That Old Racism Remains

By Emily Theroux
It’s not my imagination, and it’s neither stereotyping nor paranoia. I even have a fistful of academic studies by credible sociologists to back up my theory about race relations in the 21st century: The election of our first African-American president has reawakened the ugly specter of a kind of flagrant racial prejudice that, once it was subdued by “political correctness,” lay dormant for decades in the body politic. That’s why it feels like we’re suddenly being assaulted by bigotry in the age of Obama; the racket it makes is so deafening, after years of relative multicultural harmony.

Now Robert Draper, the author of a new book about House Republican machinations after Barack Obama took office, has supplied anecdotal evidence that supports the sociologists’ conclusions. What Draper said also bolsters my sickening suspicion that the virulent opposition to Obama among a certain swath of the electorate — a vibe that’s so palpable, you practically trip over it every time you go online — is rooted in something far more pernicious than the customary Republican aversion to Democratic policies. (Even though World Net Daily did call Bill Clinton “much more than a ‘stealth’ communist president, but a secret ‘master of the Illuminati’,” this Obama-focused slime is far more abhorrent).

During an interview with Al Sharpton, Draper was asked what he thought motivated “the intense, unparalleled resentment” of Obama from the right. “I think there is a dimension, an extra depth of contempt for this president that is really off the charts,” Draper replied. “I interviewed a lot of Tea Party freshmen, spent a lot of time with them, and I didn’t detect any kind of racial animus in any of them. However, they were ushered in by a Tea Party movement that does have a certain racial component to the depth of contempt that they feel for this president.”

Draper’s book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives,” has exposed a secret cabal of 15 Republican “strategic thinkers” who met on the very night of Obama’s 2009 inauguration and plotted how they were going to bring him down. Neither John Boehner, who would become Speaker of the House two years later, nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, was invited to attend. Boehner, however, apparently failed to notice that the cheers on the day he became speaker were for the 87 Tea Party freshmen whose midterm victories had won him his oversized gavel. McConnell crowed triumphantly that his top political priority for the next two years would be “to deny Barack Obama a second term.”

‘A village in Kenya is missing its idiot! Deport Obama!’
Why, I’ve often wondered, was the gloating so extreme after the 2010 midterm elections? Obviously, the Tea Party hysteria that erupted during the summer of 2009, after Obama introduced his historic health care bill, had gotten the ball rolling. Republican politicians were riling up the fractious crowds with irresponsible drivel about “death panels” and imaginary government bureaucrats “coming between you and your doctor.” But amid the cacophony of town hall jeers and phony “Astro Turf” protests organized by corporate lobbyists, something more sinister was afoot than simply opposing what the vociferous base called “the government takeover” of health care. There was a wild, insolent edge to the proceedings, the kind of raucous mob mentality that you might have observed at a public hanging during the Middle Ages.
Demonstrators at Tea Party rallies carried a wide variety of signs and banners. Many displayed patriotic or anti-tax slogans, but others bore overtly racist messages — some of them crude (and often misspelled) racial epithets and taunts (“A village in Kenya is missing its idiot! Deport Obama!”; “We don’t want socialism, you arrogant Kenyan!”; “This sign is the brownest thing on this entire block”), or vile caricatures of the president in whiteface with a Hitler moustache, or decked out like an African witch doctor with a bone through his nose.

The Tea Party movement has never been a single entity and, since its inception, its demographics have remained elusive. A 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll showed that “Tea Partiers” were fairly close to the overall national average in terms of age, education, employment status, and race (6 percent of “non-Hispanic blacks” said they were supporters of the Tea Party, as opposed to 11 percent in the general population). Conservatives interpreted it as incontrovertible proof that they were not, as they claimed the mainstream media portrayed them, overwhelmingly old, Caucasian, male, right-wing, and seething with “white resentment” of minorities.

The poll proved misleading, however, since it surveyed people by asking them whether they considered themselves “supporters” or “opponents” of the movement, not whether they were active members who attended rallies and protests — often described by observers as resembling “a sea of white faces.”

