The broad social structure of white supremacy is not a part of the working conservative definition of racism. Conservatives see racism as a series of discrete acts of overt oppression. After slavery had disappeared, but before legal segregation had, conservatives considered it preposterous to claim that blacks suffered any systematic disadvantage in American life. (For an lengthy but fascinating expression of the conservative view, watch William F. Buckley in 1965 sneering his way through a debate over race relations with James Baldwin.)
Today, conservatives retroactively agree that legal segregation may have been unfair, but now things run on an even footing. Republicans, by a 60-40 margin, now believe discrimination against whites has grown to be a larger problem than discrimination against minorities. In fact, in nearly every way it can be measured, traditional white-on-black racism persists. Jamelle Bouie lists a few of them: Experiments show candidates with white-sounding names are vastly more likely to get callbacks than candidates with black-sounding names with equally impressive résumés; realtors show fewer homes to prospective nonwhite home buyers than to white buyers of equal financial standing; the criminal justice system imposes large racial disparities for the same criminal behavior; and on and on.
None of these experiments are known, or would even sound plausible, to avid followers of conservative news sources, where “racism” is encountered primarily as a politically motivated slander against conservatives by liberals. Again, it bears repeating that most conservatives find Klan-style white supremacy foreign, and usually completely unacceptable. The racial fissures of the Obama era do not look like 1957 Little Rock. Undisguised racism, while numerically frequent — it’s a big country — has largely remained confined to the political margins. Tea party activists have suppressed openly bigoted signs at their rallies, National Review fired two blatantly white-supremacist writers, a Republican precinct chair had to resign after boasting that a restrictive voting law would target “lazy blacks.”
Instead, the racial battlegrounds of the Obama era have settled on a series of more ambiguous controversies. Conservatives have made endless jokes based on the strange premise that Obama is unable to express coherent thoughts unless reading from a teleprompter, defined health-care reform as “reparations,” imagined a Reagan-era program to subsidize telephone use for the indigent is actually “Obamaphones,” or complained when black entertainers or athletes socialize with the First Family. The accusations of racism that follow merely confirm to conservatives that black-on-white racism is a canard, that the balance of oppression has turned against them.