Bigoted Anti-Obama Attacks Divert Attention From Pervasive Institutional Racism

The mainstream corporate news media, upon whom we can always count to help us know what’s really important and why, have recently discovered that campaign workers for Barack Obama are sometimes greeted with anything from snide racist asides to full-blown hateful screeds. When a Republican governor makes jokes about Obama ducking a bullet, and a Georgia restaurant owner sells T-shirts depicting Obama as a monkey, these occurrences dominate the news cycle for more than a week.


Corporate media’s breathless focus on manifestations of individual racism feed a narrative long popular in white America, a narrative central to the Obama campaign. This narrative holds that racism is nothing more nor less than an anti-social habit practiced by backward individuals, like bad table manners or public flatulence. This narrative is of course, false and misleading.


In the real world, American racism diminishes the quality of millions of lives every day, not through up close, personal slights and bigotry, but via the impersonal everyday functioning of society’s core institutions. Black mothers and babies in the US sicken and die at third world rates not because of racist insults, but as an outcome of the “normal” way that insurance and health care markets function. Black children still get inferior educations in large part due to the dependence of public education funding on local property taxes, and No Child Left Behind, both of which are race-neutral. From employment and underemployment to credit and housing markets to policing and sentencing practices, to the siting of toxic waste dumps, our nation’s ostensibly color-blind laws and institutions consistently bring forth racially stratified results.


The real racism which degrades millions of nonwhite American lives, including many who seldom encounter a white person bigoted or otherwise is institutional racism, as it was first named by Charles Hamilton and Kwame Toure more than 40 years ago. Institutional racism is something quite apart from the individual words and acts of bigots. But drawing attention to, let alone ending institutional racism has seldom been on the agenda of corporate media. Likewise the Obama campaign’s strategy on race toward whites is to carefully avoid telling white people anything other than what they imagine they already know. With frank discussions of race, power and privilege off the table, talk on the subject is limited to the terrain of racism as bad manners.


The toxic eruptions of bigots have also been extremely useful to the Obama campaign in rallying support among African Americans. Constantly recirculated in the black community, these racist attacks convey to Obama’s candidacy a kind of black “authenticity” on the cheap, without the bother of his having to do, say or promise to do anything that might challenge pervasive institutional racism. The racist attacks then, enable black and brown voters to hunker down in solidarity around a substance-free black candidate, while they allow Obama’s white supporters to wag their fingers disapprovingly at ignorant white bigots, and congratulate themselves, celebrate the evidence that their nation — most of it anyway – has risen above and transcended race.


For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Bruce Dixon. 

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