Why they don’t challenge racism

November 5, 2012

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor considers the meaning of a new opinion poll that shows racism has a tighter grip in the U.S. compared to four years ago.

A RECENT poll that found 51 percent of people in the U.S. harbor "explicit" anti-Black prejudices. In a previous Associated Press (AP) survey conducted last year, 52 percent of people exhibited what AP defined as explicit anti-Latino prejudices.

Explicit racist attitudes toward African Americans have increased since a previous survey four years ago--during which Barack Obama became the first Black president of the United States. How has explicit racism increased just four years after the historic election of an African American to the highest office in the land?

The poll reveals three things about the working of racism in the U.S.

FIRST, IT demonstrates once again the centrality of racism in American politics, particularly, in an election season where neither party has any real solutions to the problems confronting ordinary people.

This is obviously a problem for the Republicans who clearly favor the rich and hate most of the population--or at least 47 percent of it. For nearly 50 years, the Republicans have used racism as central and explicit part of their strategy to appeal to white suburban voters. Racism was a prominent feature of the last campaign in 2008, during which Republican candidates stood silent while their supporters decried Obama as a "Muslim socialist." But in a desperate bid to capture the White House in this election, the GOP has pulled out all of the stops.

A Republican supporter at a rally for Romney and Ryan
A Republican supporter at a rally for Romney and Ryan

The Republican Party primary season was filled with racist vitriol that was given only the slightest veil.

In Iowa--a state where Blacks make up only 2.9 percent of the population--Rick Santorum said: "I don't want to make Black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families." Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, began referring to Obama as the "food stamp president." He then proposed going to the NAACP convention to lecture Blacks on why they should expect more out of life than food stamps.

The racist caricatures of Barack Obama continued beyond the primaries as Mitt Romney tried to raise welfare as an issue in the general election--he claimed that Obama wants people on welfare to have fewer work requirements to collect their benefits.

Beyond the less-than-subtle attacks on African Americans, the Republican primary season also created an arena for anti-Latino drivel to become part of the regular news cycle. When Romney was not suggesting that undocumented immigrants "self-deport," there was a video of Gingrich describing Spanish as the language "of the ghetto."

As the primaries moved on, the Republicans tempered their anti-Latino racism, but with 0 percent support from African Americans, there has been little attempt to hide their anti-Black contempt. In general, it has been clear since the 2008 election that the Republican Party is disgusted by a Black family is sitting in the White House--and they are hell-bent on getting the Obamas out any way that they can.

But if the Republicans are the party of racists, what are the Democrats?

THIS BRINGS me to the AP poll's second revelation about racism and politics in the U.S.

While the Democratic Party is not the party of open racism, it certainly is the party of accommodation to it. For all of the racist inferences raised by the GOP--from the invocation of food stamps and welfare and beyond--the White House has a policy of not responding.

White House ally and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka explained the reasoning behind not responding: "[B]ecause the instant he does, it becomes a racial fight. People look at everything he does through the race lens, and that makes it pretty tough on him."

Why are the Democrats so afraid to engage in a "racial fight?" The Democratic Party is also a party of the status quo and a fierce defender of American capitalism. To engage in a fight against the racism of the GOP would inevitably open up larger questions about racial inequality in the United States--like why Blacks are disproportionately on food stamps, living in poverty and unemployed?

To engage in a discussion about racial inequality would inevitably invite a discussion on how to address the material disparities between Blacks, whites and Latinos--and the Obama administration is loathe to engage in that conversation.

Not only are Democrats passive in the face of Republican racism, but the party has helped create the conditions for racism to flourish. Consider that we have gone almost all the way through an entire election season where neither candidate has cared to mention the unrelenting devastation of the Black middle class--from the disproportionate levels of home foreclosure that have destroyed Black wealth to unemployment that has been over 14 percent for the last two years.

Moreover, in a year that saw the electric reaction to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, the crisis of racism and the criminal justice system is ignored by the stewards of American capitalism--including the nation's first Black president.

It's not just the act of ignoring the issues that shape Black life in the U.S. that is so problematic, but it's also the way the Democratic Party actively contributes to a political culture that denies systemic culpability in the oppression of African Americans.

Obama's education law Race to the Top is centered on the idea that poverty and other material deprivation do not affect education outcomes. Instead, by using the same mania for testing that characterized George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration arrogantly blames teachers and teacher unions for the problems in public education.

