Conservatives’ Biggest Fear: Being Called Racist

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In Pacific Standard, Tom Jacobs writes about a new study that tries to figure out why so many people love to watch and listen to “outrage-based radio and television programs.” After conducting a series of in-depth interviews, their answer, in a nutshell, is that unlike conversations with actual friends and neighbors, these programs provide a safe space where you don’t have to worry about saying something that might get you ostracized:

But why is their pull apparently stronger among conservatives, who gravitate to such programming in much greater numbers than liberals? Based on their interviews, the researchers believe the answer lies in the fact those on the right have more to fear in terms of social condemnation for their views.

In conversation with conservatives, liberals risk being called naïve or willfully blind to potential threats—not very pleasant labels, but not especially damaging ones, either. In contrast, conservatives risk accusations of racism—and “being called a racist carries a particular cultural force,” the researchers write.

“The experience of being perceived as racist loomed large in the mind of conservative fans (we interviewed),” they report. Every single conservative respondent raised the issue of being called racist, and did so without even being asked.

“What makes accusations of racism so upsetting for respondents is that racism is socially stigmatized, but also that they feel powerless to defend themselves once the specter is raised,” the researchers add. “We suspect that this heightened social risk increases the appeal of the safe political environs provided by outrage-based programs, and may partially explain the overwhelming conservative dominance of outrage-based political talk media.”

It’s worth noting that this is not, plainly, a representative sample of conservatives. It’s specifically a sample of conservatives who listen to right-wing radio and TV, where they’re barraged daily with affirmations that the entire liberal project is based on unfairly slurring conservatives as racists. So it’s no surprise that this is at the top of their minds.

That said, this is still something I struggle with. It’s obvious that race infuses a tremendous amount of American discourse. It affects our politics, our culture, and our history. Racial resentment is at the core of many common attitudes toward social welfare programs; our levels of taxation; and the current occupant of the White House. There’s no way to write honestly about politics in America without acknowledging all this on a regular basis.

At the same time, it’s also obvious that, in many ways, a liberal focus on race and racism is just flatly counterproductive. When I write about, say, the racial obsessions displayed by Fox News (or Drudge or Rush Limbaugh), it’s little more than a plain recitation of obvious facts, and liberals applaud. Ditto for posts about the self-described racial attitudes of tea partiers. But conservatives see it as an attack. And why wouldn’t they? I’m basically saying that these outlets are engaged in various levels of race-mongering, and by implication, that anyone who listens to them is condoning racism. That’s such a uniquely toxic accusation that it makes any real conversation hopeless. Cognitively, the only way to respond is to deny everything, and that in turn forces you to believe that liberals are obviously just lying for their own partisan ends. This feeds the vicious media-dittohead circle, and everyone withdraws one step more.

I know I’m not saying anything new or insightful here. But just as there’s no way to not talk about this, I wish there were some way to talk about it that didn’t instantly estrange conservatives even further—but that also didn’t water the truth down into mush. I imagine I’ll be wishing for that for a very long time.

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This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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