does racism have anything to do with it?

Yesterday, I wrote about what I believe is willful ignorance on the part of some of the loudest and most visible opponents of President Obama and his agenda.  I asked why so many people choose to believe the most terrible things, things which could be disproven by means of a simple internet search.  I wondered why people who have heard the truth explained to them over and over again still refuse to believe it.  Then Jimmy Carter went and offered an explanation: racism.  And the whole country flipped out.

In an interview, former president Carter said,

I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American…And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the south but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.

And you know what? I agree with him.

What else are we to conclude when 60-70,000 white people descend on Washington and say they want to take back THEIR country?  Of course, many are probably saying, but these people don’t actively HATE black people! They don’t dress up in robes and burn crosses! They might wave the confederate flag at a rally, but they totally don’t want to lynch anyone! They even have black friends!  To which I say there is a difference between personal hatred and endemic, societal racism.  Not that there aren’t actual racists too– Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes on his blog:

There was, and is still, a hard core of racially-motivated white people in this nation who did vote against Obama because he is black, and who virulently oppose him as president because he is black. That racist core of angry white Americans resides on the extreme political right of U.S. politics. The Far Right in America have never supported racial equality. Their political representatives voted against both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and most have never repented of it. And, let’s be honest, the loudest voices of right-wing talk radio and cable television appeal directly to that core with subtle and not-so-subtle racial messages, as has the right wing of the Republican Party for many years.

What are some of these subtle and not so subtle messages?  You can find one in the argument of conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat:

This August’s town-hall fury wasn’t just about the details of health care. Neither were the anti-Obama protests that crowded Washington over the weekend. They were about the Wall Street bailout, the G.M. takeover, the A.I.G. bonuses, and countless smaller examples of middle-income Americans’ “playing by the rules,” as Luntz puts it, “and having someone else benefit.”

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald addressed these unknown undeserving beneficiaries on his blog. Drawing on Douthat’s comparison of the current health care protests and opposition to Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, when opponents rallied against the funding of “midnight basketball” programs, which were seen as “welfare” programs.  Greenwald writes:

Just as was true for the 1994 crime bill, the right-wing fury over health care reform is motivated by the fear that middle-class Americans will have their money taken away by Obama while — all together now, euphemistically — “having someone else benefit.” And this “someone else” are, as always, the poor minorities and other undeserving deadbeats who, in right-wing lore, somehow (despite their sorry state) exert immensely powerful influence over the U.S. Government and are thus the beneficiaries of endless, undeserved largesse: people too lazy to work, illegal immigrants, those living below the poverty line. That’s why Joe Wilson’s outburst resonated so forcefully among the Right and why he became an immediate folk hero: he was voicing the core right-wing fear that their money was being stolen from them by Obama in order to lavish the Undeserving and the Others — in this case illegal immigrants — with ill-gotten gains (“having someone else benefit,” as Douthat/Luntz put it).

These “someone elses” are the exact same people that the Tea Partiers believe have “stolen” “their” country.

And even if the people waving the confederate flag, or shouting about “illegals,” or making racist posters and signs about President Obama do not represent the majority of Tea Partiers, or protesters, or conservatives, I don’t really see the right rejecting these people and their views.  I have not heard any of the outspoken leaders say, whoa, guys, this hatred is distracting people from our legitimate points.  Now, this may be because they don’t seem to *have* many legitimate points, but it’s also because those leading these protests, again, don’t care so much about the outcome of health reform so much as the preservation of status quo, the status quo that keeps them (and the industries that support them, be they politicians in need of campaign funds or TV men in need of advertising) wealthy.  Again, Glenn Greenwald:

[There’s a] gaping paradox of these protests movements: genuine anger (over the core corruption of Washington and the eroding economic security for virtually everyone other than a tiny minority) is being bizarrely directed at those who never benefit (the poorest and most downtrodden), while those who are most responsible (the wealthiest and largest corporations) are depicted as the victims who need defending (they want to seize Wall St. bonuses and soak the rich!!).

