It’s Always About Race

Tomorrow’s blog accidentally published early. So nothing in the morning…

It was finally the election of Barack Obama that signaled the end of my comforting naiveté. 

I came to that election with the very incomplete history education that–I now understand–was fed to pretty much every White kid for more years than I can count, and I was delighted: America was overcoming the pockets of racism that still lingered.

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life, but rarely have I been as wrong as I was about the implications of that election.

True, the fact that America elected a biracial President was evidence of considerable progress, and we should definitely celebrate that progress. But what I totally missed was the hysterical backlash and the re-animation of the racism that remained–a racism far more pervasive than I had ever imagined.

Since that election, I’ve read lot of the history I hadn’t been taught, and I’ve followed the increasing amount of social science research that is “unpeeling the onion” and demonstrating the extent to which ostensibly race-neutral policies are actually based on racial animus.

Take the “pro-life” movement. Most Americans believe that the genesis of anti-abortion politics was Roe v. Wade. I have previously cited Randall Balmer–an eminent scholar of Evangelical Christianity–for the actual history of that movement.

Balmer reiterated that lesson in a recent essay for the Guardian.

Although leaders of the religious right would have us believe that the Roe decision was the catalyst for their political mobilization in the 1970s, that claim does not withstand historical scrutiny. What prompted evangelical interest in politics, in fact, was a defense of racial segregation.

Evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue” through most of the 1970s, and there is little in the history of evangelicalism to suggest that abortion would become a point of interest. Even James Dobson, who later became an implacable foe of abortion, acknowledged after the Roe decision that the Bible was silent on the matter and that it was plausible for an evangelical to hold that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being”.

Balmer writes that he first began researching the origins of the religious right after a meeting he attended in 1990. The meeting included what he identifies as a “veritable who’s-who of the religious right,” –he notes Ralph Reed of Christian Coalition; Donald Wildmon from the American Family Association; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Ed Dobson of the Moral Majority; Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich. (He notes that no women were present–not a surprise.)

Weyrich reminded the group that the religious right had not come together in response to  Roe v. Wade. Instead, the motivation was the IRS effort to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.

Balmer later questioned Weyrich to be certain he’d heard correctly.

He was emphatic that abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with the genesis of the religious right. He added that he’d been trying since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to interest evangelicals in politics. Nothing caught their attention, he insisted – school prayer, pornography, equal rights for women, abortion – until the IRS began to challenge the tax exemption of Bob Jones University and other whites-only segregation academies.

Indeed, in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention had passed a resolution calling to legalize abortion. When the Roe decision was handed down, some evangelicals applauded the ruling as marking an appropriate distinction between personal morality and public policy. Although he later – 14 years later – claimed that opposition to abortion was the catalyst for his political activism, Jerry Falwell did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 1978, more than five years after Roe.

As Balmer notes, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that opposition to abortion became an evangelical battle cry. As a strategy, “it allowed leaders to camouflage the real origins of their movement: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”

It isn’t only abortion, of course. Scholars have linked the right’s constant drumbeat against “socialism” and its adamant opposition to efforts to strengthen America’s social safety net to that same tribalism; in order to prevent “those people” from benefitting from programs like national health insurance, significant numbers of White people are willing to go without those benefits. It’s like the episode reported by Heather McGhee in The Sum of Us, about the Southern town that filled in its municipal swimming pool rather than integrate it. And so nobody got to swim.

Un-peeling onions makes me cry.


  1. Don’t cry.
    Understanding this basic truth about the USA is far more important than the truth itself today.
    The youth of this nation have figured it out.

  2. Anthony is right.
    I am, as an old friend used to say “educumated,” by this.
    But, nonetheless, I am not surprised. The religious right, and the Evangelicals who live therein, care no a whit about anything other than their movement. They see the world through white tinted glasses, and envision it having been created for them alone, with “others” just being there to be ruled, as if old fashioned serfs.

  3. The youth are going to do a better job than we oldsters have done on racism, corporatism etc. as suggested by their lack of fear of use of the word “socialism” and by their rejection not so much of religion but of those who purport to practice it, like Joel Osteen, Jim Bakker, and others of their ilk.

  4. Very interesting insight drawn from the disciplined study of history. Thank you, Shiela. It raises an interesting ‘what if’ question. What if the institutions of higher education sponsored by the evangelical right forfeited tax exemption to become private commercial college enterprises and asked for investor support to remain exclusive white. With the right investor capital counsel, I believe they might be able to pull that off. ?

  5. I have been doing a lot of reading about race this past year or so and learning a lot. Some titles I found very helpful:
    The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
    The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
    Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick
    Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by by Debby Irving
    No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America by Darnell L Moore
    We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel by Herb Frazier et al
    And now I am reading Democracy in Chains by by Nancy MacLean and it’s all coming together as to why we are going backwards in the area of civil rights. The dark money in this country is supporting and implementing the return to the notion of “property rights” as described by James McGill Buchanon, Jr. which is basically libertarianism on steroids. Based on theories proposed and touted by John C. Calhoun in the 19th. century, a very influential segment of billionaires today are determined to take us back to time of the robber barons and the gilded age. Basically their objective is to prevent the middle and lower classes of America from having any say in governance. And unfortunately, for the dupes of the conservative “base” , this dark money wielding segment is willing to use them as fodder (literally — see COVID deaths) to achieve their objectives. As great minds keep reminding us “FOLLOW THE MONEY.”

  6. Many years ago Ralph Reed wrote a book (now out of print) explaining that the “religious right” was by design politically energized by the “emotional hooks” of guns, gays and abortion all chosen from focus group research. From the top there was no particular belief in those issues except for their usefulness in getting folks to vote against their own interests because of the single issue hooks.

