Playing the Race Card: Conservative Style

“Ostensibly rigorous and realistic, contemporary conservatism is an ideology of denial. Its symbol is a smile button.”— Christopher Lasch

Deborah Goldring has a multitude of problems. After losing her job as a hospital executive assistant, she received a foreclosure letter from the bank. After 30 years, she was faced with loss of her home. She had already lost her husband from a fatal illness and had lost their modest life savings to nursing home costs.

Driven from the middle class by economic forces beyond her control, she was now in poverty and facing possible homelessness.??In the wake of the 2008 economic crash, Mrs. Goldring was not alone. There were many stories like hers across the nation.

Deborah Goldring

But Deborah Goldring grew up black in 1960‘s segregated Baltimore, where northern and southern racism met, creating a unique border-state Jim Crow. Her family had been desperately poor, evicted multiple times from apartments and reduced to stealing electricity.

But thanks to the civil rights movement and federal intervention, there were more opportunities for black people when she arrived at adulthood and she was able to enter the middle class through hard work and single-minded determination. Then 2008 came along and the bottom fell out.

“For me to live that life we were so comfortable in, we never had to worry about finances, we always had money where I can help my kids and my grandchildren — to go to calling my daughter to borrow $100 because I can’t pay a bill …” Goldring’s voice trails off as she struggles to hold back tears.

According to conservative dogma, we live in a post-racial society. Mentioning Mrs. Goldring’s color is considered playing the race card, making a false or exaggerated claim of discrimination for political gain. No one called her nasty racial names. No one stood at the hospital door and screamed that clerical jobs were now “white only.” No one spat on her when they delivered her foreclosure notice. Her story is sad, but it could happen to anyone. According to conservatives, there is no need to drag the divisive issue of race into it and stir up trouble.

Her story could happen to anyone, but it happens more frequently if your skin is dark. The cold driving rain of recession does not fall on the USA equally. White unemployment as of December 2010 was 8.5%. Black unemployment was 15.8%, while latino unemployment was 13%. For every dollar of white income, blacks earn 57 cents and latinos earn 59 cents. The average white net worth is 20 times that of blacks and 18 times that of latinos.

Marc Morial, president of the the Urban League has stated, ” …that the widening wealth gap between whites and minorities has wiped out gains made over that last 30 years and could foreshadow even more inequality if something isn’t done to address it.”

So like climate change and evolution, those other realities that are often denied by conservatives, racism is very real. In fact racism has undergone its own Darwinian evolution. Old fashioned in-your-face racial epithets are no longer socially acceptable. A black celebrity like Oprah can become a billionaire with millions of devoted fans. The Republicans even flirted with a black presidential candidate until he flamed out.

But in the area of economics, institutional racism still rules the American dollar. A term originally coined by the late Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Toure) here is a definition of institutional racism:

In the United States, institutional racism results from the social caste system that sustained, and was sustained by, slavery and racial segregation. Although the laws that enforced this caste system are no longer in place, its basic structure still stands to this day. This structure may gradually fall apart on its own over a period of generations, but activism is necessary to expedite the process and provide for a more equitable society in the interim.

American racism has been an intimate partner of American capitalism since the beginning of this nation. Did anyone seriously think they could be pulled asunder by a few civil rights laws? Institutional racism is alive and well and being carefully guarded by conservatives. It is truly…racism’s last stand.

Deborah Goldring’s generation consisted of the baby boomer children of blacks who had lived through the Great Depression. But the gains of the New Deal era labor uprisings that helped create the modern middle class went mostly to whites, as blacks were normally excluded from the better paying jobs. Domestic workers and farmworkers, then mostly black, were denied Social Security and the protection of labor laws.

The GI Bill that made college education and low interest home loans available to World War II veterans was not applied equally. Many colleges and universities were still segregated and blacks were excluded from segregated white suburbs. Conservative Republicans and racist Democrats teamed up to pass the post WWII Taft-Hartley Act, aimed directly at the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO hada daring plan to organize southern workers across racial lines, raise wages for all and smash segregation through combined working class action. Instead it was the CIO who got smashed by the intense government repression.


Employment segregation was reinforced by separate newspaper ads for white and black workers. Throughout the 1950’s while working class whites were making spectacular economic gains, black economic advancement was slow or stalled.

The civil rights movement of the 1960‘s opened up new opportunities for blacks and other people of color that had never existed before. But there was also a dangerous racial backlash from whites who feared economic competition, especially when affirmative action was used to desegregate jobs previously barred to people of color.

Beginning with the Reagan years, enforcement of equal employment laws withered, which only encouraged racist employers to keep jobs as white as possible. Even today a resume or rental application sent in with names like Keisha or Malik will more likely be rejected than ones with the names Karen or Mike.

