One cannot forget that the contemporary Republican Party was born with the Southern Strategy, winning over the former Jim Crow South to its side of the political aisle, and as a backlash against the civil rights movement. This is a formula for a politics of white grievance mongering and white victimology; a dreamworld where white conservatives are oppressed, their rights infringed upon by a tyrannical federal government and elite liberal media that are beholden to the interests of the “undeserving poor,” racial minorities, gays, and immigrants.
In keeping with this script in order to win over Red State America, the 2012 Republican presidential candidates have certainly not disappointed. Both overt racism and dog whistles are delectable temptations that the Republican presidential nominees cannot resist. With the election of the country’s first African-American president, and a United States that is less white and more diverse, the GOP is in peril. In uncertain times, you go with what you know. For the Republican Party, this means “dirty boxing,” digging deep into the old bucket of white racism, and using the politics of fear, hostility and anxiety to win over white voters by demagoguing Obama.
Racism is an assault on the common good. Racism also does the work of dividing and conquering people with common interests. While the 2012 Republican candidates are stirring the pot of white racial anxiety, this is a means to a larger end—the destruction of the country’s social safety net, in support of vicious economic austerity policies, and protecting the kleptocrats and financiers at the expense of the working and middle classes.
Here are the top 10 racist moments by the Republican presidential candidates so far.
1. Newt Gingrich puts Juan Williams "in his place" for daring to ask an unpleasant question during the South Carolina debate. This was the most pernicious example of old-school white racism at work in the 2012 Republican primary campaign. Newt Gingrich, a son of the South who grew up in the shadow of legendary Jim Crow racist Lester Maddox, is an expert on the language and practice of white racism (in both its subtle and obvious forms). He has ridden high with Republican audiences by suggesting that black people are lazy, and their children should be given mops and brooms in order to learn the value of hard work. With condescending pride, Gingrich has also stated that he would lecture the NAACP--one of America’s most storied civil rights organizations--that they ought to demand jobs and not food stamps from Barack Obama.
On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, under the Confederate flag, in the state of South Carolina, Gingrich defended his racist contempt for African Americans by putting Juan Williams, “that boy,” in his place. During the debate, Juan Williams had gotten uppity and was insufficiently deferential to Newt.
This dynamic was not lost on the almost exclusively white audience in attendance (nor on the white woman who congratulated Gingrich the following day for his “brave” deed). They howled with glee at the sight of a black man, one who dared to sass, being reminded of his rightful place at Newt’s knee. In another time, not too long ago, Juan Williams would have been driven out of town for such an offense, if he was lucky -- the lynching tree awaited many black folks who did not submit to white authority.
The symbolism of Newt Gingrich’s hostility to black folks, on King’s birthday, and the personal contempt he demonstrated for Juan Williams, was a classic moment in contemporary Republican politics. This was the “scene of instruction,” when a black man was a proxy for a whole community, a stand-in for the country’s first black president, as Newt Gingrich showed just what he thinks about Barack Obama, specifically and about people of color, in general. In that moment, white conservatism’s contempt was palatable, undeniable and unapologetic.
2. Herman Cain, in one of the most grotesque performances in post-civil rights-era politics to date, deftly plays his designated role as an African-American advocate for some of the Tea Party and New Right’s most racist policy positions. Most notably, in numerous interviews Cain alluded to the Democratic Party as keeping African Americans on a “plantation,” and that black conservatives were “runaway slaves” who were uniquely positioned to “free” the minds of their brothers and sisters. The implication of his ahistorical and bizarre allusion to the Democratic Party and chattel slavery was clear: black Americans are stupid, childlike and incapable of making their own political decisions, as Cain publicly observed that “only thirty percent of black people are thinking for themselves.”
Doubling down, as a black conservative mascot for the fantasies of the Tea Party faithful, Herman Cain also suggested that anyone who accuses them of “racism” (ignoring all available evidence in support of this claim) were in fact anti-white, and the real racists.
