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How the Old Racism Became the New Fearism

05/26/2010 06:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are fewer sentences more sincerely uttered these days than "I'm not a racist." In fact, except on the Aryan fringe, you'd be hard put to find anybody who believes the word applies to them. And they're telling the truth too, strictly speaking.

Hate is so last century; it has been replaced by fear. Not fear of dark people themselves, but fear of what their ascendancy represents for white people. Barack Obama embodies the new reality that blacks are finally getting a seat at the table -- sometimes at its head. Hispanics are the hardest-working, fastest growing demographic in the country. When money and power expands in a one segment of the population, it recedes somewhere else. We on the left may view this as the bloated minority finally contracting toward right-sizedness, but if you've had more than your fair share for centuries, you're bound to experience any readjustment as an usurpation of your just entitlement.

It's not for nothing that the Tea Partiers suffer the most from fearism. They are overwhelmingly white, over 45, and are mostly in the top quintile of American income earners. They are reacting viscerally to their perception that they will have to go from having more to having less, just so the have-nots can finally have some. In their world view, if you have little, it's because you've done little. They seem to see the men hanging out in front of the Home Depot as if they're not the same construction workers who built all those (now foreclosed) houses during the bubble. (Their legal status didn't get too much scrutiny when they were willing to make $7/ hour working all day in the hot sun, did it?)

This fear creates all sorts of distorted perceptions, as fear tends to do. There's the irrational certainty that Obama is going to take their guns away, (after the census but before he rounds them up for FEMA concentration camps.) Universal healthcare has been twisted into the ultimate socialist plot, replete with death panels and gulag rationing. The phobias are always around loss--you can only want your country "back" if you're convinced it's been taken away.

Less prosperous whites fear that they will fall even further down the economic ladder, but they are also clinging to less tangible sources of status. Being born here, speaking English, raised a Christian--all of these accidents of birth feel like accomplishments if you don't have a lot else in your life to feel proud about. It's a scary thought that none of these traits make you intrinsically better than anyone else in the world---or would be if you allowed yourself to think it.

Don't get me wrong, someone waving a poster with Obama as a witch doctor on it certainly provides ample ammo for the label of old-fashioned racist. But that wouldn't explain how the right could idealize a Clarence Thomas or elevate a Michael Steele. They're not afraid of fellow ideologues who happen to be black or brown, they're only afraid of those who represent or promise change. If we sometimes feel outnumbered and outfoxed (pun intended) by the tea-party right, imagine how they felt on election night, 2008? "Left Behind" is not supposed to be about them.

If fear or prejudice both lead to the same racist result, why is it important to distinguish between the two as its cause? Because the same person who is certain they're no hater might be willing to admit they're afraid. It's a little humbling, but at least it doesn't make you a bad person. And those who acknowledge that fear is driving them might start to peer over the veil of unreason to make less fevered and more rational choices.