The 2012 primary campaign has repeatedly demonstrated that Republicans are trying to mobilize their voters by tapping into racial anxieties.
Newt Gingrich calling Obama a “food stamp president,” Rick Santorum implying that African Americans are parasites who leach off of white people, and Ron Paul’s old newsletters, which describe black men as monstrous beasts (“giant negroes” who stand ready to attack whites at any moment), are examples of this phenomenon on the national stage. However, Republican candidates for lower office have also pulled a page out of this playbook.
As their subtle dog-whistles escalate into clarion calls of overt racism to the Tea Party faithful, Mark Oxner, Republican candidate for Congress in Florida, has chosen to join the proverbial band. What is his contribution? A campaign commercial featuring President Barack Obama as the captain of a slave ship which is heading for inevitable doom as it sails over a waterfall—and bringing all of “us” down with it.
Mark Oxner’s ad is a marvelous example of right-wing propaganda; it is carefully crafted and rich with provocative imagery. For example, in keeping with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus’ recent suggestion that President Obama’s leadership is akin to Captain Schettino's (the captain of the capsized Italian cruise ship Costa Condordia, on which 17 people were killed), Obama is depicted as irresponsible and negligent, abusing the child slaves who are forced to row the mighty vessel.
It is important to emphasize the choices made by the producers of Oxner’s video. They decided to use a colonial-era vessel driven by wind and powered by slaves, as opposed to a modern cruise liner, a steamship, or even an airplane. They chose to cast the children as slaves who are monitored by a whip-carrying overseer. And Oxner’s ad was designed to feature one image above all others—that of children, most of them white, being abused by a gleeful and indifferent black man. The inversion of the expected image, one where a person of color enslaves whites in their own version of the Middle Passage, reinforces the idea that something is unnatural (and inherently wrong) about this relationship of domination and subordination.
Despite the fact that white people control almost every major social, financial, economic, and political institution in the United States, the theme of white oppression by minorities is popular in the age of Obama. And while reasonable conservatives may not believe they will literally be made slaves like the children on the ship, there does appear to be a sense on the Right that whiteness and white people are somehow under siege.
The channeling of these fears is not new. The language of white oppression has loomed large in the American political imagination for centuries. In the 19th century, America’s war against the Barbary pirates was ostensibly to prevent white people from being “enslaved” by Arabs. There was a great moral panic during the early 20th century about white women being sold into slavery by newly arrived European immigrants, blacks, and other "undesirables."
Moreover, the terrifying idea of white people being enslaved or oppressed by non-whites has done potent political work in this country since before its founding. Conservatives have been skillfully mining it for quite some time, and this habit continues into the present. Some in the Tea Party (with their fondness for dressing up in colonial-era clothing in order to signal their fetish for the Constitution) believe they are fighting a tyrannical government led by a “traitor” named Barack Obama.
In addition, the Tea Party has conducted rallies where white people have been referred to as “slaves” of Barack Obama and the federal government. A prominent member of the Tea Party was famously caught with a sign suggesting that Congress is a group of “slave owners” and that the American people were its “niggers.”
History runs deep here: white American colonists also used a fear of being reduced to the status of slaves by the British to rally their cause of “freedom.” This was not an empty allusion. It was potent and direct, as men like Jefferson and Washington knew a great deal about slavery—they personally owned hundreds of black people.
In a perverse twist of history following the Civil Rights Movement, Republican elected officials won over the former Confederacy. As a result, the solid South is now the beating heart of Red State America. Consequently, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has increasingly embraced a neo-secessionist ideology in which the long-standing political consensus brought about by the Civil War is now called into question. In the 2012 campaign, this yearning for the good old days of Jim Crow and the Confederacy is in full bloom.
For example, Republican candidates have argued that basic constitutional protections can be decided on the local level in order to subvert federal authority. Some have even gone so far as to claim that individual states have the “right” to break away from the United States of America. The conversion is so complete, that a significant percentage of Republican voters now believe the Confederacy was right to secede, and that their traitorous state governments were on the correct side of history.
This embrace of the Confederacy and states’ rights is part of a broader strategy to destroy the social safety net, and as a negative response to how over the last five decades American democracy has become more inclusive. A fear of white oppression is also central to this story.
The Confederacy was first and foremost a white supremacist military state. It ruled through violence, terror, and the threat of harm to black people (and whites who dared to dissent). Consequently, one of its greatest fears was that blacks would gain their freedom and seek vengeance on white people.
