Stirring up racist hate for political gain

October 31, 2012

The Republican Party establishment has been encouraging racism as an election tactic. So why aren't the Democrats calling them out? Nicole Colson explains why.

THE UGLY undercurrents of racism in the Republicans' "red state" America, which usually pass unreported, are rising to the surface as Election 2012 reaches its final days.

After the Republican convention in September, at least two incidents of empty chairs strung up from trees--with the chairs standing in for President Barack Obama, in reference to Clint Eastwood's rambling convention speech--were reported, in Austin, Texas and Centreville, Va. In Austin, the chair was accompanied by a sign reading "Nobama."

Paula Smith, of Hinesville, Ga., created a bumper sticker, available for sale on her website, that reads: "Don't Re-Nig 2012." Asked about the sticker by Forbes, Smith defended it, saying, "According to the dictionary, [the N-word] does not mean Black. It means a low-down, lazy, sorry, low-down person. That's what the N-word means."

Of course, Smith isn't the only person selling a racist message. Alongside her racist slur, "Stumpy's Stickers" was selling another sticker featuring a picture of an ape next to the words "Obama 2012"--and another depicting members of the Klan that that reads, "The Original Boys In The Hood."

Ann and Mitt Romney share a stage with Donald Trump
Ann and Mitt Romney share a stage with Donald Trump

Then there's the supporter of Mitt Romney who showed up to a rally for the Republican presidential candidate wearing a shirt that read, "Put the white back in the White House."

But there's another question that has to be asked when you hear all this: Why aren't we hearing a response from the leaders of either political party?

THE ROMNEY campaign may try to pretend such racist filth has nothing to do with official Republican Party politics, but the truth is that various versions of the same sick rhetoric has been spewing from the mouths of right-wingers since before Barack Obama took office. Bigots like Smith take their lead from the top.

And now it's ramping up again--not only from supporters of the Republicans who GOP officials would like to dismiss as isolated cranks, but from prominent figures whose connections to the party are undeniable.

There's scumbag billionaire Donald Trump, still trying to drum up votes for the Republicans with fantasies about an elaborate conspiracy to cover up Obama's faked birth certificate. Or the supposedly "legitimate scholar" Dinesh D'Souza, whose documentary 2016: Obama's America doesn't claim that Obama isn't a U.S. citizen--but merely that he's obsessed by his supposed socialist Kenyan father's anti-colonial and anti-capitalist beliefs, and is therefore full of "Black rage."

Plus there's the small army of right-wing windbags who infest Fox News, such as Michelle Malkin, who in August accused Vice President Joe Biden of "taking extracurricular Democratic jive-talking lessons" and "rattling chains like an extra in Roots" after comments he gave to a primarily Black audience; Ann Coulter, who said last year that "our Blacks are so much better than their Blacks" and recently referred to Obama as a "retard"; and Matt Drudge, who recently accused the Obama administration of buying the votes of Black people with free cell phones.

And let's not forget the Republican officeholders, like Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who complained bitterly about UN-affiliated international election monitors coming to his state at the invitation of the NAACP and other groups. "It's bad enough that Alabama remains trapped under the provisions of the Voting Rights Act," Hubbard said. "So we certainly don't need anyone from the United Nations coming into our state and meddling in our elections, as well."

Sarah Palin, of course, has her feet in both the pundit and the politician camp. During her time as the Republicans' vice presidential candidate four years ago, she calculatedly pandered to racism. Thus, Palin no doubt knew exactly what she was saying when she described the Obama administration's actions after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya as "President Obama's shuck and jive."

As Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, declared in a rare moment of honesty from a Republican:

Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that's despicable.

RACISM ISN'T anything new from the Republican Party--or from the Democratic Party, for that matter, which once stood for slavery and the Jim Crow segregationists. But racism has taken on a particular form in mainstream politics in the era after the civil rights movement four decades ago.

In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon pioneered the so-called "Southern Strategy" to try to win racist white voters in the South away from their traditional loyalty to the Democrats. Because the civil rights movement made openly racist behavior and rhetoric unacceptable in mainstream politics, the Republicans used "coded" appeals to racism--less overt, but no less pernicious. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explained during the run-up to Obama's election in 2008:

Richard Nixon implored the rights of the "silent majority"--as opposed to the vocal minorities demanding civil rights. Ronald Reagan created myths and lies about "welfare queens," law and order, and demanded a war on drugs. All of these inferences and many others were meant to tap into the insecurities and racism of whites, without being accused of racism.

Following Obama's overwhelming victory in 2008, the Republicans resorted to the same methods to regain the initiative. As a supplement to GOP lawmakers' strategy of total obstructionism in Congress, Republicans used the supposedly "grassroots" Tea Party--a pseudo-populist movement that was actually set up and run by operatives of the conservative money-machine of the Koch brothers and others--to mobilize its right-wing base and put pressure on Washington.

On the surface, the Tea Party priority of opposing Obama's "big government" programs like health care "reform" was non-racial. But part of the Tea Party case was to caricature African Americans, among others, as the undeserving recipients of Obama's generous "big government"--while "hard-working Americans" (translation: white people) paid the price.