Herman Cain’s disdain was not limited to the black public. He also argued that undocumented immigrants should be electrocuted at the U.S. border by security fences, and that Muslim Americans are inherently treasonous and should be excluded from government. Perhaps most troubling, Herman Cain advocated for extreme forms of racial profiling in which Muslims would have to carry special identification cards.
Racism and anti-black sentiment know no boundaries. Herman Cain demonstrates that some of its most deft practioners are (ironically) people of color.
3. Ron Paul argues that the landmark federal legislation that dismantled Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s was a moral evil and a violation of white people’s liberty. Ron Paul’s claim that the rights of black Americans are secondary to the “freedom” of whites to discriminate, is an almost perfect mirror for the logic of apartheid. Ron Paul’s white supremacist ethic is more than a dismissal of one of the crowning legislative achievements of the 20th century: it is the endorsement of a principle that conveniently allows white people to hate and discriminate in the public sphere at will--and without consequence--against people of color. This “freedom” is the living and bleeding heart of white racism.
4. Rick Santorum tells conservative voters that black people are parasites who live off hard-working white people. Santorum’s claim that “I don’t want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money” is problematic in a number of ways. First, Santorum channels the white supremacist classic Birth of a Nation and its imagery of childlike free blacks who are a burden on white society. In addition, Santorum’s assumption that black people are a dependent class is skewed at its root.
Why? Santorum presupposes that African Americans are uniquely pathological and lack self-sufficiency, ignores the black middle-class, and directly race-baits a white conservative audience by telling them that “the blacks” are coming for their money, jobs and resources. There is no mention of Red State America’s disproportionate dependence on public tax dollars, or how the (white) middle-class and the rich are subsidized by the federal government.
5. In keeping with the class warfare narrative, and as a way of proving their conservative bona fides, Republican candidates have crafted a strategy in which they repeatedly refer to the unemployed as lazy, unproductive citizens who would “be rich if they just went out and got a job.” In fact, as suggested by Mitt Romney, any discussion of the wealth and income gap in the United States (and the destruction of the middle class), should be done in a “quiet room,” as such truth-telling stokes mean-spirited resentment against the rich.
Conservatives have an almost Orwellian gift for manipulating language. The financier class is reframed as “job creators.” Programs that workers pay for such as Social Security are equated with “welfare.” Americans who are victims of robber baron capitalism and structural unemployment are painted as dregs who want nothing more than to “live off of the system.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, unions are painted as bastions for the weak, the greedy, and those who hate capitalism.
Race is central here: Conservatives seeded this ground with their assault on the black poor. The invention of the welfare queen by Ronald Reagan became code for lazy, fat, black women who game the system at the expense of hard-working whites. The Right uses the same framing in order to attack immigrants as people who want to destroy the country and steal the scarce resources of “productive” white Americans.
Efforts to shrink “big government” are closely related to the Right’s observation that the federal government employs “too many” blacks. The Republican Party refined its Ayn Rand-inspired shock doctrine and disaster capitalism through decades of practice on black and brown Americans. The racist tactics that were once used to justify the evisceration of programs aimed at helping the urban poor are now being applied to white folks on Main Street USA during the Great Recession.
6. Mitt Romney wants to "keep America America." The dropping of one letter from the Ku Klux Klan’s slogan, “Keep America American,” does not remove the intent behind Romney’s repeated use of such a virulently bigoted phrase. While Mitt Romney can claim ignorance of the slogan’s origins, he is intentionally channeling its energy. In the Age of Obama, the Republican Party is drunk on the tonic of nativism. From remarks about “the real America,” to supporting the mass deportation of Latinos and Hispanics, a hostility to any designated Other is central to the 21st-century know-nothing politics of the Tea Party-driven GOP. Romney’s slogan, “Keep America America” begs the obvious question: just who is American? Who gets to decide? And should there be moats and electric fences to keep the undesirables out of the country?
7. Rick Perry’s nostalgic memories of his family’s ranch, "Niggerhead." You cannot choose your parents (or decide what your ancestors will christen the family retreat before your birth). You can, however, choose to rename the family ranch something other than the ugliest word in the English language.
