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Hillary Clinton's recent racially-charged comments could mean any number of different things, none of them especially good. However, what she intended to say about her own attitudes is perhaps less important than what she ultimately said about the state of racial relations in America: they aren't nearly so good as most white Americans tend to assume. Insofar as the latter gets overshadowed by the former, the discussion about race in America is actually set back.
It's common for whites to insist that America has become "color blind," but the assumption of color blindness is itself a prerogative of racial privilege. Minorities can't afford to ignore race because racial disparities and discrimination infuse so much of what they experience. Whites, on the other hand, can ignore race because so much of American society is set up to benefit themselves and their families.
One of the hallmarks of privilege is that one's own background, assumptions, and ways of doing thing become the "norm" against which everything else is judged. White privilege is thus asserted through the ways in which white interests, white voting patterns, and white political goals dominate public debate. The interests, needs, and experiences of others are either ignored or deemed inferior insofar as they fail to meet white expectations. This privilege is unconscious in that whites typically see these norms as universal rather than being determined in any way by their race.
Many of the unstated assumptions that lie behind white privilege in America can actually be found lurking in Hillary Clinton's statement:
“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article “that found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.”
“There’s a pattern emerging here,” she said.
Yes, and that pattern is the way in which everything that's good tends to be associated with whites while everything that's negative is associated with minorities. Here, Clinton associates honesty, having a job, and being hard-working with whiteness, which by implication associates dishonesty, unemployment, and laziness with being non-white. It's not a coincidence that being lazy and/or unemployed are common stereotypes that are attributed to minorities like blacks and Hispanics. Exactly these sorts of code words have been used for decades by racist Republicans who knew better than to express their racism openly or directly.
It's not likely that Hillary Clinton really believes that non-whites are all lazy and unemployed, but it's also not likely that this "poor" wording would have so easily rolled off her lips if it weren't for the influence of negative stereotypes and her own racial privileges. This is thus less about her personally and her own beliefs than it is about the insidious influence of racial privilege in America, even among otherwise very progressive and non-racist whites. No matter how consciously a white person avoids racism, they can't avoid all the ways in which their race privileges them or how that privilege will affect unconscious attitudes towards minorities.
It's also about the existence of a great deal of overt racism and white supremacism in America — not just among far-right Republicans, but among otherwise reliable Democratic voters. Formal surveys and informal discussions consistently reveal that there are many of white Democrats who won't vote for Barack Obama simply because he's black. When Hillary Clinton talks about having the support of white people, she's ultimately — and I hope inadvertently — pointing out that she has the support of white racists and scared white people.
Pundits and journalists have had a lot to say about racial factors in this presidential race, but they've also avoided any genuinely substantive examination of it. Hillary Clinton's comment provides the perfect opportunity to change that because it really takes the lid off a nasty barrel of toxic sludge. It's a chance to look hard at how much conscious, deliberate racism exists even among Democrats, to ask why it still exists, and to talk about what can be done to combat it. I don't expect, though, our "liberal" and "serious" media to directly address the issues she inadvertently raised.
No one is going to talk about why even progressive, liberal Democrats can end up using racist code words. No one is going to talk about how many racists and white supremacists there are in the Democratic party — people who will refuse to put a black man in power. No one is going to talk about how both subtle, unconscious racial privileges and overt racist thinking continue to infect politics, culture, and society on every level. None of this is helpful to those in power who want to keep telling us that we live in a formally "color blind" nation.
Not only would substantive discussion of racial privilege threaten the power of privileged white people, but it would open the door to discussion about other forms of unjust privilege in America: male privilege, heterosexual privilege, religious privilege, Christian privilege, capitalist privilege, etc. Entire systems of power and authority would come into serious question, and those in power — including the "liberal" media — have too much invested in the status quo to allow that to happen.
Ironically, Obama's success thus far helps perpetuate that narrative and perpetuate the assumption that racism is basically dead in America. It's not dead. It's not even in bed with a cold. We've just found ways to turn our heads and avoid looking at it, pretending that the success of a single black man in politics means that all the indignities, tribulations, and problems experienced by racial minorities throughout America don't really exist.
It's true, of course, that Obama's success is a sign of how far we've come, but it's also arguably a sign of how far we have to go. Close your eyes to the color of his skin for a moment and ponder just how far his words and ideas really pose a challenge or threat to white privilege in America. To what extent has he challenged or will he challenge the unconscious assumptions that everything "white" is normal, expected, and good? To what extent will white people congratulate themselves on not being racist simply because they voted for a black man and thus not be forced to look at ways in which their race privileges them in their day-to-day lives? If he's elected, how many white people will say "See? This proves America isn't racist!"
Those are hard questions, and they aren't really meant as an attack on Obama himself. Open, direct, and unambiguous attacks on white privilege would ensure that he would never get elected. Of course, the man with the best chance at being the first black president of the United States has light skin, racially ambiguous features, close-cropped hair, and a very educated voice. He scares a lot of white people simply because he is black, but he's not so black that he scares too many.
He's safe. If you saw him coming the other way on the sidewalk, you might not even be tempted to cross to the other side of the street. I'll bet, though, that he'd be charged a higher interest rate on a mortgage or car loan, that if he called about an apartment for rent it would suddenly be taken, that his name on a job application would make it less appealing than a less-qualified white candidate, and so forth. Those are the tests for real change in American racial relations.