I have no doubt that racist inclinations underlie Mitt Romney’s claim this week that different “cultures” explain Israeli prosperity and Palestinian poverty. Essentialist characterizations of this kind, which depend on strategic denials of history, arise from bigotry, full stop. In the taxonomic universe Romney inhabits, positive labels, as that given here to seemingly industrious Israel, are a necessary correlate of negative characterizations, such as the identification of a supposedly backward Palestine. Critics of the model minority concept (which ascribes say, an innate talent and superior work ethic to Asian American students) make clear that group-based praise and criticism both devolve onto dangerous and indefensible stereotypes. Positive and negative labels together make for a destructive and self-perpetuating logic of difference.
But if you want to understand the truly insidious nature of Romney’s “gaffe,” read Peter S. Goodman’s excellent “Romney Just Played the Race Card” on HuffingtonPost.
Those are Goodman’s scare quotes around “gaffe”, by the way. Goodman believes (rightly to my mind) that Romney deliberately deployed some exquisitely calculated language to signal to his supporters that he’s on the same page with them regarding the inherent value of whiteness, or Jewishness, or both.
There is plenty of interesting analysis in that column, but I especially appreciate Goodman’s reference to the way that invocations of self-reliance and ingenuity support race-based explanations of success for many Americans. Brains and gumption lead to wealth, in the minds of those who wish to ignore the social privileges that support educational and commercial opportunity in the United States and other stratified societies.
I’ve blogged often about the ways that such invocations work to constrain STEM diversity, locating talent in individuals rather than social systems, even as they depend on group identities as units of analysis. Goodman nails the seductive feel of that meritocratic narrative for privileged Americans, as well as its disingenuous collective sentiments about “even playing fields.”
Goodman has a keen eye for the busy instrumentality of racism, for the opportunism like Romney’s that layers hate upon fear upon hate. Let’s hope he keeps writing about the language and imagery fueling this presidential campaign.