The world that spawned and nurtured Rick Perry’s Niggerhead was none too kind to black people. Jim and Jane Crow were the rule of the land; it was enforced through violence, threats and intimidation. Moreover, Rick Perry grew up in a “sundown town.” These were communities from which blacks were banished by violence, and where white authorities made sure that African Americans would never again be allowed in the area. The whiteness of memory and nostalgia is blinding. While he has finally dropped out of the race, the Niggerhead episode is emblematic of Rick Perry’s obsession with states’ rights, and a broader fondness for the Confederacy and secession. These are traits he shares in abundance with the remaining Republican presidential candidates.
8. Former candidate Michele Bachmann suggests that the black family was stronger during slavery than in freedom. Her claim is not just a simple misunderstanding of history and the importance of family in the Black Experience. No, she is signaling to a tired, white supremacist, slavery-apologist narrative which opines that African Americans were/are not yet ready for freedom, and could only “flourish” under the benign guidance of the Southern Slaveocracy.
In a moment when states such as Arizona and Texas are outlawing ethnic studies programs, and when the Tea Party and its allies are leading an assault on educational programs that are not sufficiently “pro-American,” Bachmann’s claims are part of a broader effort to literally whitewash U.S. history.
When married to her belief in a willful lie that the framers of the United States Constitution were abolitionists who fought tirelessly to eliminate slavery (in reality, both Jefferson and Washington were slaveowners), and a defense of slaveholding Christian whites who “loved their slaves,” Bachmann’s ignorance of the facts transcends mere stupidity and slips over to enabling white supremacy.
9. The Republican Party’s 2012 presidential candidates' near-silence about how the Great Recession has destroyed the African American and Latino middle-class. This speaks volumes about just how selectively inclusive the Republican Party—which markets itself as the defender of the “American Dream” and of an “opportunity society”—really is. During the Ronald Reagan-Politico debate, the Republican candidates were asked what they would do to address the gross and disparate impact of the Great Recession on black and brown communities.
While whites are suffering with an official unemployment rate of almost 10 percent, African Americans have struggled with a rate that is almost two to three times as high. In addition, the black and brown middle-class has seen its income, assets and wealth gutted by the Great Recession, where in 2011, whites have almost 20 times the average net worth of African Americans.
As always, when White America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu…or worse. In that awkward moment, only Rick Perry chimed in and proceeded to recycle the same tired rhetoric about “growing the economy” as a vague cure for all ills. One must ask: how would the Republican candidates have responded if the white middle-class had been devastated in the same manner, and to the same degree, as the black and brown middle-class? I would suggest that for the former, it would be treated as a crisis of epic proportions; for the latter, it is a mere curiosity and inconvenient fact.
Politics is about a sense of imagined community. The Ronald Reagan-Politico debate made clear that while the African American and Latino middle-class is being destroyed, the Republican Party has little concern or interest in remedying such a tragic event. It would seem that the Republican Party’s “big tent” has no room for “those people.”
10. The echo chamber that is Fox News, right-wing talk radio, the conservative blogosphere, and Republican elected officials daily stoke the politics of white racial resentment, bigotry and fear. Ultimately, the Republican candidates would not use racism as a weapon if it were not rewarded by their voters, and encouraged by the party’s leadership. An army travels on its stomach; it needs foot soldiers and shock troops to advance its aims.
From the ugly, race-based conspiracy fantasies of Birtherism to the astroturf politics of the Tea Party to a news network whose guests routinely disparage Barack Obama with such labels as “ghetto crackhead” to the bloviating racist utterances by opinion leaders such as Rush Limbaugh, to the common bigotry on display at right-wing Web sites that use monkey, ape, gorilla, pimp, and watermelon imagery to depict the United States’ first black president and his family, it is clear that racism “works” for the Republican Party. To ignore the attraction of rank-and-file white conservatives to such ugliness is to overlook the driving force behind the Republican nominees’ behavior.