Colorblind racism is the new normal in American conservative political thought. Well after the election of the nation's first African-American president, in 2012 Republican candidates are using egregious signals and dog whistles to incite racial divisiveness as an effective tool for political gain. But when confronted about the nature of their offensive rhetoric, the answer is either an innocuous denial or dismissive retort.
It is curious that people bold enough to make outlandish racial claims never admit guilt or receive a proverbial trial and conviction by the greater populace. Paul Rosenberg, a political contributor to Al-Jazeera, recently explained that this curious phenomenon of "racism without racists" has become de facto in today's political discourse and is best described as "colorblind racism."
First explored in the book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke University, the concept explains much of the Republican strategy to defeat Barack Obama, using race as a wedge issue. Bonilla-Silva defined colorblind racism as a racial ideology that expresses itself in seemingly nonracial terms. As such, it is most practiced by people who never see themselves outside their own myopic worldview.
Last week's Fox News debate prior to the South Carolina Republican primary was an excellent example of the hubris inherent in today's racially charged, conservative environment.
All the more offensive was the fact that this debate took place on the national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. As Michael Keegan explained in the Huffington Post, "What could have been an opportunity for the candidates to express their support for the myriad advances of the civil rights movement and to address the real challenges that remain, instead turned into a mess of racially charged attacks on African Americans, immigrants and the poor."
Newt Gingrich — the worst offender — doubled down on his prior attacks. When asked by Juan Williams, the lone African-American Fox News moderator, about calling Barack Obama the greatest "food stamp president" and his insistence that he would "talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps," Gingrich played to the bloodthirsty audience.
"Can't you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?" Williams asked.
"No," Gingrich replied. "No, I don't see that at all."
The response? Roaring applause and a standing ovation.
Now confident, with the wind at his back, Gingrich went on to repeat his misguided call for poor, inner-city children to be forced to work as janitors.
But this is only the least of offenses. The former House speaker has been using blatantly racist rhetoric to attack President Obama for the past two years. Starting with the suggestion that Obama could only be understood through a Kenyan, anti-colonialist mindset — an idea he borrowed from the equally problematic Dinesh D'Souza — to his oft-repeated correlation of the president with food stamps and welfare dependency, Gingrich refuses to accept responsibility and is quick to accuse liberal media of bias.
Mitt Romney, the candidate most likely to receive the nomination, was not immune. In response to a question from Rick Santorum, Romney declared his opposition to extending voting rights to convicted felons, an issue that disproportionately affects African-American and Hispanic males and is a direct result of the vast disparity created by the drug wars implemented during the Reagan administration.
Romney also promised to veto the Dream Act, a law supported by Obama's White House, which would allow the children of long-term, illegal immigrants to gain citizenship while proving themselves through military service or higher education. All these statements reflect a post-Tea Party conservative climate, which is fueled by xenophobia and racial animus.
Perhaps if these instances had not become so commonplace, they could be disregarded as gaffes, but following Santorum's remark in Iowa that he did not want "to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money" and the unearthing of a new set of newsletters from Ron Paul's past framing African Americans as ravenous criminals, the racism is too obvious to be dismissed as subtle subtext.
In his article, Rosenberg notes that one of the central frames at the core of colorblind racism is "minimization of racism, [which] suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities' life chances ('It's better now than in the past' or 'There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there'). It remembers the past with a highly selective intent, to excuse the evil that remains."
Gingrich, Paul and Santorum convey textbook definitions of the minimization of racism. Paul "can't remember" who wrote what and thinks "it's not important anyway." Gingrich doesn't see anything wrong with any of his comments about the poor and blacks. Santorum's excuse is "blah." They each adopt a cavalier attitude toward the feelings of minorities and suggest that the fuss is much ado about nothing.
Just a quick look at Gingrich's rise in the polls and his recent win in South Carolina explains why it's a winning strategy among white GOP primary voters. The latest Gallup poll shows the race in a dead heat nationally, with Gingrich at 28 percent to Romney's 29 percent. Romney has essentially lost any advantage he had before the South Carolina primary.
Yet the American public and media have developed an acute sense of political correctness, which allows conservative politicians like Gingrich to lie and bait so outrageously without being called to task. And when confronted, Republicans are always quick to deny any malicious intent.
As I expressed in a previous article, poor whites have been encouraged to vote against their own economic interests; more broadly, middle-class whites are encouraged to vote against their better judgment. They are manipulated by race-baiting tactics that lead them to believe that the social ills of the nation are caused by the black and brown poor — or, as Gingrich would have you believe, the black "elite" currently residing in the White House.
The political rhetoric being espoused from the far right has become inundated with corrupt language born of a racist past that still plagues the American consciousness. An informed electorate can no longer excuse blatant racism as a casual, social faux pas.
Voters in the upcoming Florida primary and across the nation must demand that Republicans take responsibility for wallowing in a cesspool of race-baiting for political advantage, ever hiding behind a veil of colorblind ignorance and innuendo.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.