When Florida Congressman Ted Yoho this week denounced a ten percent tax on tanning beds as a “racist tax”, he illustrated the GOP’s unwillingness to grasp the true scope and depth of real racism. A small tax that an individual pays for the voluntary and unnecessary act of going to a tanning bed may seem inconvenient for the consumer, but real racism is about much more than suffering mild inconveniences. However, to a US Representative who has grown up as a beneficiary of white privilege, perhaps the “oppression” of having to pay taxes on a suntanning session, is as “oppressive” a system of discrimination as he can imagine.
Ted Yoho thinks a tanning tax is racist. Never mind that the tax applies to anyone who enters a tanning salon, regardless of race. Never mind that the tax, like a cigarette tax, is a user tax imposed upon a specific behavior that assumes unnecessary health risks. Never mind that the tax would fund a health care system that could in return be used to pay for the very skin cancer treatments tanning salon patrons might require later in life, as a result of their choice to expose themselves to excess radiation. To Ted Yoho, the tax is racist because Congressman Yoho believes in white victimhood, and in his mind it is so unfair that the tanning bed tax might disproportionately burden people who look like him. Boo hoo.
It would be easy to dismiss Yoho’s comments as simply the product of his manifest and monumental stupidity, but unfortunately his claims of being oppressed by “Obama’s racism” is an all too familiar chorus from today’s Republican right-wing. By trivializing racism, and by reversing the role of victim and oppressor, the Republicans are engaged in an active campaign to undermine efforts to address real racism in this country and to perpetuate the racial inequality that continues to exist. If they can reduce our conceptualization of racism to petty injustices perpetrated against people of privilege, they can by extension attempt to discredit all claims of racism by trivializing the very definition of the term.
What Republicans would like us to overlook is that real racism is institutionalized and its effects are far more pervasive and damaging than a mere inconvenience like paying a tanning tax. Institutionalized racism affects housing practices, income levels, labor market discrimination, incarceration rates, educational opportunities and health care accessibility, all of which, taken together are not matters of convenience but can literally be matters of life and death.
Evidence of real racism that involves significant real life consequences is plentiful. For example, according to Marc Mauer’s May 2009 Congressional Testimony for The Sentencing Project, 56 percent of inmates housed in state prisons for drug offenses are African-American despite the fact that blacks only make up about 14 percent of illicit drug users in the United States. Obviously, if a drug suspect is arrested and imprisoned instead of being released or put on probation it affects his life chances a lot more than a ten percent tanning tax. A sociological study conducted by Devah Pager and published by the University of Chicago, found that white job applicants with a felony conviction were more likely to be called back for a job interview than black applicants with no criminal history. That type of discrimination affects unemployment rates and household income and is far more pernicious than the imposition of a simple little tax on tanning beds.
In nearly every aspect of life, institutional racism creates structural barriers that have a negative impact on the life chances of people of color. This reality is apparently unrecognized by Congressman Yoho, who instead casts Obama as a racist because of a tax on tanning beds. With such a tone deaf understanding of racism, it is no wonder that the GOP is having a hard time attracting minority voters. The fact that Republican voices in Congress are railing against “racism against whites” because of a small tax on tanning beds instead of addressing the very real problem of systemic structural racism that affects people of color daily, is symptomatic of the problems inherent within a political party that has become so insular and so white that they simply cannot comprehend what real racism looks like.