When asked about rising levels of violence in Chicago neighborhoods last summer, President Obama suggested that kids in those communities needed better role models--perpetuating the notion that crime and violence in Black communities are a function of irresponsibility and moral debasement, and not driven by chronic poverty and unemployment. When faced with entrenched Black unemployment, the Obama administration has suggested that Black workers must improve their skills, ignoring the role that anti-Black racism plays in perpetuating the jobs crisis.

The focus on individual behavior and "responsibility" as an explanation for persistent poverty and unemployment isn't simply because the Obama Administration wants to avoid a "racial fight." It's the logical outcome of the neoliberal character of American politics. Despite some differences on the details, both Democrats and Republicans have endorsed cutting taxes for business and the wealthy, while imposing budget cuts and austerity on the mass of people.

If either party were to accept that a central feature of American capitalism is structural inequality, that would necessitate a structural response--an expansion of affirmative action; jobs programs for African Americans and Latinos, in particular; an expansion of the welfare state; and so on. But these propositions are anathema in American politics.

In the age of ending "big government," its replacement is the politics of moralism, embodied in the demands of "personal responsibility" for ordinary people, particularly Black people.

Meanwhile, in their dogged attempts to protect the Obama administration from charges of favoritism toward Black people, White House insiders and political surrogates give the administration endless cover as the economic and social crisis in Black communities devolves.

Former Black activists like the Rev. Al Sharpton speak with pride about Obama not having a "Black agenda" because he is "everyone's" president. Of course, only African Americans are accused of wanting "special privileges" when it is merely suggested that a group of people whose vote was critical to the candidate becoming president in the first place expect that their particular issues will receive some attention. When Tavis Smiley and Cornel West had the audacity to tour the country and speak out about poverty and economic inequality, they were mercilessly attacked and skewered as "Uncle Toms" and general "sellouts."

All of this has contributed to the silence that shrouds the reality of racial inequality in the U.S. It creates an enormous pressure in African American communities for people to blame themselves or their families or the people in their neighborhoods for the terrible conditions they face.

It is an insidious cycle. While Black elites brag about the lack of a Black agenda and demand "more time" for Obama to accomplish his goals, ordinary Blacks continue to lose their homes and apartments, lose their jobs and health care, and lose their children to the whims of a criminal justice system that has no respect for Black lives.

It is true that the vast majority of African Americans support Obama, but not because his presidency has improved their lives.

THIS BRINGS me to the final point. Despite the efforts of African American political operatives to muffle any sounds of Black protest during the Obama presidency, over the past 12 months or so, we saw a glimpse of the potential of the Black movement to rise. Moreover, we saw how the struggles of African Americans have the potential to invigorate a more general movement against the entire system.

In September 2011, when the state of Georgia executed an innocent African American man, Troy Davis, tens of thousands of African Americans and a smaller, but important number of whites, took to the streets to express their rage. No one should forget that the nation's first Black president refused to intervene or even publicly speak out against the obvious injustice being carried out.

The electricity of the Troy Davis demonstrations helped to breathe more life into the emerging Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City, which, of course, paved the way for a social movement that transformed American politics.

Last spring, the racist murder of Trayvon Martin had the same unifying impact in American politics as thousands of people donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and filled the streets with protests, sparking a national discussion about racism and the criminal justice system.

Finally, the most recent Chicago Teachers Union strike against the pro-privatization Chicago Board of Education brought national attention to the phenomenon of "apartheid schools" and the reality of racism in U.S. public education--and it has sparked an outbreak of teachers' strikes throughout Illinois.

These seemingly disparate struggles against racism show two things. First, they show that there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who are anxious to be a part of a movement that fights racism, if given the opportunity. And second, they demonstrate the potentially transformative impact of social movements and struggles. Each of these examples helped to widen the national discourse about racism and inspired other groups of people to struggle as well.

It is true that racism is a permanent feature of American capitalism and crucial aspect of divide-and-conquer politics in the U.S. But it is also true that consciousness is ever changing, and when the oppressed fight back, it can transform existing dynamics in society.

Thus, the current task is not to hide our contempt and disdain for this system of racism and inequality in the hopes of giving Obama more time--as if African American lives are expendable as an expediency to aid the political ambitions of one man. We must continue to build the various movements against police terrorism, housing inequality and anti-immigrant hysteria while rebuilding a general movement for Black and Brown liberation in the United States. The time is now.

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