August 25, 2012

White Americans fear a black president

Author Tim Wise lists almost 30 examples of the vilification of President Obama, then comes to an inescapable conclusion.

If It Walks Like a Duck and Talks Like a Duck: Racism, Bigotry and the Death of Respectable Conservatism

By Tim WiseHow many times, one is left to wonder, must a person be called un-American before it’s accurate to claim that he’s being accused of being foreign, and a danger to the nation? A cancer to be excised from the body politic?

How many times can a man be the butt of racist humor, or likened to black dictators, or accused of seeking racial revenge upon white people, before it is no longer outrageous or the playing of some mystical, magical race card to assert that, indeed, the people doing these things are really just race-baiting white nationalists in conservative garb?

How long, in short, before we call that which walks and talks like a duck, a fucking duck?

And yes, please, I realize that not all of these criticisms are explicitly about race (though most quite obviously are), but even those that seem free of racialized content at first glance, continue a process of othering, whereby the president becomes not just someone with objectionable policies, but someone who actually wants to hurt you, to destroy your country, to pillage the values you hold dear, to crush you and everything you believe into dust. One would have to look far and wide to uncover any rhetoric that apocalyptic said about previous presidents. Even Bill Clinton, whom the right dearly loathed, never was characterized as a would-be dictator, whose re-election would potentially spell the end of America, or whose presidency was seen as literally endangering the republic. Indeed, even when Clinton proposed health care reform that was about as moderate and lukewarm as Obama’s, those who opposed the plan never accused Bill of advocating death panels, or using health care to exact racial revenge on whites, or looking to take money from old white people and spend it on health care for undocumented immigrants. Interestingly, the extent to which Obama has been effectively othered thanks to racial resentment, actually causes whites to oppose his health care reform plan, even while they profess support for the very same plan so long as they’re told it was Bill Clinton’s.
As Wise notes, it's not just the racially tinged verbiage. Many conservative policy claims are also racially tinged:Likewise, although it is fine to criticize the president for his approach to rectifying the economic crisis and to disagree with the methods he has employed for doing so, it is also legitimate to point out how certain of those critiques—like referring to him as “the food stamp president,” or claiming (falsely as it turns out) that he has removed work requirements for persons receiving cash welfare assistance—are predictably calculated to trigger long-held racial stereotypes about who the beneficiaries of those programs are presumed to be. That there are actually only about 1.1 million able-bodied adults in the nation (only about 450,000 of them black) receiving cash assistance (and even many of these work at least part-time) doesn’t alter the fact that the perception of welfare recipients—and especially the perception that commentators like Rush Limbaugh play upon when they contrast welfare recipients with “working class whites”—is that large numbers and percentages of African Americans are dependent upon government support, and that Obama is on their side. That it’s all a lie only makes its continued repetition more transparent as to its real purpose. They know exactly what they’re doing.

Just like they know what they’re doing when they dishonestly blame the economic crisis, and especially the housing meltdown, on poor people of color, who received home loans for which they weren’t qualified thanks to the presumed meddling of civil rights activists. Although there is literally no evidence to support the bogus claim that the Community Reinvestment Act and other lending regulations caused the crisis (indeed the vast majority of bad loans weren’t even written by CRA-covered institutions, and those loans that were covered under CRA tended to perform better than others), by connecting economic insecurity to people of color—to financial “affirmative action” if you will—the right hopes to create synaptic and memetic links between white pain and black gain.

So too with their baseless claims that people-of-color led organizations like ACORN were responsible for massive election fraud in 2008, and their suggestions that such fraud may even have stolen the election for Obama. Though the claims are the stuff of ignorant and paranoid fantasy (the only fraud uncovered was registration fraud, which ACORN itself discovered and reported, and which involved registrants filling out cards with names like Donald Duck—unlikely to result in actual vote fraud unless Donald actually managed to waddle into the booth), they push oversized buttons of white fear and trepidation that those people are stealing your country from you!

And to consistently contrast the president with the founders, as the Tea Party is so quick to do, is hard to countenance other than as an implicitly racial message about how the nation has changed, and not for the better. After all, other presidents have created government programs every bit as large or larger than anything implemented by the current administration; they have created far higher taxes, and added much more to the deficit. Yet it is this president, whose beliefs and actions we are to see as uniquely breaking with the nation as the founders envisioned it. And more to the point, we are to revere without comment that bygone nation, making no note apparently of the founders’ racism, sexism, or classist elitism. Indeed, to critique the founders for their prodigious shortcomings in this regard is seen as an unjust and evil calumny. The nostalgic reverence for people who openly held to a belief in white supremacy, who believed in restricting the franchise to white male property owners (as do at least some among the contemporary right wing), and who in all regards intended to establish a white republic, with liberty and justice solely for a few, is an inherently racial message. Whether it transmits that message loudly, like a cell phone on full volume (to borrow a metaphor from Michael Eric Dyson), or quietly, like the same phone on vibrate matters little. The call is received, and the message is left in the inbox of an anxious white polity.