Did overt racism go underground after the civil rights era?
An intriguing study by Michael Tesler of Brown University postulates that “old-fashioned racism” — the overt kind that characterized the Jim Crow era — largely went underground in the decades following the civil rights era. As segregation became a fading memory, racist epithets were no longer acceptable in public. In the 1970s, cultural pressure to be “politically correct” drove race-baiters even further into the shadows. Politicians began resorting to “code words” — “states’ rights,” “entitlement society,” “big government,” “welfare reform” — to communicate their subliminal racial messages to voters.

When Obama was elected, according to Tesler, openly racist speech and behavior — which had not been correlated in sociological studies to white Americans’ partisan preferences in decades, began to return with a vengeance. Tesler demonstrated that such behavior was a much stronger predictor of opposition to Obama than to ideologically similar white Democrats. Republicans may have hated President Bill Clinton in 1993, but nowhere near as much as they hated President Obama — and openly expressed it — in 2009.

Optimists actually believed, in the early days after Obama’s election, that America had finally emerged from its long, dark history of racial strife and blossomed into a new era of “post-racial” politics. Too many echoes of the remote past have surfaced since 2009 to substantiate that hope. Republican politicians openly disrespect President Obama in public and abuse the filibuster with an unprecedented frequency to stall Democratic bills in the Senate. Republican lawmakers churn out a relentless stream of socially conservative bills, in a wave of nostalgia for the halcyon days when women and minorities “knew their place” and didn’t dare question white male authority.

The renewed obsession of many aggrieved conservatives with racial resentment — and their increasingly vocal expression of it, from town halls to Twitter to the House floor — are poisoning our national discourse. If you don’t believe that, just ask a few conservatives what they think about affirmative action, “voter fraud,” or “reverse racism.” If they say we don’t need the Voting Rights Act any longer (when right wing Republicans all over the country are passing voter suppression laws), if they say affirmative action is racial discrimination against white people and that Obama is a “socialist” (an ad hominem attack made for decades about black leaders), then you’ve got your answer. Code is a useful “tell” about people’s gut antipathies.

‘I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake; I can’t have illegals.’
I doubt that Mitt Romney, who doesn’t really appear to believe in anything, could muster the necessary vitriol to be more than a careless, knee-jerk bigot himself — especially after watching the debate that caught him out in this thoughtless remark about firing the undocumented immigrants he “discovered” were working on his property: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake; I can’t have illegals.” I have no way of knowing what’s in Mitt’s heart, although he probably couldn’t tell you, either, unless he could manage to locate it. But I’m not the first person to observe that his campaign advisers seem to have caught on to the tactics of the kind of good-ole-boy, “dog-whistle” politics that would do Lee Atwater proud. I don’t think Mitt would be above resorting to whatever strategy his advisers suggest will win him the White House — including the snarky campaign slogan, “Obama Isn’t Working,” which calls to mind the offensive racial stereotype of the “lazy black man.” I can only judge his words, using my trusty “embedded” racist-code detector, to interpret for the masses the language of oligarchs.

Consider the following coded excerpt from Romney’s victory speech in Manchester, N.H.: “There was a time, not long ago” (translation: three short years), “when each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter” (when a white man was in the Oval Office, God was in His Heaven, and all was right with the world), “because we had a gift that no one else in the world shared” (‘we’ descendants of Europeans, who have held the reins of empire and colonized the world): “We were Americans” (not Kenyans, Indonesians, or other unwelcome foreigners). “Those days are coming back,” Mitt concludes. (I haven’t noticed anybody intervening to revoke our citizenship since Dubya was president.) “That’s our destiny.” (“We” are going to take our country back from “THEM” — the black people Lincoln said we had to set free; the red people we wrote out of ‘American history’ after centuries of denial that they were here first; the brown people straining at the border who will one day outnumber us unless we drive them all into the Gulf of Mexico.)

Then behold! The ruling class will live happily ever after in a white-bread, corporate-owned, feudal America, complete with Anglo peasants, that’s never going to lose its permanent Republican majority, just like Karl Rove always promised.

8 Responses to “That Old Racism Remains”

  1. Jeffrey Says:

    Right on, Emily. One of the arguments we hear a lot these days is that by virtue of Obama’s election — Presto! — the nation has bound up its racial wounds and all is right, all is well. This thinking allows some people to slither past the killing of Trayvon Martin and similar outrages.

