How Conservative Myths Stoke Racial Fear

In the twisted right-wing version of history, whites are bias victims. Meanwhile, the poor get stiffed.

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Michele Bachmann signs an autograph at a rally in August in South Carolina.
(Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

Many Americans are struck by how politics has taken such a sharp turn toward the openly racist since the election of the nation's first black president. Some Republicans have distributed cartoons depicting watermelon patches growing at the White House, and the president smiling with fried chicken and barbecue. One prominent South Carolina GOP activist even called the first lady a gorilla.

But I am also struck by how much the right has relied on outright fabrication of the country's history by insisting that institutionalized racism hardly ever existed. The right generally insists that white racism has no real effect on people's lives in the U.S., while exploiting racial fears and pernicious racial stereotypes with coded and not-so-coded language. The only "discrimination" is that directed against whites, pundits often argue. In fact, white Americans in general believe that whites suffer more discrimination today than African Americans do, according to a study released this May.

Many whites believe that blacks are hired and promoted and get home loans easier than whites because of "racial preferences." Some even argue that the criminal justice system is soft on black people. One white nationalist website complains that because of the civil rights movement, "all [black criminals] have to worry about is a slap on the wrist from a judicial system that couldn't care less about White victims."

What is remarkable about these "facts" is how far they are from the truth. Studies find that with identical résumés, those with "white sounding" names have a 50 percent higher response rate from prospective employees than do those with "black sounding" names. Whites on average outearn Latinos and blacks, with or without controlling for education.

Since the Great Recession, average white net wealth has increased to 18 times that of Latinos and 20 times that of African Americans. The Latino unemployment rate is about 40 percent that of whites, while the African-American rate is 100 percent higher. Whites and blacks consume illegal drugs at similar rates, but whites are less likely than blacks to be stopped by the police, arrested or convicted -- or to receive prison time once convicted -- even for first-time offenders of the same crime.

Michele Bachmann, Master Manipulator

So what accounts for this wildly inaccurate worldview of white racial subjugation and black domination? How can it be argued that "minorities are taking over"? Part of this paranoia is grounded in the ways in which the right cultivates a mythic landscape of current racial politics, as well as the careful -- or careless -- manipulation of history. One of the master manipulators is GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

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Earlier this year she told an audience that the United States, at its founding, was a bastion of fairness and opportunity for "different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions." She went on to say (in an awkward sort of way) that the U.S. was a "resting point from people groups all across the world. It didn't matter the color of their skin ... [or] language ... or economic status." She was on a roll: "Once you got here, we were all the same." Even assuming that she was talking only about the men, I still say, uh, no.

But wait; what about slavery? Her answer: "The very founders that wrote [the Constitution] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more." Hmmm. Wrong again. In fact, not only did the Founding Fathers not work tirelessly to end slavery, but most were wealthy because of slavery. More than half of them amassed great wealth on the backs of the thousands of people whom they enslaved.

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