Justices John Roberts and Sonia Sotomayor are having (what qualifies in the genteel world of Supreme Court discourse as) something of a pissing match on race. In response to the Roberts’ doctrine first promulgated in 2006 that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Sotomayor’s dissent in Schuette v. BAMN reflects that the only way to get beyond the problems of race, inequality, and discrimination is to recognize it and talk about it,
And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, “No, where are you really from?”, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: “I do not belong here.”
The Willie Horton ad sank the Dukakis campaign in 1988. Conceived by that evil mastermind Lee Atwater, it played brilliantly to Americans’ subconscious racism. It was dog whistle politics at its best. Willie Horton was a convicted murderer. Massachusetts had a prisoner furlough policy which allowed some prisoners weekend leave. As governor, Michael Dukakis had vetoed a bill which would have made convicted murderers ineligible for furlough. While Willie Horton was on furlough, he invaded the house of a white couple, bound and stabbed the man, and raped the man’s fiancee. The ad Atwater put together avoided any mention of race, but included Horton’s mug shot and a listing of his crimes in gritty, tabloid fashion. Dukakis sank in the polls. But once the racial elements of the polls were exposed, its effectiveness was diminished. Ian Haney Lopez, in Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeal Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, maintains that bringing race into the open is the best policy for Democrats and liberals running for political office.
Daniel Kahneman wrote Thinking Fast and Slow. He posits two systems in the brain, System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the fast, instinctive, and emotional way of thinking; System 2 is the slower, deliberative, and logical way. Others, independently or following his lead, have proposed similar ideas. The Willie Horton ad played to System 1, and conjured up emotions in people without them having to realize it, and this made the ad powerful. But when presented with its racial elements, I suspect System 2 thinking kicked in, and individuals were able to better analyze and are less taken in by the ad. Dissents like Sotomayor’s, and the discussions around it, effectively bring the discussion of race into System 2.
Stephen Pinker wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature, which details the historic decline in violence. He references Kahneman’s System 2 thinking as playing a role in this decline, that we are better trained through education, institutions, and enlightenment to challenge some of the negative effects of emotional, reactive, and in the case of the Willie Horton ad, I would add, racist thinking. It is this challenge to our System 2 thinking, I suspect, which brought about the decline in the ad’s effectiveness.
And so the tide is turning toward liberalism in race relations because racism is in the news and being talked about. The satirical Borowitz Report makes fun of Cliven Bundy, but especially of Republicans.
“We Republicans have worked long and hard to develop insidious racial code words like ‘entitlement society’ and ‘personal responsibility,’ ” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky). “There is no excuse for offensive racist comments like the ones Cliven Bundy made when there are so many subtler ways of making the exact same point.”
Fox News also blasted the rancher, saying in a statement, “Cliven Bundy’s outrageous racist remarks undermine decades of progress in our effort to come up with cleverer ways of saying the same thing.”
Cliven Bundy was a short-lived hero of the right as an anti-government rancher standing up for his land and his rights, albeit land that wasn’t his and rights to violating law that he didn’t have. But his racist comments in his ramblings to the hangers-on at his ranch were too hot for most on the right to handle, and conservatives did screeching U-turns to abandon him. Even more recently, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught making racist remarks, and banned from the NBA.
Since Barack Obama became president there have been incidents–racial caricatures, slurs, inappropriate jokes–that have created some pushback. But recognition of the salience of race seems to be increasing in the public’s awareness, and the responses to the racism they see seems harsher. If we are being more open about racial politics, and if openness forces Americans to temper their System 1 reactions with System 2 deliberation, then I see, in cases involving racial relations and reactions against racial inequality and discrimination, the tide is turning toward liberalism.