Which brings us back to Jim Wallis’ earlier point: many on the right perpetuate or tolerate these subtle and not so subtle racisms because it is good for their ultimate goals.  So whether the Tea Partiers are, personally, or as a majority racists, or whether they are simply willing to tolerate racism because the actual racists vote their way, racism is very much a part of what we’ve been seeing projected toward President Obama.

And instead of calling a spade a spade, we have Michael Steele writing op-eds at Politico defending the protesters, saying they’re not racists, they’re AMERICANS.  Steele wrote, “Slavery was racist, Jim Crow laws were racist, segregation was racist – opposing a radical political agenda is not.”  Kate Harding at Jezebel breaks this down pretty handily:

The problem with his framing here is that our president does not have a radical political agenda. Our president is, in fact, a centrist who’s increasingly pissing off his progressive base. The notion that he’s a secret socialist, or that a health care reform proposal designed to increase market competition and regulate only the most monopolistic and downright evil business practices is somehow radically anti-capitalist, is pure bullshit. And it’s pure bullshit intended to stoke the fears of those voters already predisposed to assume they cannot trust the president.

So, while I argued yesterday and still argue today that there may very well be valid conservative points to be made against the president’s agenda, it’s hard to see those points through the thick cloud of anger and hate.  Perhaps we could begin talking about these points if someone like Michael Steele (or really, one of the talking heads) would acknowledge that Jimmy Carter had a point, that race plays a role for many of these protesters, and that it’s not so crazy to point out the obvious.  Steele, or someone like him, could say that Republicans do not wish to be affiliated with those sentiments, and ask people to please leave their confederate flags and their hateful signs and even their lies at home.

Until I see someone admit the obvious racism at play and attempt to redirect the mob’s focus, I will continue to believe that the Right is stoking the fires of racial division for political gain.  We can’t do away with racism if we insist on pretending it isn’t there.

4 Replies to “does racism have anything to do with it?”

  1. I say this with as much trepidation as possible: I don’t know if we should be waving the ‘race’ flag just yet. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen racism thriving prosperously in the Conservative South (I lived in a town that used a Confederate Flag and a plantation owner as mascot). But this accusation is bound only to distract us all from the real debatable issues. If one of our main criticisms of the ‘tea party’ phenomenon is based on race, then the Far Right can easily dismiss us as being oversensitive and biased (after all, most of the tea party placards aren’t overtly racist, just stupid and non-analogous), and then we can dismiss the Conservatives with the same kind of stereotyping, playing on an infinite loop, and pretty soon we’ll all be demanding apologies. Of course this doesn’t mean I don’t feel for the people in our country who aren’t rich white American men, the people who can sense racism just by looking the tight-lipped faces of certain tea-party protesters.

    But: racism isn’t debatable. It’s either there or it isn’t. It’s surreptitious. The real debatable issue here, the one we can really talk about in a fundamental way, is this whole idea of ‘government takeover,’ which is a real concern for a lot of Conservatives. Even if many Conservatives don’t themselves with respect, I think we should do it for them. The more we react to this childishness, the more fuel some of these idiots get. I mean we should ignore any signs of pure undebatable stupidity and force the debate to turn onto the issue of getting the facts out there, which a lot of Democrats are desperately trying to do at the moment, while respecting the fact that ‘big government’ can sometimes turn out to be a bad thing. Maybe not all of this protesting is the result of unfounded paranoia. Maybe. At least I hope there’s some rationale behind all of this protesting. And I think it’s up to thoughtful individuals to assume that there is a rational basis for most forms of anger.

    If we say it’s pure and simple racism, then I think we’re delving into the realm of emotions, not reason.


  2. One more note: I also agree that the issue of racism should always be addressed and dealt with every time we see it. This is important in order for our country to heal. But, in this case, I believe it is unwise to overly publicize the minority who does carry confederate flags, etc., to these meetings, because what’s at stake now–healthcare–is so much bigger than these few idiots. Sometimes you have to know when to silence an issue in order to heighten another one. In my opinion, tis isn’t repression, but strategy.


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