The New Racism

A Talk with PRA Director Tarso Luís Ramos

PRAccess: So you've been here almost a year. What do you think about your new professional home?

It is very rewarding to work with such an accomplished research team. Collectively, we must have a half century or more of experience studying right-wing leaders, social movements and political projects. Given the gravity of the issues on which we work, it's a relief to discover that everyone has a pretty developed sense of humor.

The breadth of PRA's mission is sometimes daunting. Staying current on developments across multiple sectors of the Right while also deepening my historical knowledge beyond current areas of expertise is a definite challenge. You pick up a lot in the normal course of a day, but I could spend a month in our library without making it through more than a small fraction of our collection.

What excites me most is developing tools that are useful to social justice organizations, be they in-depth research reports, fact sheets or workshops. I look forward to collaborating with many more of our movement allies in shaping this work.

PRAccess: Last May, after seeing the spring demonstrations, you were optimistic about the possibilities for an effective immigrant rights social movement in the U.S. Do you have any thoughts now on ways groups could sustain that movement?

You couldn't help but feel inspired by the millions of immigrants who withheld their labor and took to the streets to protest their economic exploitation and efforts to criminalize their lives - as seen in the Sensenbrenner immigration bill (HR4437).

We saw that the May Day mobilizations were for the most part organized independently of the immigrant rights groups and networks usually at the forefront of the struggle - a situation as exciting as it was surprising.

Despite a strong Latino backlash against Republicans in the midterm elections, chances of truly progressive immigration reform from this Democratic Congress are not good. I think that the most progressive wings of the movement view this as a longer struggle and are prioritizing the building of grassroots infrastructure. A pattern of large, high-profile worksite raids by federal immigration agents has recently emerged as a threat and organizing opportunity - at least in local areas. Such episodes expose the contradictions and brutal inhumanity of our immigration and economic policies.

PRAccess: What do you think of the growing movement among progressives for Black-Brown dialogues on race?

I've participated in a couple of these dialogues and have a lot of thoughts! The U.S. racial caste system is experiencing significant shifts that warrant our close attention and discussion. I think the impulse for dialogue is a positive one, but there is also some danger of substituting an over-simplified Black/Latino/White racial paradigm for the still-dominant Black/White one. The model minority image tends to eclipse the reality of poor and marginalized Cambodian, Filipino and other "Asians" - a racial category at least as diverse as "Latino." Indigenous communities, whether from within the U.S.'s borders or beyond, are often overlooked in the "Black/Brown" frame - even when members of these communities are regarded as "Latinos."

The phrase "Black/Brown" may also belie a tendency to conflate skin color with culture and history. Where do afro-Latinos, for instance, fit in this equation? There are of course legitimate concerns that some African-Americans have and will throw their support behind anti-immigrant policies, and that some Latinos have and will exploit the potential political clout of their fast-growing communities at the expense of African-Americans. These questions demand discussion, but not to the exclusion of considering larger complex issues such as how white economic and political dominance is changing to adapt and thrive in a more multiracial United States.

PRAccess: Can you tell me a bit about your research on the "new racism" and the Right's colorblind ideology?

Colorblind - or, as some call it, "power evasive" - racism is arguably the hegemonic racial ideology of the post-Civil Rights period in the United States, which is to say that its influence extends well beyond the organized Right Wing. Among its core tenets is belief in the diminishing salience of race - a belief that makes the perpetuation of stark racial inequalities more rather than less likely. When pressed, adherents often acknowledge, and even decry, harmful racial disparities but ultimately oppose most or all policy interventions to reduce them. But they justify their opposition not with "old racist" rationales such as biological inferiority. Rather, this kinder, gentler racism argues (sometimes apologetically) that underprivileged communities of color are responsible for their own lot with "new racism" arguments, such as the cultural pathology thesis developed in neoconservative Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's Racism Without Racists provides an excellent dissection of "colorblind" ideology. I'm interested in exposing how this now "common sense" set of ideas facilitates specific right-wing initiatives on race and serves as a fundamental obstacle to racial progress.

PRAccess: PRA is increasingly using new technology to deliver research information to our constituents in accessible formats. What are some of the new technology initiatives at PRA?

Organizers and advocates working in PRA's priority areas of racial justice, LGBT equity, reproductive justice, civil liberties, and economic justice will soon find new and expanded resources on our website. We now release many of our new reports as PDF files that can be downloaded directly from, and we're looking at doing the same with some of our back catalog of reports and perhaps even a few of our books. Our senior analyst, Chip Berlet, is a part-time denizen of the blogosphere and contributes regularly at Talk2Action, the leading blog site on the Christian Right. Through a new partnership with National Radio Project's Making Contact program, Public Eye editor Abby Scher is producing half-hour audio documentaries for syndicated broadcast and webcast. And that's just some of what we're doing. Stay tuned.

Spring/Summer 2007

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