“I have a dream,” said Dr. King, “that that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
For all the hard-earned and justly-celebrated progress America has made since the 1960s—including, most dramatically, the election of an African-American president—we’re still a very, very long way from that lofty summit where no one is judged by the color of his or her skin. Yet that’s what a disturbingly vocal faction would have us believe: that any mention of the reality of race is a step backwards, that the way forward is to drop all discussion or study of race. To do otherwise is deemed—they actually use this word—racist.
Who’s saying this? I encounter it most often in comments on posts in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, an online news publication where I work. If we publish an article quoting black leaders criticizing Voter ID laws as likely to disproportionately affect African-American voters, we get a quick tweet back calling us all racists. If we publish an article on school integration, we get a noxious string of comments likening it to genocide. I mentioned some of these comments in a recent article and acknowledged that they represent only a small minority of whites’ views, and one of the commenters swooped right in and challenged me to provide evidence that they didn’t speak for the silent majority.
It’s disturbing enough that anyone would express such ignorant and hateful views, but even though I believe (sorry, no, I can’t prove it) that such extreme rhetoric comes from only a relative few, I think the way they couch their regressive views is telling: they twist the language of the Civil Rights Movement back upon itself, suggesting that now that discrimination is legally prohibited, any mention of the reality of race is perpetuating a racially divided society. Let’s all just ignore it and it will go away, right? This comes, of course, largely—though not exclusively—from people whose skin color continues to earn them privileges that they’d like to pretend don’t exist. (See Becky Lang’s post, “Why Reverse Racism is Not ‘a Thing.’”)
The same logic—albeit with more measured, calculated language—is used by mainstream politicians and media figures to argue against affirmative action, against school integration, and against any other civil-rights legislation that does anything more consequential than erect a statue (actually, they’d probably prefer to skip the statues, too). And it’s spreading.
In an ominous statement that’s not been sufficiently publicized since he made it in December, Rick Santorum—a leading candidate for the presidential nomination of one of the country’s two major political parties—has said that “you’ll never hear the word ‘class’ come out of my mouth. Classes? We specifically rejected that. Look in the Constitution. No titles of nobility.”
See the parallel to the logic of the race-deniers? Because our ideal is to build a society without race or class barriers, goes the argument, it’s destructive even to acknowledge they exist. This is absurd enough when it comes to race, but adding class to the argument vaults it into a new realm of unreality. According to Santorum, class should not be part of the public debate because it simply doesn’t exist. Some people have more money than others, true—a lot more money than others—but that vast discrepancy (goes the argument) doesn’t lead to any shared interests like, for example, an interest in having certain tax laws in place. Differences in skin pigmentation? Just that, nothing more and nothing less. We’re all Americans, and Rick Santorum wants to erase any suggestion that there’s any inequality of opportunity in this country.
Santorum and like-minded people of privilege are already demonstrating the selfish calculation of this argument by the selective way in which they apply it (if we’re all so equal and free now, why can’t we have marriage equality?)—but still, this argument needs to be called out for what it is: false. Race and class are realities in America. There are very real race and class barriers that people are struggling to climb every day. Reasonable people can disagree about the best strategies for breaking those barriers down, but denying they exist is profoundly insulting, and…I’d like to say delusional, but that would be giving the advocates of this dangerous idea far too much credit.