  7. I was lamenting the open racism during and since the Trump years to an older and wiser, socially conscious friend. He said the racists are noisy dinosaurs who now recognize that society is leaving them behind. We’ve come too far, he said. Blacks, latinos, Asians, and middle-easterners live in white neighborhoods, go to our schools, get college degrees, have white friends, and often marry white spouses. Many white families have adopted children of other races and national origins. At restaurants, we see tables of friends from different races. Television news, programming, and ads include people of various races.

    This is not meant to minimize the overt racism still noisily and violently apparent in society. We have an obligation to study and oppose it and to make sure the progress on racial and religious tolerance and reconciliation continues, BUT we’ve come a long way and we’re not going back. The dinosaurs are going down, and they’re kicking and screaming all the way.

  8. Yes, I agree that it is always about race. Bob Jones is not the only institution founded on racism, certainly it deserved to be threatened with loss of federal funds for its racist policies. I wonder when racism will ever end. It is such a hurtful, reactionary, stupid point of view.

  9. I was once taught that any true/false test question that had the word never, always, none, or every in it was almost always false.

    Is it always just about race? I don’t think so. We have classicism as well, a corporate oligarchy that keeps shrinking the middle class and increasing poverty. The unjust distribution of wealth affects people of color more, as we all know. MLK was aware of how classicism supported system racism.

    MLK also remarked that people in power do not give up that power willingly. White privilege gives people more access to wealth and power. And isn’t it tragic that more white people do not use their privilege to lift up the boats carrying people of color?

    I feared that there would be an assasination attempt on Obama and was surprised when that did not happen. Instead, we got a backlash from a white GOP Senate especially Sen. McConnell and then Trump, a symptom of the racist backlash.

    I hope the next generation does, in fact, further diminish all the ‘ism’s and the phobia’s. I remember the idealistic vision of my generation in the 60’s. What happened to us? I can only hope that someday the power of love will really overcome the love of power.

    According to my calendar yesterday was the holy day of Rosh Hashanah. My all my Jewish brothers and sisters find love and peace in the year to come. Shiela, may your name be written in the Book of Life.

  10. Were Michelle and Barack Obama prepared for the backlash? Probably were to an extent; but could even African Americans be prepared for the Republican retribution of successfully dumping Trump on the entire nation? Just as racism in this country will never be gone; neither will the repercussions of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell which continue full force today. I still fear Trump’s return to the White House and McConnell’s takeover of the Senate again…handing control of all three branches of the government back to that turtle-faced Kentuckian.

  11. I submit that racism is just a manifestation of TRIBALISM, which has been with us since the beginning. One of the defining traits of primates is a social nature, which ultimately leads to ”us against them.” African history tells us that groups were waging war on one another for centuries. It certainly wasn’t ”racism”…it was tribalism.

    Can we change something so deeply embedded in our psyche?

    With education comes understanding and, hopefully, solutions.

  12. Kathy, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and “Democracy in Chains,” are 2 excellent reads. Buchanan was an early staring the Koch Bros. enterprise, and Calhoun was a sick b******d!

  13. Very interesting take on the connection between the fundamentalist alt-right and racism. I’d like to add another connection to the list which is the economics piece.

    When I caught on to the connection at Ball State and the Koch brothers, I met a professor who stepped forward from within BSU’s business department. She actually completed her doctorate out West on the Koch brothers. We made quite a stink for BSU until she transferred to another college.

    If you look closer at the Koch mentality, they are considered Libertarians, but Charles gets his economic practice from the Austrian school of economics, particularly, Mises. You don’t have to dig very far on the internet to find Mises’ theory of Human Action written the same year (1949) as Einstein’s famous dictum. However, Mises makes clear that Caucasians are clearly superior, or Africans are clearly inferior.

    The connection between Koch’s dark money network and the religious right is not coincidental. The Republicans who helped the insurrectionists would be wearing hoods and robes a decade ago now prance around on TV with suits and ties as U.S. representatives and Governors of many of our states.

    It’s not just about race but also class and who’s chosen (superior). And, by the way, Mises hated Marx! LOL

  14. Culture, I learned studying anthropology, is a cultural adaptation to the question of should we change our common behaviors? Apparently, it makes future culture less a fashion of new times and more a steadfast reluctance to change. It takes several generations for culture to change meaningfully, by design. That’s its function, to make sure any cultural change is tested and effective over several generations before becoming common.

    We don’t choose our culture, it’s learned as the observed behavior of people like us from our infancy. In fact, if people never leave their birthplace they don’t even know what culture is. That is, you don’t know one culture until you know two. That explains why racial culture is centered in our more rural areas where people are less likely to be exposed to other cultures.

    We like to think that the ship can turn on a dime but the truth is that several generations have to test any new cultural concept before it is widely adopted.

    We are not the bastions of cognition that we like to think of ourselves as. We are creatures mostly of learned habits. We’re capable of thinking but don’t usually bother. In fact, we resist new behaviors as threats to who we are.

  15. I love your conversational blog. Truth is I find your increased unfortunate. If you had 50per cent of this awareness when you were in the belly of the beastGOP. You would got my vote

  16. I will throw out a thought I am taking from Dara Horn.

    She suggests that the rise in overt antisemitism (Cincinnati, Poway, Jersey City ) is because fewer and fewer people alive remember the shock of discovering the death camps in Europe.

    In a similar vein, I wonder if the rise in overt racism is due to there being fewer and fewer people who experienced the shock of seeing what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the fate of Emmett Till, and other atrocities.

    I don’t think that reading about incidents from long ago (relatively speaking) has the powerful impact of seeing it fresh in the daily newpaper or the evening television news.

    It is just a thought. Racism and antisemitism have been with us for a long time, but things seem much more overt now. Of course, Fearless Leader, did encourage hatred and cruelty as the sign of a loyal follower.

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