If Hilary Clinton loses this election, it will be because, ideologically, she is stuck in the 1960s.
Back in the 60s, it was clear what “racism” meant: that blacks, and generally anyone other than whites, are inferior to whites. Inferior intellectually, morally, spiritually. So inferior that blacks had to be kept segregated from white communities. It was perfectly clear: if you were for segregation, you were a racist. In the 1960s, those who wanted to preserve “American culture” as fundamentally white affirmed segregation and so actively embraced racism.
But in the last 50 years, those cultural conservatives changed their tactic. They no longer linked their view of American culture as fundamentally white with segregation. Instead, they connected it to the idea that America is fundamentally a white country: a country founded by white people from Europe.
The distinction is important. Crucial.
It is the distinction between saying, “You can’t live in my house because you aren’t good enough as a human being”, and saying “You can’t live in my house because it is my house.” The former is racist. The later is not.
Many cultural conservatives in America long ago realized that making claims about racial superiority is a losing tactic – the civil rights movement was too powerful, emotionally and morally, to attack. So what they did was find another tactic, one which didn’t depend on putting down other races, as much as simply saying, “We are not judging races. We are simply saying: This is our country, founded by white people.”
As it happens, this latter tactic is also bunk. For two reasons:
First, Given that the founding of America is riddled with the issues of slavery and genocide, the issue of who counts as the founders is a deeply contested issue. It makes sense to say the white, aristocratic classes provided certain kinds of leadership and vision for the country, but the country was founded by the joint activity of whites, blacks, Native Americans, immigrants and so on.
Second, the values of the white Americans supposedly founding the country in no supports the idea of a white, Christian country. The ideas America was founded on was the ideas of the Enlightenment, which were, at least in theory, about how to create new societies freed not only of kings and popes, but also of the kind of social tyranny implicit in saying a country belongs to this or that group.
But though this tactic of saying “America is a white country” is bunk, someone who says it is not thereby racist.
Again, the home analogy is helpful. A white person might not let Indians come and live in his home, and change all the decorations in the house, and let people start speaking Telugu in the home. If a white person says to the Indians, “Stop! You can’t do that here”, that is a not a sign that the white person is racist. It could just be a sense that the white person is saying, “Hey, this is my home. If you want to be here, play by my rules!”
The way to respond to these contemporary social conservatives is not to keep hammering away the racism trope. The way is to respond to the claims of what it means for a country to belong to this or that group.
That requires giving an updated vision of a multi-cultural, pluralistic America. The social conservatives changed their tack as a result of the 60s. In response, social progressives cannot be keep repeating the same old affirmations from the 60s. They need to engage not with the memories of the 60s, but with the new approach the social conservatives are taking.
So far Hilary Clinton hasn’t taken up this challenge. She is still fighting for the civils rights movement, as if we are still under the umbrella of the 60s.
The social conservatives have come up with a post-civil rights defense of their view – one which replaces racism with claims of nativism. That is a subtle and important shift, and simply calling nativism racism isn’t a compelling response. Nativism has be addressed and critiqued in its own terms.