In his recent article about the surge in Racial Resentment during the age of Obama, Jonathan Chait could have spared readers the torture of seeing him contort himself into a beltway “both-sides-do-it” pretzel, if he had asked himself one simple question: — “Who is profiting from racial resentment in the Age of Obama?”.
That fundamental question would have trucked him out of the airy parlor of abstract debate and beltway media myopia where “policy” amounts to wealthy talking heads from left, right and 3rd Way trading barbs on TV, and out into the trail of the billionaire-backed conservative wrecking ball that is stripping minorities of voting rights, women of reproductive rights, blocking millions from access to Medicaid, profiting off criminalized black bodies warehoused in for-profit prisons, eroding workers’ rights in the name of coddling corporations as “job creators,” erasing the history of minority oppression from textbooks and classrooms, and so on.
On that trail he would have discovered how those conservative interests are cynically using President Obama and minorities as Rorschach Tests to whip up latent bigotries in order to further their corporate and fundamentalist religious goals, the bulk of which are actually detrimental to those very people whose bigotries they are whipping up. Racial resentment would not exist in its myriad forms if there was no market for it. To understand its lucrative purchase is to seek out who profits from it, and above all who runs the market.
Why look at profit? That’s because “Race” and its derivatives “Racism”, “Racialism”, “Racial Resentment,” have no intrinsic value outside of economics. They are social constructs rooted in the need to justify profit off human bodies by assigning hierarchical meaning to visible physical differences. Race in American history never made logical or scientific sense except as an excuse after the fact, to stitch meaning out of the yawning gap between philosophical ideals that “all men are created equal” and the greed impulse to make money. Except, the consequences have been brutal to people of color. It birthed an ugly history of physical oppression and many forms of structural inequality.
Draft Rioters lynching African Americans on Clarkson Street, NYC, July 13, 1863, Source: Dickinson College
If slavery required the racialization of black bodies to ensure profit, it also subsequently required the racialization of the disparate peoples of European descent of varying fortunes into one monolithic “White” category to act as bulwark and maintain the social hierarchy. But what did “whiteness” mean if anything for those who did not own property or human chattel and were struggling to stay alive just like people of color? Enter “Racial Resentment” as a tool perfected for whipping up populism. President Andrew Jackson perfected it to serve territory-grabbing ends against Native Americans. But people, white, black or brown cannot always be hoodwinked into acting against their own rational economic interest, no matter their religious, tribal, or cultural allegiances.
There have been bull and bear markets for racial resentment especially since the end of the Civil War. There are periods of growth spurts such as we live in now of economic uncertainty, and periods of waning. Thus powerful interests are always on the prowl to exploit anything that divides and conquers the ranks of the ordinary people, often masking their agenda under nebulous and lofty disguises such as: values, freedom, tradition, real™ America.
As a commodity, Racial Resentment has no intrinsic value of its own save the utility that the profiteers derive from it. If it didn’t exist some other currency would be invented to profit off human differences and to maintain social control. Besides, it is not as if the conservatives are hiding their agenda. They have told us loud and clear what they are doing. Recent exhibit? Charles Koch’s smarmy term “collectivism” in his WSJ op-ed, or Art Pope’s radical control of North Carolina’s government as “budget director,” Or Mitt Romney’s insulting barb that President Obama won because he gave “gifts” to minorities women and young Americans, Paul Ryan’s Dickensian budget and quip about “lazy inner city males”, etc. Yet Chait bends over backward to argue that there is an equivalent use of race among liberals?