Strange Brew: The Right’s Pathetic Denial of Racism

Perhaps the most morbidly funny media story of the year is the spectacle of conservative crackpots falling all over themselves to attack the efforts by Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to address implicit bias, after the horrifying incident in Philadelphia where a Starbucks employee decided that calling the cops on Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two African-American visitors to the coffee shop, was one way to make America great again. Right-wingers cannot stand the idea that racism didn’t magically disappear once Barack Obama became president, and cannot stand Johnson’s efforts to truly make his coffeehouses colorblind.

Why are conservatives so bent out of shape over this effort to address implicit bias? Two reasons. First, the mere acknowledgment that there is still implicit bias against nonwhites in the United States kills dead the conservative contention that the only bias that still exists in this country is the supposed anti-white bias of affirmative-action programs. Right-wingers want to eliminate all vestiges of affirmative action even more than they want to build the wall, and the public recognition of implicit bias interferes with that goal.

Second, to acknowledge implicit bias is to acknowledge that progressives are right about the race question—and the creed of conservatism holds that one never, ever acknowledges that the left is right about anything. Acknowledging that there is still implicit bias against nonwhites is as verboten in the right-wing world as acknowledging the reality of human-caused climate change: a true right-winger can never admit that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—the two men Rush Limbaugh sarcastically labels “the Justice Brothers”—might have a point about America’s still-unhealed racial wounds, just as a true right-winger can never admit that Al Gore and Bill McKibben might have a point about the rapacious nature of the fossil-fuel industry. To acknowledge that progressives are right on critical issues facing this country is to show weakness in the right-wing world—and weakness means being kicked out of that world.

That’s why it was such a shock fifteen years ago, in the midst of the controversy over then-Sen. Trent Lott’s Trump-style praise of then-Sen. Strom Thurmond, that longtime right-wing icon Thomas Sowell admitted that America hadn’t been all that great for people of color:

Does Senator Lott have any idea what racial segregation meant to black Americans — and, indeed, to many white Americans, whose support was essential to passing the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s that did away with Jim Crow in the South?

Let me recall a personal experience from that era. Although I lived in New York, during the Korean war I was a young Marine who was stationed in the South. On a long bus ride down to North Carolina, the bus stopped very briefly in Winston-Salem so that the passengers could go to the restrooms. And in those days there were separate “white” and “colored” restrooms.

The bus stopped next to the white restrooms and I had no idea where the restrooms for blacks might be located — or whether I could find it in time to get back to the bus before it left. So I went to the men’s room for whites, leaving it to others to decide what they wanted to do about it.

I figured that if I were going to die fighting for democracy, I might as well do it in Winston-Salem and save myself a long trip across the Pacific. It so happened that nobody said or did anything. But I should not have had to face such a choice while wearing the uniform of my country and traveling in the South only because I was ordered to.

This was just one of thousands of such galling experiences — many others were far worse — that blacks went through all the time during the era of racial segregation that Senator Thurmond was fighting to preserve as a candidate for the Dixiecrats in 1948.

If Senator Lott spoke without thinking about all this, that might be one thing. But he made the same asinine statements back in 1980 and apparently learned nothing from the adverse reactions it provoked then.

One can’t help wondering how Sowell really feels about being cast aside as a right-wing African-American media star in favor of such intellectual titans as “Diamond and Silk” and “Hotep Jesus,” folks who apparently can be relied upon to stick with the wingnut script. One also wonders if other prominent African-American Republicans have so thoroughly forfeited their self-respect that they have no problem whatsoever with the smearing of Starbucks by the Fox crowd.

As for Johnson, Nelson and Robinson, here’s hoping they continue to cause conservative consternation. They will rise above hate. Wingnut World will just sink below.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.