Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Historian's Reflections on the Political Use of Racial Fear by the American Right Wing

I think I may have to put Werner Herzog's Bear on a semi-permanent retainer. His measured voice...such a historian isn't he...is a nice balance for my often histrionic bombast. Courtesy of the blog, I Used to be Disgusted Now I Try to be Amused:


This article is less about the abuse of history than the history that much of our current political debate (if it can be called such) developed from. That hidden history (for the layperson, at least) is the political use of racial fear.

Some of these moments are pretty obvious, like the rhetoric of white supremacy used by Democrats in the 1870s to roll back Reconstruction. Campaign posters of the time unabashadly announced that "this is a white man's country" and that the Democratic party was for the "white man" and the Republican side was for the "negro" with stereotypical images thrown in to make the point.

Since the 1960s the use of racial fear has necessarily become more subtle and veiled, but remained just as potent and effective. The 1968 election is a case in point. Ardent segregationist George Wallace's ads alluded to law and order, school busing, and "local control of schools" without needing to explain that white fear and prejudice towards blacks was a major factor in his policy stances. During that same election Nixon used Wallace's split of the Southern Democrat vote and a less inflammatory version of his rhetoric to take the White House (and gave the Republicans their biggest success in the South to that point.)

Ronald Reagan, that canonized pole star of the modern day Right, learned these lessons well. His infamous 1980 campaign speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, is case in point. Standing in the place where Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner were murdered in one of the most well-known violent attacks on the civil rights movement, he attacked welfare programs and claimed that he would stand for "states rights." At this moment, and others in his campaign, he implicitly associated welfare with African-Americans. States rights" had been the language of Wallace and other Southern governors in response to federal integration measures, certainly contrasted with the fight for equal rights that Goodman, Shwerner, and Cheney were martyred for.

His apologists like to pretend that Reagan's comments were entirely innocent, but at the very least they show a staggering inattention to the issue of racial inequality. Imagine if he had gone to Wounded Knee, and given a speech praising "frontier pioneers" without mentioning Native Americans, or had gone to a Waffen SS cemetery and called Nazi Germany's foot soldiers "victims" of Nazism. (He actually did the latter.)

Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, managed to make a comeback against Michael Dukakis and take the White House largely due to the Willie Horton ad, which nakedly played on white fears of black men. Like the Swift Boat ads in 2004, it was not produced officially by the Bush campaign, meaning that it could benefit politically from the fears it stoked while being able to plausibly deny any connection with its sentiment. This ugly tactic was so obvious that it was roundly denounced at the time, which may have lead to an overall reduction in the use of the racial fear card during the 1990s. (In 2004 homophobia was used intead, to great effect.)

These days the racial fear mongers have been active, with Glenn Beck ridiculously claiming that Barack Obama is a racist who "hates white culture," and the likes of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III turning the Sotomayor hearings into a circus of alleged white male victimization. Already during the election the birthers ginned up their crazy assault on reality, buoyed by the notion that Barack Obama's race and background made him alien to "real America," in the words of Sarah Palin. (Notice Wallace's similar use of "America" in his ad.)

The feverish inability to accept a black man as the leader of "America," which is most certainly coded white in their minds as much as it was in the 1870s, has made the expressions of fear and hate less guarded and more public. Witness the distrubing uptick in death threats against the president (including out in broad daylight by sign holding protesters) and the insane claims of the "deathers." The whole "death panel" rumor has absolutely no basis in reality whatsoever, but has a whole lot of basis in the perpetual white racial fears, which easily slide into the realm of the fantastical. I seriously doubt that this rumor would have been nearly as public, or would even be in existence, if it the current health care reform had been proposed by a white president. Clinton had Harry and Louise, but nothing like this. (This fear has always been gendered, too. Notice that deathers talk of "Grandma" getting killed by president Obama, not "Grandpa.")

If anything, the ability for that long-standing fear to still drive our public discourse, the same fear that made The Birth of a Nation the first movie blockbuster and gave the South to the Republican Party, shows that it's not going away any time soon. As I will explore soon, it is by no means the only factor, or even the most important, in the current backlash, but it should put to rest the ridiculous claims about America being a "post-racial" society.


Jillian said...

I know this is the wrong place for this comment, but WHY on earth is Zora's picture represented by white Angelina Jolie playing 1/6 black Mariane Pearl?

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

In Zora's absence I will answer :)

That is the joke--we all embody blackness and respectability in our own way. But, there is also a hidden meaning--there are clues throughout the site.


Isaac said...

this has to be my favorite post thus far. excellence in the highest degree

White Dude said...

We live in a capitalistic economic system. The benefits of that system are that we can get amazing stuff for very little, relatively, and that some among us can make money for ourselves (by God's grace). The problems of that system are that there has always been, and will always need to be, a class of 'have-nots' who can be exploited in order to both produce things at low cost and to make money for others. The issue behind the health-care debacle - and really, the issue that underlies most of the anti-Obama rhetoric and feeling - is that many of my fellow [white] Americans who have benefitted from the capitalistic system are tremendously upset about the possibility that their gain will be taken/ redistributed to those who have NOT benefitted, irregardless of whether it was gotten “legally” or “illegally.” [As always, whether something is “legal” or not is defined by the WASP cultural system ‘winners.’] We are looking at part of the rage of the elite/rich WASP man's system, a system which has built its economic empire and regime on the backs of all those, bar none, who are not of its own ilk. Finally, however, someone - Obama - is calling the system on the carpet, and ingeniously doing it through the mechanics of the system itself (i.e., by being President). In some ways, the ‘white anger’ which we are seeing the talking heads display is unfortunately prototypical – and is going to need to play out in multiple arenas before we can really get to the next level.

gordon gartrelle said...

Thank you for your insightful comment, White Dude.

But I take issue with one aspect of your analysis:

We are looking at part of the rage of the elite/rich WASP man's system, a system which has built its economic empire and regime on the backs of all those, bar none, who are not of its own ilk.

Though it's stoked by elites--talking heads, millionaires, politicians--I'd wager that the most virulent grassroots hatred is coming from those who haven't benefited that much from the system: poor rural and suburban whites.

So the real question for political analysts and progressive activists is what accounts for the right's hold on these poor white Americans. Some blame poor education and the failure of the media; but it really seems to be about the psychic wages that whiteness offers these poor, marginalized white folks.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thanks again Chauncey for reposting me.

To back up Gordon, I think that whiteness has a lot to do with the rage we're seeing. Universal health care is predicated on the idea that we all belong to the same community, and so no fellow member ought to go without something so important and basic as health insurance.

We are the only wealthy nation in the world without universal health coverage, and the fact that a large percentage of white people do not view African-Americans as part of the same community as them is one the deciding factors.

I think that the corporate interests are looking to maximize their profits, but are more than happy to benefit from rage that has its sources in racial fear.

Anonymous said...

Great post that gets at the heart of the issue that not just healthcare, but really everything Obama has done or will do while in office will always be about race to a certain segment of our nation, even as he tries to do it not just for black people, or people of color, or poor people or any other special interest group seen as lying outside of the "real America," but for all Americans of all backgrounds... I would also direct folks to a really clear analysis by Tim Wise of why "socialism" when used by the conservative right as a rule stands for all things wrong and colored re: modern governance in the age of Obama. Check it out http://www.redroom.com/blog/tim-wise/red-baiting-and-racism-socialism-new-black-bogeyman and in the meanwhile try to contain your outrage and stay informed as the debate over salient issues continues to devolve into insanity...