How Much Does ‘Racial Ideology’ Matter If Racism Still Persists?

From left to right: Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Governor Ralph Northam, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.
From left to right: Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Governor Ralph Northam, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. Photo: Steve Helber/AP

Eric Kaufmann on Monday published an opinion piece in the New York Times arguing that Americans are not divided by “race,” but by “racial ideology.” This is an odd formulation, although not an incorrect one: People’s views on racism are indeed important insofar as they shape attitudes and policies.

But Kaufmann seems less concerned with racism’s material impact — on wealth gaps, education access, incarceration rates, and so on — than on different people’s opinions regarding what is and isn’t racist. His specific focus is on how Americans answer questions like, “Should [Ralph] Northam resign?” and “Is [Trump’s] border wall racist?” The evidence fueling his thesis — that “race” divides Americans less that “racial ideology” — is that people’s answers to these questions are determined not by their racial categorization, but by what they believe about race and racism, which can differ as much among black Americans as it does between, say, black and white Americans.

Kaufmann is optimistic about the implications of his findings. “[It’s] a good thing for the country’s unity,” he writes, “because ideological differences, however lamentable, are less polarizing than racial conflict, in which whole communities mobilize against an enemy.”

The rest of us should be less so. Two reasons stand out: First, racism has never required the kind of mass mobilization that Kaufmann describes to achieve its ends; acquiescence to systems already in motion suffices. Second, a version of the “ideological divide” that Kaufmann describes — between hard-line white bigots, more sympathetic whites, and nonwhites of varying orientations forced to navigate the spaces outside and in between — has existed for centuries, without resulting in fundamental changes to America’s racist hierarchies: White supremacy still rules the day.

Kaufmann’s Northam example highlights the shortcomings of his analysis. To recap, the Democratic governor of Virginia in February was reported to have appeared in a racist yearbook photograph. The image, published in 1984 and presumably captured not long before, depicts a person in blackface at a party next to a person in Ku Klux Klan garb. Northam initially admitted to, and apologized for, appearing in the photo — which was printed on his personal medical school yearbook page — but did an about-face the next day, abruptly denying having appeared in it at all. The damage seemed to have been done. Democratic lawmakers at both the local and national levels called for Northam to resign. But he declined, and perhaps improbably, today seems to have weathered the storm.

The strongest evidence that Northam’s decision was politically astute was that he had a majority of black Virginians in his corner, according to polls. Kaufmann cites one of these polls in his op-ed — taken from the Washington Post — indicating that 48 percent of white Virginians thought Northam should stay in office, as compared to a majority of black Virginians, at 60 percent. These findings might seem counterintuitive: One would assume that black Virginians would be more repulsed by Northam’s bigoted behavior than their white counterparts, and thus support his resignation more strongly. But this is the problem with drawing sweeping conclusions about ideology from polling where ideology seems apparent, but, in fact, is explored only shallowly. There are several scenarios where black support for Northam makes pragmatic sense — while simultaneously saying nothing illuminating about how black or white Virginians feel about racism more broadly.

The stakes of resignation in February, after all, were not just Northam’s political career. Black Virginians had good reason to fear the state falling under the control of Republicans — the party of voter suppression, racist gerrymanders, and Donald Trump. Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was facing sexual-assault accusations and Attorney General Mark Herring had his own blackface debacle alongside Northam’s. Had all three resigned, the top three Democrats in the gubernatorial line of succession would have been depleted, leaving the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates to run the state.

A person’s answer to the question “Should Northam resign,” is not a pure measure of how racist they think blackface is, as Kaufmann implies — it is the result of a pragmatic political calculation. Indeed, some white people may be more “progressive” on subjects of “racial ideology” than many black people, depending on how one defines the terms. But black Americans have also rarely had the luxury of taking for granted their self-preservation. Sometimes the result is a betrayal of “progress,” as it is commonly understood. Failing to pursue a universal armed revolt against slavery, for example, was arguably not the most “progressive” choice that enslaved black Africans and Americans could have made — but it was the choice that allowed many more of them to survive than would have perished in retaliatory massacres.

That people within the same racial category are driven to differing degrees by self-interest and self-preservation — real or imagined — or even by delusion, is no surprise. (The Post poll does not differentiate between white Democrats and Republicans, the latter of whom had a clear interest in Northam’s resignation that had nothing to do with antiracism, thus skewing the results.) Even Kaufmann’s measures that seem less tied to political calculus and more rooted in principle — questions about how people rate members of other racial groups in terms of esteem, for example, or whether increased “diversity” is a good or bad thing — are often conditional. Research has demonstrated that liberal white attitudes can shift when social precarity is introduced into the equation. Measures to integrate black and white public school children have found some of their more vocal opponents in liberal Brooklyn, New York. White Americans’ support for government welfare programs tends to decrease when they see data suggesting that their numerical and financial dominance is declining relative to nonwhites’.

The notion that mere ideological differences are cause for optimism is unconvincing, as such. If the kind of race war that Kaufmann alludes to was the risk here, one would imagine a different racial alignment defining historical moments like the Civil War, or the civil-rights movement. Yet despite both conflicts having been waged largely over the liberties of black Americans — dividing white Americans in the process — neither succeeded in upending the racist hierarchy that kept blacks on the bottom rung. The overwhelming resilience of white supremacy and Americans’ willingness to invest and reinvest in it, often regardless of their own racial categorization, or intentions, is the reason why. The case for optimism on this front is the same now as it has been since time immemorial. Some white Americans proudly flaunt their stake in white supremacy; others are willing to think more critically and challenge it. But however the cards fall, it is clearer by the day that racism’s persistence — and the material “divides” it causes in everyday life — should worry Americans far more than Kaufmann’s case for optimism should encourage them.

How Much Does ‘Racial Ideology’ Matter If Racism Persists?