reported only a modest increase in their perceptions of "reverse racism."

"These data are the first to demonstrate that not only do whites think more progress has been made toward equality than do blacks, but whites also now believe that this progress is linked to a new inequality -- at their expense," note Norton and Sommers. Whites see racial equality as a zero sum game, in which gains for one group mean losses for the other.

You can read the entire study here. [PDF]

This is part of a mindset that has been cultivated by -- indeed, it seems endemic to -- conservatives: namely, that race is a zero-sum game. It was expressed perhaps most succinctly by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions when he was accusing Sonia Sotomayor of being prejudiced (with nary a whiff of irony):

Call it empathy, call it prejudice, or call it sympathy, but whatever it is, it's not law. In truth it's more akin to politics, and politics has no place in the courtroom.

... That is, of course, the logical flaw in the empathy standard. Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.

As long as one of our major political parties is the host and breeding ground of this kind of worldview, there's going to be a racial divide in this country. And liberals who want to grasp onto the starry-eyed fantasies of "post racial" politics had better figure that out too.

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