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Some scholars have studied another form of cultural racism, one embedded in popular and political discourses about race. While the specifics differ across nations, these rhetorical strategies and framing devices share common features that have allowed social institutions and individuals alike to deny the continual significance of racial meanings, identities, and politics. Race, in these discourses, has become irrelevant—if institutions have become color-blind, then policies should reflect this change.

The Color Blind Society . By the late 1970s, the United States and other Western (and non-Western) nations had enacted equal opportunity and affirmative action policies designed to remedy the pervasive institutional racial discrimination of the past. These actions resulted from decades of political mobilization by racial minorities. Antiracism was initially framed in terms of empowerment and equal participation in all levels of society. Subsequently, this call for institutional integration was reframed to include respect and preservation of race-based cultural distinctiveness, but in the context of social equality.

Since the 1980s, scholars have studied how policymakers, mass media, and prominent political figures have strategically employed cultural racism (and other liberal rhetoric) to justify changes in public policies affecting racial groups, particularly as outright expressions of racism have declined. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003) asserts that cultural racism in the United States operates through the recurring notion of color-blindness, reflected in particular rhetorical devices that deny the continuing significance of race, racial identities, meanings, and practices. As a framing device, this produces color-blind and cultural-racism narratives that declare race irrelevant and argue—seemingly logically—for the dismantling of earlier affirmative action and other race-sensitive programs, which are seen as being no longer “needed,” and indeed as “discriminatory.” Color-blindness is put forth as the most appropriate form of antiracist strategy because it is fair, equitable, and legally provides for equal opportunities for all individuals.

Conservative politicians, in particular, employ rhetorical elements from the civil rights movements (e.g., “equal opportunity,” “antidiscrimination,” a “color-blind” society) to rationalize continuing racial inequality while simultaneously dismantling affirmative action and other legal remedies for past institutional discrimination. Page 382  Affirmative action becomes “reverse discrimination,” an “unfair advantage” to those hired, and an “injustice” (though only to those of the dominant racial group). The language of “justice” is used to ignore the continuing legacy of historically rooted injustice.

Color-blind rhetoric also appropriates multiculturalism, including the celebration of racial diversity and cultural pride initially advocated by racial minorities, to “essentialize” culture as immutable cultural practices that, even if voluntary, “prevent” racial minorities from getting ahead in this now color-blind society. Speaking “Ebonics” or “Spanish” is rhetorically placed in opposition to becoming proficient in standard English, rather than as a viable strategy of multilingualism. Multilingualism is equated with educational underachievement, despite evidence from Europe and other countries that academic success and fluency in multiple languages go together. Similarly, in this rhetoric, self-segregation, not covert discrimination, produces racially segregated neighborhoods, workplaces, and social networks.

Political rhetoric also infuses traditional U.S. notions of “individualism,” “hard work,” “meritocracy,” “freedom of choice,” “autonomy” and the “the self-made man” into arguments against attempts to eliminate de facto school segregation (e.g., through “forced busing”), discrimination in hiring (“forced government quotas”), or to diversify other institutions. Code words that are substituted for racial terms (e.g., “welfare queen”) are partially rooted in cultural (and gender) stereotypes, such as long-standing sexual stereotypes about African Americans. Cultural attributes of “model minorities” (e.g., some Asians) are highlighted, with a presumed emphasis on “education,” “family” (nuclear family) life, and “hard work.”

Such rhetoric erases the collective cultural memory of past discrimination, ignores its continuing effects, and portrays racial minorities as unjustly demanding “special privileges.” Instead, it emphasizes unbounded opportunities and implicitly attributes inequality to individual inadequacies or collective but selective cultural traits (e.g., “rap music,” the “drug culture”).

“Law and Order” and Preserving the Nation . Scholars have also observed how cultural racism is employed in framing “law and order” as a social problem, a rhetorical device that does not explicitly mention racial groups yet deliberately utilizes markers that associate criminality and cultural differences with particular racial groups. In Policing the Crisis (1978), Stuart Hall and his associates focused on the rhetoric of mugging “scares,” and on how the British mass media and politicians managed to draw upon and distort cultural traits of young black (especially Caribbean) men in order to portray them as criminals.

