Conservatives must be feeling regretful. After nearly fifty years of using appeals to white racial resentment to take over the South, win presidential elections and control of Congress, conservatives are realizing this might come back to bite them in the ass. As the right wing has become xenophobic and anti-Latino, conservatives have watched young Latinos and young Asian Americans join young African-Americans in being overwhelmingly Democratic. The greater diversity of this younger generation has in turn meant that Democrats, especially Barack Obama, have won handily among young voters in recent elections. All of a sudden, conservatives see being the party of angry white males as a potential liability, and they want to change their image. 

You can see this concern in Mitt Romney’s recent campaign events touting his substantively thin but rhetorically compassionate education reform agenda. As the Washington Post reported on Romney’s visit to a school in West Philadelphia on Thursday, his first campaign event in a majority black neighborhood: “Mitt Romney’s campaign team has been quietly laying plans for an outreach effort to President Obama’s most loyal supporters—black voters—not just to chip away at the huge Democratic margins but also as a way to reassure independent swing voters that Romney can be inclusive and tolerant in his thinking and approach.” Romney’s campaign insists they are sincere, but they never made any such outreach during the primaries, when they were competing against Newt Gingrich’s successful efforts to appeal to racism in his campaign in South Carolina.  

The conservative media are happy to help burnish both white racial anxieties and the official story line that Republicans are the friends of minorities by trying to tell an oddly inverted story of race relations in America. According to National Review’s current cover story by Kevin Williamson, it is the Republican Party which has consistently supported civil rights and Democrats who have opposed it. Meanwhile, conservative blogs, talk radio and Fox News hype random stories of anti-white violence, creating the false impression that whites are more often the victims of hate crimes by blacks than the reverse.

The National Review argument has been thoroughly debunked in many outlets. Over at Democracy Journal, Clay Risen demonstrates “Williamson’s embarrassingly basic misunderstanding of American history.” There used to be liberal pro–civil rights wings and conservative anti–civil rights wings in both parties, hence the misleading factoid commonly cited by conservative pundits that a higher proportion of Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, especially Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who pushed the issue and got the law passed. Republicans nominated anti–civil rights conservative extremist Barry Goldwater in 1964 and thus began their conversion of the South. Goldwater carried five Southern states despite losing in a landslide. “For a variety of reasons—including, but not only, racial politics—both parties went through ideological realignments in the postwar decades, so that today we speak of Republicans as almost uniformly conservative and Democrats as almost uniformly liberal,” notes Risen. “The GOP of today is simply not the GOP of 1963.” That’s why anti–civil rights Southern conservatives such as Trent Lott, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms became Republicans. Williamson is simply lying when he writes, “those southerners who defected from the Democratic Party in the 1960s and thereafter did so to join a Republican party that was far more enlightened on racial issues than were the Democrats of the era.”

Most embarrassingly, Williamson starts his story by proudly proclaiming National Review’s history of debunking pernicious myths. (In this case, the myth is that Democrats supported civil rights more than Republicans.) But he makes no mention of National Review’s own history of opposing civil rights. As Jonathan Chait writes in New York, “conservative Republicans—those represented politically by Goldwater, and intellectually by William F. Buckley and National Review—did oppose the civil rights movement. Buckley wrote frankly about his endorsement of white supremacy: “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.”

Critics of Williamson’s piece were generous enough not to mention that National Review’s tendencies towards racism and opposition to civil rights continue today. National Review recently let go of longtime contributor John Derbyshire for penning a shockingly bigoted rant in another publication, although as NR editor Rich Lowry, admitted, “Derb has long danced around the line on these issues.” Derbyshire has since continued to write for the racist conservative Website VDARE, which is run by fellow National Review exile Peter Brimelo. Regarding the proper name for VDARE’s corner of the right, Derbyshire wrote on May 10, “The enemies of conservatism are eager to supply their own nomenclature. ‘White Supremacist’ seems to be their current favorite…. Leaving aside the intended malice, I actually think ‘White Supremacist’ is not bad semantically. White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with.”

NR also had to drop another contributor, Robert Weissberg, shortly thereafter for having, in Lowry’s words, “delivered a noxious talk about the future of white nationalism.” Meanwhile NR defends voting laws that would disenfranchise minorities through onerous requirements such as presenting government-issued photo identification. And it argues that the Voting Rights Act is no longer necessary.

That last part speaks to the other half of the conservative misinformation campaign about race. In order to simultaneously pretend to support civil rights in principle and oppose it now in practice, you must make the claim that the movement was so successful it has, if anything gone too far.

There is a corollary to this logic holding that it is blacks that oppress whites, rather than the reverse. This is, of course, a regular feature in arguments against affirmative action. Similarly, McKay Coppins recently reported in BuzzFeed on the odd conservative media fixation with occasional crimes that happen to be perpetrated against a white victim by a group of black aggressors. Coppins writes:

If you’ve spent much time consuming conservative media lately, you’ve probably learned about a slow-burning “race war” going on in America today. Sewing together disparate data points and compelling anecdotes like the attack in Norfolk, conservative bloggers and opinion-makers are driving the narrative with increasing frequency. Their message: Black-on-white violence is spiking—and the mainstream media is trying to cover it up.

This notion isn’t necessarily new to the right, which has long complained about stifling political correctness in the media and the rising tide of “reverse racism….

The irony of the race war narrative’s latest flare-up is that it comes at a time when national crime rates have reached historic lows—including reported hate crimes against whites. According to a report released by the FBI, there were 575 anti-white bias crimes reported in 2010—up slightly from the 545 reported in 2009, but distinctly lower than the 716 reported in 2008. Overall, the past decade has seen a downward trend in anti-white bias crime. What’s more, hate crimes against blacks have continued to outstrip those against whites by about four-to-one: In 2010 alone, there were 2,201 reported. Violent crimes across the spectrum reached a four-decade low in 2010.

Conservative media have been especially eager to smear Trayon Martin, the young black victim of a shooting for which the perpetrator was initially not arrested. They are also getting on the wrong side of modern civil rights struggles, by opposing gay rights and fanning the flames of Islamophobia. And as is especially the case with Fox News, their biggest sin of all may be simple inaccuracy.