Thus, Tea Party rallies very quickly became notoriously racist, with participants showing up with guns strapped to their hips and clinging to their "Live free or die" and "Don't tread on me" flags--two favorites of the militia and neo-Nazi movements. In 2010, as the congressional debate on Obama's health care law came to a head, the Tea Party showed its true stripes at one protest outside the Capitol, where Rep. John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, was called a "nigger" by Tea Partiers, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, also Black, was spat on.

When the NAACP dared to call out the Tea Party racists, Mark Williams, the head of one faction of the movement called Tea Party Express, responded with a mock letter from NAACP President Ben Jealous to Abraham Lincoln:

We Colored People have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People, and we demand that it stop...

The tea party position to "end the bailouts" for example is just silly. Bailouts are just big money welfare, and isn't that what we want all Coloreds to strive for? What kind of racist would want to end big money welfare? What they need to do is start handing the bailouts directly to us coloreds.

In the light of this all-too-recent record, Mitt Romney's own tentative excursions into Sarah Palin-land can't be dismissed as harmless misspeaks. When Romney joked in August that "no one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," he was pandering to the "birthers" and their racist conspiracy theory. Likewise, when a Romney aide declared that the Obama administration didn't appreciate the country's "shared Anglo-Saxon heritage" with Europe, it was another dig at the fact that a Black man sits in the White House.

The Romney campaign has even come up with its own spin on the most famous coded racist appeal of all--Ronald Reagan's complaints about "welfare queens" living the good life at the expense of taxpayers. Instead, Romney is running ads claiming (falsely) that Obama opposes work requirements for welfare recipients.

After four years of the Republican Party establishment encouraging the Tea Party racists to spew their hate and even tolerating the slander that the first African American to sit in the Oval Office isn't an American citizen, it can't be any surprise when a recent Associated Press poll showed racist attitudes growing worse in the U.S.. According to the poll, 56 percent of people surveyed expressed what analysts defined as implicit or explicit anti-Black attitudes. That's up by 5 percentage points from 2008.

The poll is an indication of greater polarization on the question of race--and indeed, the results also show some increase in support for Obama that is directly attributable to a reaction against racism.

BUT SOMETHING more must be said beyond recognizing how the Republicans are stirring up racism for political gain. It's also true that Barack Obama and the Democrats have done nothing to confront it, and that has enabled this bigotry to spread further.

Back in 2010, when the Tea Party was its height and some liberal voices like the NAACP were beginning to expose it for what it is, the Obama administration avoided any similar criticisms. On the contrary, Vice President Joe Biden declared, "I don't believe, the president doesn't believe that the Tea Party is--is a racist organization."

Likewise, in 2012, the Obama administration has occasionally chided the Romney campaign for its "incivility," but refuses to confront racist attacks and attitudes. Instead, the standard response is to duck the issue.

In part, it's because to do so would raise real expectations and hopes that Obama would concretely tackle racism in the U.S.--even if just rhetorically. But he hasn't.

By many measures, life in Black America is harder today than when Obama took office.

The African American community remains in economic free-fall, with official Black unemployment rising to 14.4 percent in June (and the real numbers are even higher). Fewer than half of young Black men have jobs. The percentage of adult African Americans living in poverty rose from 19.8 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2010, and the percentage of African American kids in poverty rose from 34.5 percent to 39.1 percent in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. The median wealth of Black families has declined dramatically.

As Frederick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, wrote in the New York Times:

Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality...

[A]s president, Mr. Obama has had little to say on concerns specific to Blacks. His State of the Union address in 2011 was the first by any president since 1948 to not mention poverty or the poor. The political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion found that Mr. Obama, in his first two years in office, talked about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961. From racial profiling to mass incarceration to affirmative action, his comments have been sparse and halting.

Many liberals and progressives will advocate a vote for Obama on the grounds that a Romney victory would unleash a tide of racism and worsen the state of Black America. There's no doubt about the bigotry of the Republican Party. But during Obama's four years in office, the mainstream political debate has shifted further to the right on almost every question, while the suffering of African Americans has been ignored.

Those who argue that we need to "be patient" or that Obama has been unable to act because of the right wing are discounting the ways in which Obama has been complicit in the ongoing decimation of Black America. And the consequence is that criticism of Obama from his left is blunted--and a real conversation about race and racism in the U.S. is left on the backburner.

Frederick Harris quoted Rep. Cleaver, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who last month told The Root, "With 14 percent unemployment, if we had a white president, we'd be marching around the White House. The president knows we are going to act in deference to him in a way we wouldn't to someone white."

Cleaver is exactly right.

The revolting rhetoric of the Republican Party--from the bottom to the top--has given people ample reason to fear a Romney presidency. But that can't mean burying our criticisms of Barack Obama and the Democrats in order to vote for the "lesser evil."

No matter who wins on November 6, we are in desperate need of a renewed movement--independent of both mainstream parties--to challenge racism in the U.S. and the government policies that promote it.

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