Commentary: Trading Hoods for Neckties

Keith Boykin looks at the state of race and racism 50 years after the Civil Rights Act.

Posted: 04/10/2014 04:25 PM EDT

As participants conclude a civil rights summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Texas this week, it's important to remember one fact. The civil rights movement didn't end in the 1960s.

Despite the progress of the past half century, the struggle continues. "The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts." So said baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron in an interview with USA Today this week, in which he seemed to compare the racist klansmen of the 1960s with the supposedly post-racial cynics of our current generation.

You see, today's racists don't wear white hoods and scream the N-word. They wear dark suits and scream about government handouts. They don't set up racist poll taxes to deter Blacks from voting. They set up voter ID laws to do the same thing. And they certainly don't defend lynch mobs, which legitimize vigilante justice. Instead, they defend Stand Your Ground laws, which achieve the same purpose.

Modern racism has evolved. Today's colorblind conservatives have learned not to engage in socially inappropriate public activity. But we all know what's going on. This was the subject of Jonathan Chait's recent New York magazine piece arguing that race has colored the nation's view of Obama's presidency. And it was the subject of Jamelle Bouie's critique of Chait's argument from an African-American perspective.

President Obama didn't mention the racial component of the opposition to his presidency in his remarks on Thursday. He rarely does. But he did draw comparisons to President Johnson's struggle to pass Medicare and civil rights legislation with his own troubles in pushing Obamacare, LGBT rights and other issues.

Obama's speech on Thursday cited LBJ's famous prediction that Democrats would lose the south for a generation after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And Rep. John Lewis, who introduced Obama, acknowledged how the civil rights laws of the 1960s enabled Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama to be elected to the White House.

But put aside all the racist vitriol directed at President Obama in the past five years. He's actually not the primary target of the right-wing hate machine. He is merely a symbolic placeholder who represents the way conservatives see government as a tool for empowering undeserving people of color at the expense of deserving whites. Rank-and-file conservatives also hated Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton because they believed these two white presidents were redistributing their hard-earned tax dollars into the pockets of Black and Latino welfare queens.

The Republican Party has been playing with fire on these issues since the 1960s, when the GOP's "southern strategy" began consciously deploying race as a tool to scare working-class whites. That's how they convinced the very people whose lives depend on government benefits from Medicare, Social Security and the Veterans Administration to believe that government, as Ronald Reagan put it, is "the problem."

Such cognitive dissonance enables white conservatives to see themselves as victims of the very government spending that supports their lifestyles. When they hear the word "government," they don't think of highways, bridges, food inspection, airline safety, home loan guarantees, mortgage interest deductions, or local public school teachers. Instead they imagine Black people in Harlem, Compton, and Atlanta with their hands out.

Nor do they see multinational corporations slashing their pay and outsourcing their jobs to low-wage countries while CEOs take home record salaries. Instead they see brown-skinned immigrants and black-skinned affirmative action hires as threatening their job security and their way of life. Color has also affected their view of capitalism.

This is the evil genius of modern racism. The pinstriped plutocrats have redirected the angst of many working-class whites away from the rich and powerful and toward the poor and powerless of color. Never mind that the richest 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of the nation's wealth. Never mind that the world's 85 wealthiest people own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest. Instead, white working-class conservatives have been taught to focus their antipathy on African Americans, whose median household net worth was about $6,500 in 2011.

Capitalism and racism have long been intertwined in America. That's why it won't be easy to take on the real villains who profit from our racial tensions. But when President Obama spoke at the civil rights summit on Thursday, he quoted President Johnson to explain why he was pushing progressive public policy in the face of stiff opposition from entrenched interests. "What the hell is the presidency for if not to fight for causes you believe in," he said.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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