Conservatives Think Racism Is Dead. They’re Wrong.

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Fifty years after the March on Washington, no major faction in American life disagrees with Martin Luther King Jr. or the evil of state-sponsored racial apartheid. The terms of the racial debate have shifted massively in liberals’ favor. The conservative stance on racial questions in 2013 is vastly more benign that it was in 1963. It is not, however, completely benign.

National Review’s editorial today pithily summarizes the contemporary line of the conservative movement on civil rights. The civil-rights movement was wonderful. It even concedes, as right-wingers usually fail to do, that the old generation of conservatives wrongly opposed that movement. (“Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time.”) But it proceeds to argue the evils the civil-rights movement fought against have been "vanquished,” and those that remain are “lousy schools, a thriving drug trade and a misguided governmental response, the collapse of marriage.”

As it happens, 50 years ago, National Review made the same kinds of arguments. The terrible things that happened to black people were primarily the consequence of their own misdeeds. When white supremacists bombed a black church and killed four children, NR scolded:

The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.

Again, NR’s contemporary position is vastly less inhumane than its old one. One could even argue that NR was wrong then to blame African-Americans for their troubles but is correct to do so today. But NR’s current summary of the afflictions facing black America has some notable absences. One is the economic legacy of centuries of slavery and formal racial discrimination, which left in place a deep residential, social, and financial residue.

Another is continuing racial discrimination. There are many studies quantifying the fact that Americans still judge other people in part by the color of their skin. Conscious racial discrimination may be legally prohibited, and informal expressions of racism essentially banned from polite society, but unconscious racial stereotypes live on. A pile of studies and experiments show that black job applicants receive lower consideration than equally qualified white ones. This remains one of those findings that conservative discourse continues not to acknowledge.

NOVI, MI - MAY 3: Radio talk show host and conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh speaks at "An Evenining With Rush Limbaugh" event May 3, 2007 in Novi, Michigan. The event was sponsored by WJR radio station as part of their 85th birthday celebration festivities. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Rush Limbaugh Photo: Bill Pugliano/2007 Getty Images

It is also true, and not unrelated to the above, that conservative politics still leans heavily on the stoking of white racial paranoia. Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Fox News, and many others routinely prey upon wild, baseless white fears that President Obama is engaged in reparations, that black goons are intimidating Republicans at the polls, that Obama is ushering in an era in which black kids beat up white ones. This is not a handful of incidents. McKay Coppins documented the imaginary race war that conservative media have peddled to their audience.

The policy grounds occupied by white racial conservatives today may be overwhelmingly less brutal than those it occupied a generation ago. But conservatives and libertarians didn’t merely “miss” the logic of the civil-rights movement, the way you might miss the housing bubble. They got it wrong for reasons that continue to be blindingly obvious today.