Translating Symbolic Racism

What does racism look like when it is not overt and outwardly displayed? In Obama’s Race Michael Tesler and David Sears look beyond what people say and use survey data with carefully designed questions to try to look inside the mind of average people. Sears and Tesler are able to judge people’s affect, or their emotional feelings and responses, toward people of color, and look at their behaviors and actions such as their support for president Obama in the 2008 election or their support for public statements made in the wake of his election.

What the authors find is that many American’s, consciously or not, harbor feelings toward black people that cast black people in a second class status below white people. They write, “These earlier examinations have largely confirmed the original theory that the origins of symbolic racism for white Americans lie in a blend of antiblack affect and beliefs that blacks violate traditional conservative values such as individualism, obedience, and social morality.” The surveys show that white people view black people less positively than people similar to themselves. This is often not a conscious reaction, but rather hidden feelings that materialize in complex relationships in the real world.

I don’t think the results of the study show that we as white people are constantly acting against black people or that we don’t want to see black people live on an equal level with us, but it does mean that we tend to lean away from black people toward whiteness  without realizing it. This could mean that we like a resume from a person with a white sounding name more than an equal resume from a person with a black sounding name. It could mean that we are likely to be meaner to a black person who accidentally rear-ends us than a white person who rear-ends us. And it means we might choose to talk to a white person at a social event rather than a black person. None of these actions are directly racist and it is hard in the moment to ever recognize that you are making these decisions at all, but when a black person is constantly left out and receives harsher treatment, a sense develops that they are less valued within society.

I have recently been listening to John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series on the show, Seeing White. Biewen discusses the origin of race and racial discrimination not just in the United States but across the globe. In a powerful episode, he and the scholars he interviews explain that people enslaved others for economic exploitation, and that exploitation required justification for the domination of other people. From such exploitation came the excuses that those who were being enslaved were savage beasts, hardly able to live on their own and much better off being subjugated by another man. In the United States these views were weaponized against black people with the advent of race, a biologically false idea, but a socially powerful and socially real construct. To justify slavery and exploitation, white people needed to be able to see black people as less moral, unable to live up to American values of individualism and self responsibility, and any action against their bondage demonstrated their clear disobedience. According to the research from Tesler and Sears, America never moved past these views of black people, and the views we developed as an excuse for our desire to exploit and subjugate human beings were carried with us to the present day, when our President attempts to undermine every accomplishment and action of our previous black president, and openly embraces terms and ideas that are caught up in racists backstories.