While official crime statistics revealed no clear waves of street crimes, British governments from Prime Minister Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher managed to frame them as a national crisis and use them to enact a series of strict law-and-order policies. The enforcement rationale portrayed black communities as sites of crime, unemployment, and underground activities that had to be “cleansed” of young men in order to re-establish law and order in Britain. This form of cultural racism was not explicitly racist, but instead utilized notions of criminality and public safety in ways that had clear racial impacts.

Immigration, multiculturalism, and perceived threats to the “nation” (or, more accurately, to national culture) have also been significant frames in the rhetoric of cultural racism. Nativist rhetoric in France, Great Britain, and other countries employs notions of cultural homogeneity, assimilation, and national patriotism. While officially promoting social inclusion, they nonetheless increasingly use cultural criteria, and hence cultural differences, to exclude and to argue for immutable cultural barriers to citizenship. An assumed monolithic national culture underlies rhetoric about “French culture” or the “British character.” This allows anti-immigrant groups to portray themselves as supporting racial equality and opposing racial discrimination.

Yet the cultural criteria for full national “citizenship” have differential racial impacts. Cultural criteria are employed to justify increased immigration restrictions, control, and regulation on “cultural” grounds, such as religion, family structure, and marriage practices. This, in effect, limits political rights, economic resources, and social inclusion on racial grounds, creating permanent cultural outsiders of some migrants, refugees, guest workers, and descendants of the formerly colonized.

Some scholars emphasize how the xenophobic and patriotic rhetoric masks and conflates racial grouping, cultural distinctions, and national boundaries. They suggest that “Islamophobic” responses to the Salman Rushdie affair involving the novel The Satanic Verses (1988), the headscarf ban instituted in French schools in 2004, and the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy of 2005 are not simply individual forms of racial prejudice, but rather an expression of cultural superiority that intertwines religion, culture, and national differences.

Feminist scholars have shown how groups that promote cultural racism also rely on cultural ideas of femininity, motherhood, and women as the nation’s caretaker to justify the persistence of cultural differences and racial inequalities globally. In these images, conflicting gendered and sexualized notions of aesthetics, purity, responsibility, and submission are deployed to maintain national, regional, and familial traditions conceived as culture.

These ideas are embodied in migration laws, which often contain provisions that are both culturally specific and gendered. For example, software engineers (primarily males) usually receive priority over “domestic” workers (primarily females). Family unification laws privilege spouses over parent-child and sibling relations. Policies that admit “guest” workers often do not allow their accompanying spouses to work, implicitly encouraging male immigrants and the nuclear family with a “stay-at-home wife.”

This subtle form of cultural racism also has a greater impact on countries in the Americas and Asia who are sending relatively low-skilled, low-wage, workers to Western nations, or on families who need both spouses to be employed (or culturally assume that they will be). Consequently, such laws foster racial inequalities without explicitly targeting particular racial groups.

Cultural racism, at its most basic level, rationalizes and perpetuates racial inequality through an ideology of cultural superiority and inferiority. Subordinate groups are culturally deficient even when the vocabulary is less judgmental. Dominant culture forms, or their presumed superiority, are rarely questioned. Cultural superiority is the rationale for cultural dominance, not racism, as though racial groups had no culture.

Cultural racism, when combined with the rhetoric of individualism and meritocracy, makes social inequality, even when extreme and harsh, seem normal, natural, logical, reasonable, and, in many cases, just. It produces racism without racists. By denying racism but covertly racializing inequality, cultural racism masks other fundamental sources of inequality or sources of change that threaten all racial groups and all people, except powerful and wealthy elites. By attributing current inequality to culture, a meritocracy is asserted, consistent with liberal ideals.

Simultaneously, the history of racism and the struggles of subordinated populations against racism is rendered invisible. There is no past, no history, no prior condition, and no legacy that is carried forward to the present. The erasure of the past subtly erases legitimate claims for special treatment (for reparations) and for affirmative action, creating a supposed level playing field.


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