When you look at the persistent racialization of anti-Obama rhetoric, and the lost cause-type nostalgia that is so central to the modern conservative narrative, it is very difficult to ignore how whiteness and implicit white supremacy forms the cornerstone of the Republican Party and especially its rightmost wing. And when you then examine the particular strategies being employed by the right to help “take the country back” from the interloper they feel has hijacked it, such as limiting early voting (because it tends to increase turnout among folks of color and the poor), or the Voter ID craze (which won’t actually stop mythical fraudulent in-person voting but which will disproportionately effect turnout among people of color and the poor who are less likely to have photo ID), the relationship between white anxiety and modern conservatism becomes even clearer.
Why Obama can't discuss race

Fear of a Black President

As a candidate, Barack Obama said we needed to reckon with race and with America’s original sin, slavery. but as our first black president, he has avoided mention of race almost entirely. In having to be “twice as good” and “half as black,” Obama reveals the false promise and double standard of integration.

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.

No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to “every parent in America.” His insistence that “everybody [pull] together” was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.

By virtue of his background—the son of a black man and a white woman, someone who grew up in multiethnic communities around the world—Obama has enjoyed a distinctive vantage point on race relations in America. Beyond that, he has displayed enviable dexterity at navigating between black and white America, and at finding a language that speaks to a critical mass in both communities. He emerged into national view at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, with a speech heralding a nation uncolored by old prejudices and shameful history. There was no talk of the effects of racism. Instead Obama stressed the power of parenting, and condemned those who would say that a black child carrying a book was “acting white.” He cast himself as the child of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas and asserted, “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” When, as a senator, he was asked if the response to Hurricane Katrina evidenced racism, Obama responded by calling the “ineptitude” of the response “color-blind.”

Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police. And hence Barack Obama’s insisting that there was no racial component to Katrina’s effects; that name-calling among children somehow has the same import as one of the oldest guiding principles of American policy—white supremacy. The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld. The larger effects of this withholding constrict Obama’s presidential potential in areas affected tangentially—or seemingly not at all—by race. Meanwhile, across the country, the community in which Obama is rooted sees this fraudulent equality, and quietly seethes.
Coates adds some historical context:What black people are experiencing right now is a kind of privilege previously withheld—seeing our most sacred cultural practices and tropes validated in the world’s highest office. Throughout the whole of American history, this kind of cultural power was wielded solely by whites, and with such ubiquity that it was not even commented upon. The expansion of this cultural power beyond the private province of whites has been a tremendous advance for black America. Conversely, for those who’ve long treasured white exclusivity, the existence of a President Barack Obama is discombobulating, even terrifying. For as surely as the iconic picture of the young black boy reaching out to touch the president’s curly hair sends one message to black America, it sends another to those who have enjoyed the power of whiteness.

In America, the rights to own property, to serve on a jury, to vote, to hold public office, to rise to the presidency have historically been seen as belonging only to those people who showed particular integrity. Citizenship was a social contract in which persons of moral standing were transformed into stakeholders who swore to defend the state against threats external and internal. Until a century and a half ago, slave rebellion ranked high in the fevered American imagination of threats necessitating such an internal defense.

In the early years of our republic, when democracy was still an unproven experiment, the Founders were not even clear that all white people should be entrusted with this fragile venture, much less the bestial African. Thus Congress, in 1790, declared the following:All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to all the rights of citizenship.In such ways was the tie between citizenship and whiteness in America made plain from the very beginning. By the 19th century, there was, as Matthew Jacobson, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, has put it, “an un­questioned acceptance of whiteness as a prerequisite for natural­ized citizenship.” Debating Abraham Lincoln during the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 1858, Stephen Douglas asserted that “this government was made on the white basis” and that the Framers had made “no reference either to the Negro, the savage Indians, the Feejee, the Malay, or an other inferior and degraded race, when they spoke of the equality of men.”
Following Nixon's "Southern strategy"

With the Republican convention about to begin, Romney made a birther "joke." Along with his flat-out lie that Obama is cutting work requirements for welfare recipients, Romney is playing the race card openly. He knows the only way he can win is to appeal to white America.

Another posting nicely (and sarcastically) sums up Romney's racial appeal:

Pin the Tale on the Honky

Romney isn’t using birthers and bigotry against Obama. It just looks that way.

By William Saletan
Everything Romney and his surrogates say about Obama gets treated as some kind of offense. Not understanding America. Not knowing how to be an American. Growing up in Indonesia. Thinking like a foreigner. Declaring war on our religion. Not sharing our values. Not appreciating our Anglo-Saxon heritage. Not investigating Muslims. Not having a trusted birth certificate. It’s gotten to the point where Romney can’t open his mouth without somebody misconstruing his motives. Poor guy.Comment:  Again, the facts are conclusive. When Romney passed "Obamacare" in Massachusetts, people approved it. When Obamacare is described as Bill Clinton's plan, people approve it. Only when it's attributed to a black man do people claim it's "socialist" and "un-American."

Stephen Douglas's assertion--that “this government was made on the white basis”--is still what many Americans believe. They agree with Douglas that blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Indians aren't "real Americans" and don't deserve to run the country. That role is reserved for the people who supposedly founded America: white Euro-Christians.

True, not all conservatives are racists. But America's conservative party as a whole is racist, or racist enough. The constant slurs about Obama's race, religion, and patriotism are the proof.

For more on conservative racism, see Republican Official Prefers Custer to Indians, Sikh Shootings Reflect White Supremacy, and Racists Hate and Fear Minority Babies.


Anonymous said...

Correction: Some white Americans fear a black president. Obviously enough voted for Obama the first time, and he's doing surprisingly well for the Consumer Confidence Index.

ba san said...

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dmarks said...

This is almost as fascinating as the tale of the policeman named Joe Guccipurse.