In a previous post I was critical of the NAACP's recent resolution to condemn racist elements within the Tea Party movement. I was skeptical of the move on speech/associational grounds and also on political grounds. I remain skeptical particularly upon further reflection (though for a more balanced analysis than mine please see Sherrilyn Ifill's characteristically thoughtful piece on the The Root.com).
Upon further reflection, one of the more troubling aspect of the NAACP's move here is that it feeds into a classical narrative about racism that is not reflective of the modal manifestation of race in the 21st Century. Most of us quintessentially understand racism as a belief that communicates animus against someone of a different race. For example, if someone said, "I don't like black people," we would easily classify that person as a racist, not least because the assertion of animus is the classical understanding of racism. The classical response to classical racism is colorblindness: if everyone would be blind to color (not pay attention to or notice race), we would be rid of racism and racial inequality.
Racial conservatives assert, rightly in my opinion, that classical racism has declined significantly. By almost all measures, white racial animus against blacks has waned significantly. Manifestations of racial animus, of the type that the NAACP singles out from the Tea Party, are rare. It does not mean that they don't exist, but they are not the modal expression of racial inequality. From this evidence of decline of racial animus, racial conservatives conclude, wrongly in my view, that we no longer have a race problem. Moreover, they conclude, again wrongly in my view, that the answer to racial animus is colorblindness.
Racial progressives are less concerned with racial animus, we're concerned with racial inequality. When the black unemployment rate is almost twice that the white unemployment rate (8.6% compared to 15.4%) we have a racial inequality and thus a race problem. Racial inequality can be the result of animus, but in the 21st century it does not have to be. I previously referenced on this blog a paper by Samuel Bowles, Glenn Loury, and Rajiv Sethi entitled Group Inequality. The arresting part of this paper is the rigorous demonstration by the authors that racial inequality can persist infinitely in the absence of racial animus. That is, if you got rid of all instances of racial animus right now and you enforced vigilantly anti-discrimination laws, without other intervention, we would experience racial inequality well into the foreseeable future. Thus for racial progressives a focus on racism, especially as understood as animus, is significantly short-sighted, distracting, and passe. What we need is to begin talking about and providing solutions to resolve racial inequality. We need a paradigm shift and the NAACP should be leading this paradigm shift. (See this column by DeWayne Wickham).
When the NAACP focuses its (and our) limited energies on fleeting instances of classical racism in the Tea Party movement, the NAACP reinforces the classical racism model. It tells people that what we should really be concerned about are white people who do not like black people (especially the black President) and wish to do us harm. But racial animus is not the threat to people of color today, racial inequality is the threat. By focusing on arguable instances of racial animus, the NAACP reinforces the classical racism model and prevents us from shifting the racism paradigm. Thus, delaying the attainment of true racial equality.
The NAACP's move is short-sighted for another reason. As I mentioned above, the classical answer to classical racism is colorblindness. The problem with colorblindness is that colorblind policies are at best of limited utility in combating racial inequality. However, racial conservatives are winning the colorblindness rhetoric because the debate is being waged on their terms.
Accusing the Tea Party of racism gets the headlines, but solving racial inequality actually helps people of color. If the NAACP is truly serious about the advancement of the colored people, it needs to focus on contemporary racial inequality and lead a paradigm shift. Otherwise, it's not clear why a bunch of people are paying dues.