Leading Confederates such as Henry Benning explicitly warned about the possibility of white enslavement at the hands of blacks. South Carolina’s articles of secession referenced a fear that white people cannot be part of a country in which blacks are the social equals of whites, and that no such equal arrangement could be tolerated under any circumstances.
During Jim and Jane Crow, supporters of segregation and American apartheid also channeled white anxieties about being dominated by black people. Racially and socially conservative whites were fearful that blacks who came of age after the end of slavery would have a sense that they were full American citizens. In turn, this generation of African Americans would be “uppity” and not know their proper "place" in the social order.
Under Jim and Jane Crow, freedom and liberty for whites was viewed as a zero sum game wherein any extension of full rights to blacks meant a restriction on white peoples’ behavior. For the imagination of apartheid America, one which through both law and day-to-day practice maintained separate and unequal spheres of cultural, political, social, and economic life along the color line, black freedom necessarily meant white “oppression.”
With its embrace of the Confederacy and secessionist rhetoric, the Republican Party now owns this history. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan solidified this relationship when he chose to give his infamous racially coded speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi in support of states’ rights—the very location where three civil rights workers were killed by white thugs 16 years earlier.
When Republican candidates proudly stand under the Confederate flag they legitimize white supremacy and Jim Crow, with all of its violence and paranoia. As they muse about how the landmark Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s were threats to white peoples’ liberty, or suggest that the federal government under Barack Obama is coming to take away their freedoms, conservatives draw on a deep legacy of white victimology that has an eerie resonance with that of Jim Crow America.
This language does not exist in a vacuum. It is reproduced, circulated, and reinforced by the right-wing echo chamber. In a moment when conservatives are increasingly isolated within their own media bubble, and many only trust Fox News and conservative talk radio, an alternate reality is created for Red State America. Once more, a fictitious belief that whites are being oppressed by the country’s first black president, and that the United States is a country in which white people are somehow disadvantaged, is omnipresent in conservative media.
Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly bloviated about how white people are abused and held down by Barack Obama, and need a civil rights movement to fight for their rights. He has even gone so far as to suggest that with Obama’s election there will be slavery reparations and other “goodies” paid to African Americans at the expense of whites. In this bizarre vision of America, white people are beaten and abused by blacks as a matter of routine, and “liberals” are actively working to ensure that white people and conservatives kiss the feet of people of color.
Pat Buchanan has famously argued that white people are experiencing Jim Crow under Barack Obama and that they are marginalized and repressed just like black people under the ax handles, fire hoses, guns, and baseball bats of Bull Connor’s thugs during the darkest days of the Civil Rights Movement. And in their fixation on the New Black Panther Party, ACORN, the Reverend Wright “scandal,” and other manufactured controversies, Fox News has created a fictionalized world in which white people are under siege, second-class citizens in their own country.
The white victimhood narrative has paid substantial political dividends. In recent surveys, a majority of white conservatives believe they are oppressed, and a significant percentage of respondents also believe that anti-white racism is a bigger problem in American society than the discrimination faced by people of color. The sum effect of this politics of white victimology is a public policy that is less well-equipped to serve the common good, as shared class interests across the colorline can be sabotaged by right-wing appeals to white racial fears.
We can draw a long line here -- from the aborted interracial alliance of black and white indentured servants during Bacon’s Rebellion in the 17th century, to the populist, labor, and progressive movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, and into the present, when a narrow group of white elites have been able to distract the white working class and poor from their shared class interests with people of color. Race is a canard. Instead of looking to how people of color and white folks have common concerns about economic inequality for example, appeals to white skin privilege and white racial anxiety can be used to derail positive social change. To borrow the language of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the 1 percent has been using racism to divide and conquer for centuries. There is little new about the plutocrats’ game.
Ultimately, the Republican Party’s attraction to the rhetoric of “white oppression” is an example of the classic paranoid style in American politics. For many white conservatives, the election of the country’s first black president created a sense of existential upset. This event combined with a pre-existing set of deeply held fears about “liberal elites” in the media, academia, and elsewhere, who are out to persecute Republicans. The creation of an alternative reality by the right-wing media only enables these paranoid beliefs. Subsequently, racial demagoguery mates perfectly with a politics of grievance, persecution and oppression.
The language of “white oppression” is a deeply historical, catch-all phrase for conservatives, one which signals a sense that something is very wrong with America. It should be a given that American is a white man’s country, a shining city on the hill, never to be eclipsed, where “real Americans” rule forever. Rather than look in the mirror and demand an accounting for the failed policies that brought about a crisis of faith and (perhaps) the nadir of American empire, it is easier to blame “those people,” and create a story of white victimhood than to critically engage the role of white conservatives in making this mess.