I'm a bit late to this, but reading about Sotomayor's dissent in the Supreme Court's recent case regarding affirmative action has gotten me to thinking about how racist the right wing version of individualism is.
Something that always strikes me in public discussion of race is how the right wing so often proposes policies that would have disparate impacts on individuals of different races, such as cutting funding for inner cities, or to hearken back a few decades, the midnight raids to make sure people receiving AFDC didn't have a man cohabiting with them. In some cases these policies and denials of racist motivations are undoubtedly dissembling by people who are really racists, like Cliven Bundy, who are rather more common than those on the right are willing to admit. However, I feel that more often the policies being made are based on a deep commitment to a rather extreme form of individualism. And it is this doctrine, rather than any particular animus towards other races, that is extremely racist.*
The strong reaction to accusations of racism by the right wing, and their insistence it is the left that is racist for recognizing race matters, results from the threat that the continued persistence of racism poses to their beliefs in individualism and meritocracy. After all, if race and the previous distribution of wealth didn't matter in outcomes why is the distribution of wealth, income, and status so uneven between racial groups? In writing about these issues conservatives are forced to navigate between a Scylla of denying individualism to admit that group matters in American life and a Charybdis of making blatantly racist remarks that are a direct consequence of their individualist philosophy.
We see two basic strategies used by conservatives to cope. One strategy is to say that American culture uniquely frees the individual from group concerns, only in American culture can individuals really act as individuals. Other cultures are in some way bad and hold individuals back. If anyone actually thinks about it these kinds of arguments are obviously self-refuting, the arguer has already acknowledged that culture matters which means that more than individual merit and effort matters for results in life. This should lead to thinking about American culture a bit and realizing that there are a rather large number of factors outside the individual that matter in life. Obviously this step is not often taken, though subgroups of conservatives, like the paleo-conservatives over at The American Conservative,** show that there is room for conservative philosophy to abandon unrealistic assumptions about individualism to use a more accurate and nuanced conceptualization of the human condition.
The second method relies on various strains of "academic" racism, such as The Bell Curve.*** The common thread in these rationalizations is that they seek to preserve the myth of the individual and meritocracy by arguing that other races in general are inferior on some significant measure of ability. These beliefs help protect a belief in individualism and meritocracy by claiming that while a lack of ability leads to statistically lower achievement, individuals of high ability from these groups are just as likely to succeed as individuals from other more advantaged groups. This explanation obviously cuts rather closer to the racial animus conception of racism and gets shouted down rapidly, but it is less problematic for ideological individualism than the cultural explanations.
The hard work of refuting these claims is well beyond the scope of this post, though famous studies which compare how likely someone with a distinctly black name is to be called back for a job relative to someone with a white name are sufficiently well known that I only need mention their existence. What I am hoping to make clear, however, is that in discussions of race, conservatives and liberals are often talking past one another. When conservatives are talking of individualism, liberals hear racism, and when liberals talk about race, conservatives hear attacks on individualism.
This isn't to say, however, that there is some sort of moral equivalence to both sides. The continued persistence of racism and its well established sociological components really are arguments against strong versions of individualism and meritocracy. Liberals should do more to attack this philosophy directly, it is the root source of much of the institutional racism in American society. The facts simply don't agree with the philosophy and we should be more direct with saying this, rather than tiptoeing around it because individualism and meritocracy have positive connotations in American society. Incorrect is incorrect, whether or not we moralize the incorrect belief.
* In applying the label racist to someone I feel this is a distinction without a difference. But if the intent is to debate the issue and win arguments in the general public sphere I think it is important to distinguish between simple racial animus and ideas with racist consequences.
** Not meant as saying I've never read anything that isn't somewhat racist over there, but it is not the kind of racism I am writing about here that originates in a strong philosophical commitment to ideological individualism.
*** See this post at Noahpinion for some recent discussion of academic racism, particularly follow the link to Gelman. The only thing I really have to add is that if someone really wanted to look into this there should be the possibility of looking at genetically distinct subpopulations that are sociologically similar, such as variation between groups of African Americans which are genetically distinct. This may easily have been done, but what I have been exposed to on the topic is normally looking at sociologically distinct groups, whether black/white or groups like Ashkenazi Jews, which seems a rather backward way of investigating the relative weight of genetic and sociological factors.