Based on the research by David Sears and John McConahay, Joe Feagin, in his various writings on race, defines symbolic or modern racism as “white beliefs that serious racial discrimination does not exist today and that black Americans in particular are making illegitimate demands for social changes.” This definition, we are told, helps clarify the way the ideological racism evolves in order to maintain the status quo.
In the early period of racism, the ideology of racism had most people believing that the inequalities among racialized groups were rooted in race, a social construction pitched as a biological reality. Because groups had different natures, the argument went, inequalities between groups are explicable in terms of those differences. There are still many people who believe this.
Of course, the inequalities between racial groups is because of racism, a social system that organizes human populations into hierarchically-arranged groups based on differences in physical appearances and ancestry; the result is differentially rewarded or punished. These inequalities have nothing to do with nature. The ideology of racism, which attempts to naturalize a social construct, justifies unjust social arrangements. Thus racism is a complete ideology: it orders life in a particular way and justifies that order.
Scientists have since debunked the notion of racial nature (see, for example, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza’s 1996 The History and Geography of Human Genes). There are no races of humans in nature. With this debunking, the old ideology of racism received a serious blow to its legitimacy. But this did not bring an end to the ideology of racism. Nor, did it bring an end to the material system which that ideology justified. Racism as a objective force ordering group lives continues unabated.
What remains of the old ideology of racism is the notion that different racialized groups have superior and inferior cultural systems. And this idea of superiority and inferiority of cultural systems has been joined with the recognition of the reality that there are no natural differences to strengthen racism rather than weaken it.
Since many Americans falsely conflate structural racism with the ideology of racism, they wrongly believe that, with the disappearance of the old ideology of racism, serious racial discrimination does not exist today and therefore black Americans are making illegitimate demands for social change. The belief that no serious racial discrimination exists today instructs whites to believe that the situation blacks face today is not caused by racism, but rather is caused by black people themselves.
By reducing racism to the ideological system that justifies it and then proudly proclaiming that the ideology of racism is dead, yet still retaining the notion of superior and inferior cultural systems, a new racism has emerged that encourages victim blaming. It’s not that blaming the victim was not a component of the old ideology of racism. But in the new system, victim blaming mutates into an opportunity to reinforce the Protestant ethic. White Americans want blacks to have a better life, but, having done enough for blacks already, it’s time for blacks to lift themselves up.
The new racist ideology is far superior to the old one. The new racist ideology does not depend on so obviously false an assumption as intrinsic racial differences. The new ideology of racism allows white and black actors striving to maintain the status quo of whites on top and blacks on bottom to deny that they are racist. Indeed, it allows them to turn ideological racism into an expression of virtue and concern. It allows for a declaration of a colorblind society which self-evidently cannot be a racist society. With this system in force, those members of oppressed group who make grievances against white society are themselves said to be racist because they are making claims based on race.
This is the argument anyway. And it is compelling. At the same time, racial discrimination was much worse in earlier historical periods than it is today. De jure segregation has been abolished and there are many African Americans living in affluence (while the majority of poor people remain white). It is therefore possible that some black Americans are making illegitimate demands for social change. But if one says this, then he is guilty of symbolic racism. Is it possible to recognize that America has made great strides in race relations while admitting there is more to do without having this observation smeared as racist?
The claim of a post-racial order in a society where racialized groups are not longer hierarchically organized is self-evidently false. Racism persists. But to claim that criticism of the claims made by members of the black community and their allies constitutes a new racism is problematic. One can be ignorant or wrong or disagreeable without being racist.