Blacks had finally reached higher level unionized industrial jobs in the 1970’s. But during the Reagan years, US manufacturing workers were devastated by de-industrialization and attacks on unions.
This was especially devatastingfor blacks who frequently had less seniority when waves of layoffs swept through entire industries.

Because private employment was traditionally more racist than public employment, many blacks had gone into government jobs. Beginning with the Reagan years, these jobs were under constant attack by conservatives as if teachers, firefighters, cops, sanitation workers, nurses and other public servants were the cause of the USA’s growing economic problems.

Wisconsin Uprising

When the Crash of 2008 came along, whites were better able to weather it because of their greater accumulated wealth and more secure employment. Whatever motivated conservatives to attack government social programs, enforcement of civil rights laws, unions, affirmative action, or public employees, the axe always fell heaviest on racial minorities. That is the cold hard reality of institutional racism. Whatever their intent may be, that is the outcome of conservative public policy.

The corporation who laid off Deborah Goldring was not persecuting her for her race. The clerk who sent the foreclosure notice may have been a person of color. The politicians who had made her childhood and the life of her parents a Jim Crow hell are long dead. But that Jim Crow hell also left Deborah Goldring without the family capital and access to economic networks that gets people through hard times.

Because of institutional racism, whites are much more likely to have that kind of wherewithal.

In 2011, simply maintaining the economic status quo leaves these racial inequalities in place. But conservatives are not satisfied with that. They want to turn back the clock on everyone, but especially on people of color. This can also seen by the propaganda campaign they have been waging for decades. People of color have been stereotyped as welfare queens, criminals, drug abusers, terrorists, job stealers, and (paradoxically)too lazy to work. From Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to Reagan’s “welfare queens” and now Gingrich’s remarks about inner city residents having no work ethic, it never ends.

This propaganda campaign has had its effect. According to a Tufts University study, a substantial number of whites now believe they are more discriminated against than blacks, despite all evidence to the contrary. Through their control over the Republican Party, conservatives now have an even larger number of supporters for defending their bastion of institutional racism.

The combination of institutional racism and conservative propaganda has had its effect on American liberalism. Like the stolen document in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, institutional racism is hidden in plain sight. It cannot be easily explained to white people because so much of it is invisible to them. It is especially difficult to explain when white people themselves are under so much economic pressure. It is so much easier for some whites to repeat the conservative propaganda that racial minorities are responsible for the economic disaster.

In this toxic class and racial atmosphere, many liberals fear raising or even trying to explain the complex issue of institutional racism and its many ill effects on American society. The conservative hue and cry of “playing the race card” is seen as dangerous to their political futures. So the leadership of modern liberalism, now housed in the Democratic Party, has largely gone silent. Even President Obama, the nation’s first black president, treats race like a melting Fukushima radioactive core, staying as far away from it as possible.

To seriously address the whole issue of these racial inequalities will require a massive social movement across racial lines and a government initiative greater than the New Deal. But isn’t that what we need to solve the economic crisis? Unless it is a movement and a government that openly and courageously addresses the inequalities of race, it is doomed to failure. It would be fighting with one hand tied behind its back against the greatest concentration of wealth in human history.

Deborah Goldring was lucky. She learned about a Maryland program that helps homeowners in trouble. The program was the the Emergency Mortgage Assistance program exactly the kind of government program that conservatives despise.

Financed by federal money, offered a zero-interest loan of up to $50,000. The money would pay off up to a year of back mortgage payments, plus up to two years of regular payments. All Goldring had to do was pay 31 percent of her current gross income, or the full mortgage payment if she got a new job close to her original salary.

Mrs. Goldring of Baltimore, Maryland has a reprieve. Now all she needs is a job. A huge public investment in the USA that recognizes the ongoing racial inequalities would certainly help her and so many others. Conservatives say that the private sector would do better. Oh really? The private sector stripped Baltimore of its industrial base, threw people out of work, offered subprime toxic loans as its solution to the housing crisis and left a behind a city that inspired the grim urban drama The Wire. Thanks, but no thanks.

Conservatives will also cry that such a program is “playing the race card”. Let them play their racial card games. The rest of the USA has work to do.


Race Card

Sources consulted

When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson

The Race Card by Richard Thompson Ford

Black economic gains reversed in Great Recession” from USA Today

State of the Dream 2011” from United for a Fair Economy

Operation Dixie: Notes on a Promise Abandoned” by J.H. O’Dell

Institutional Racism” by Tom Head

Urban League: Black middle class losing ground by Russel Contreras

Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan

White People Face Worse Racism?” by Jenée Desmond-Harris

An Inconvenient Truth for a Post-Racial President” by Lenny McAllister

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