  2. Anita Says:

    Well, I was one of those optimists who regarded Obama’s election as a sign that racism in American was, if not dead, at least loosening its grip on our society. Of course, I was wrong. It’s as virulent and destructive as it ever was.

  3. Randy Hurst Says:

    Yes, it is going to take a very long time for Americans to learn how to accept each other, much less “love thy neighbor”. And, despite President Obama’s character, charm, intelligence, leadership capacity and moral aptitude, maturity, wisdom, grace and sense of humor, all of which characteristics are so obviously lacking in the Republican/Tea Party persona, history will show that he kept himself above it all. Whether he succeeds or not as our President is more up to folks like us and how loud we speak out against the right wing racist assault.

    Still, like you, I too fear that: “The ruling class will live happily ever after in a white-bread, corporate-owned, feudal America, complete with Anglo peasants, that’s never going to lose its permanent Republican majority, just like Karl Rove always promised.”

    I do wish you would consider shorter pieces and get them published in the NY Times, the Times Herald Record (yes, I am aware of who controls it), and other Mid-Hudson tabloids.

    Nevertheless, for the record, you say “it” well and correctly.

  4. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    It’s not your imagination. I still recall the President’s first State of the Union when all the white guys from the GOP sat stoned face with arms crossed. They can’t stand two facts: Obama is smarter than most of them and a black man is in “their” White House! It is indeed sickening.

    My husband and I just came back from a cross country trip and the south is stuck in the Civil War! This country is truly in a mess due to class and racial divides. (There’s a major movement to stop mostly minority people from voting.)

  5. Emily Theroux Says:

    Thank you, everyone! The people of all races who elected Obama president never saw this coming. We were so thrilled by the outcome of the election – both because a kind of miracle had happened and also because the neocons were finally out of power. The margin by which Obama was elected reassured me that congressional Republicans couldn’t possibly try anything underhanded. If they did, surely the whole country would “rise up as one and smite them,” as Lewis Black once said.

    I couldn’t have been more naive, and it truly infuriates me to find out now that the Republicans actually plotted from the outset to oppose Obama’s entire agenda. All that time that he tried to be “bipartisan” – and thought he had a chance of actually getting through to them – they were working as hard as they could to stoke hatred and prejudice among their base.

    I actually grew up in the Deep South during the hideous era of separate public restrooms and drinking fountains, segregated buses, and lunch counters that refused to admit black patrons. I attended an all-white elementary school in New Orleans that was integrated in 1960, when the school board was ordered to comply with Brown v. Board of Education by enrolling two black children in the kindergarten class. A third of the white parents yanked their children out of the school and sent them to makeshift classes in a church basement (not mine, thank God; my father was a liberal college professor). I saw one of my former classmates’ fathers on the TV news, in one of those jeering white mobs, his face contorted in hatred as he shouted racial epithets.

    When I moved north in 1968, I thought I had finally found the promised land, a place blissfully free of racial animus. The first time I heard someone use the “N” word in upstate New York, I was horrified. I soon discovered that people who harbor blind hatred for entire races live anywhere and everywhere. They’ve just became a lot louder and uglier lately.

    (As you can see, Randy, “shorter” just doesn’t seem to be part of my vocabulary these days – but I will try!)

  6. Emily Theroux Says:

    Thanks, Jo. I’m sorry to hear that the South is STILL stuck in the Civil War. I haven’t been back to visit my relatives in South Carolina in about 25 years (but I’m sure my cousins are horrified when they see what I post on Facebook). I guess rumors about “the New South” were greatly exaggerated – unless the sociologists are right, and the public level of civility had improved somewhat during the decades before Obama was elected.

    My high school in Tallahassee, Florida held a winter prom they called the Confederate Ball – really! Some of the boys rented Confederate uniforms from the local tux shop, complete with sabers. (I didn’t date boys who went in for that kind of thing.) I’m sure our star quarterback – one of 30 or so black students in the school by that era, and the local hero while he was on the field, at least – didn’t attend that prom.

  7. James Prather Says:

    I am from Georgia…believe me…racism will never end…

  8. Wools Says:

    The person who was holding sign saying “This sign is the brownest thing on this entire block” was mocking the Tea Party rally. I know because I took the widely reposted photo back in 2009 🙂 I found this post via googling around to see where my pics were being posted.

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