Monday, September 14, 2009

Of Mice and White Men: Racism & Political Speech in the Age of Obama

Check out this 6 minute CNN interview of white anti-racist activist Tim Wise. Wise discusses the role of "white racial resentment" in the opposition to Obama's health care reform plan.


I would love to know what folks think of what Wise has to say here. If you're interested in this topic -- white politicians' use of "hidden racism" (or racially coded language) to gain support for their agendas and win white voters , I recommend
Dan Carters' From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counter-Revolution. Carters book is short, well researched and very interesting (I think:). He discusses the evolution of politicians' racist rhetoric from the time pro-racial segregationist George Wallace ran for office in the 1960s and Newt Gingrich's opposition to welfare and affirmative action in the 1990s. 

Carter demonstrates how the U.S. conservative white politicians -- like Wallace -- shifted from explicitly racist appeals (in one his public speeches, Wallace shouted, "Segregation Now! Segregation Forever!) to coded racist appeals (or "hidden" racist speech -- like that deployed by Richard Nixon, who, while campaigning for the presidency, vowed to restore "law and order," which white voters understood to refer to a particularly racialized criminal element -- i.e., poor urban blacks and Latinos. When Nixon talked about crime he invoked a specific racial image/racial stereotype -- that of the immoral, lazy, unwilling to do "legitimate" wage work, ignorant, welfare receiving "inner city" (another racially coded term) African American and Latino -- who were, let's not forget, sexually threatening to white women and white girls (after all, the black man was believed to have a particular predilection for white women's sex -- a predatory desire that could only be cured by police batons and guns and prisons -- lots of them).

Nixon's successful presidential campaign laid the groundwork for George Bush, Sr's exploitation of one black man's brutal crimes -- that man was Willie Horton. Under Dukakis' tenure as governor, a Massachusetts state law permitted inmates, like Horton, to be released on a 48 hour weekend furlough from prison. Horton never returned from furlough, and after having escaped from prison, he brutally attacked a white couple -- stabbing the white man and raping the white woman.

Here's one example of the way in which the Horton situation was used to discredit Dukakis as a worthy presidential candidate.

Bush, Sr.'s gained extreme mileage from Horton's crime. In fact, chaunceydevega's blog post tells us that the Bush campaign's Willie Horton ad permitted him "to make a comeback against Dukakis and take the White House." Bush Sr's campaign staff cast Dukakis as, not just an irresponsible leader -- but an irresponsible white man -- an irresponsible white male leader -- that supported the "right" of savage (read: black) criminals to rehabilitative "vacation" from incarceration rather than the rights of upright, hardworking and innocent citizens (read: white) to be free of and protected from the sexual savagery of escaped convicts (read: black men).

Dukakis didn't stand a chance.

Before Bush, Sr.'s victorious run for presidential office, presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan railed against "welfare queens" abuse of government help and the sin of affirmative action (which was perceived as yet another attack on the "rights" of "qualified" white men to the fruits of their hard labor). Bush's use of Horton's crimes and Reagan's purposeful reference to "welfare queens" held salience for millions of white voters, in particular, who had been taught from birth -- via cultural and social institutions like the media, schools, and family -- that black and brown people were to be feared; they did not work hard like the "salt of the earth" white folks who "made" this country "what it is today" (which is free dontcha know!); they posed a threat to Western civilization, which is best led and protected by white men -- white patriarchs. And it is white men's dependents -- white women and white girls -- that need protecting.

What today's conservatives -- like Pat Buchanan, who said that Obama's presidency is doing to white's what Jim Crow did to blacks, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, who agree with Buchanan that Obama is a new millennium Hitler for the "West" (see an all too vivid example of this racist anti-Obama propaganda here)-- it is Beck that tells us that Obama "hates white culture" -- is definitely nothing new under the son. In fact, there is a long, rich history of white male politicians exploiting white people's racist/race-based anxieties about people of color.


your small american said...

This is an impressively researched and detailed, and super useful, look at white politician's use of coded racist language over the years.

I am really creeped out by the Hitler references. Why, do you think, has the coded racist language changed? It's a big change from "welfare queens" to Hitler, no?

butchrebel said...

Dear small American,

You know... you're right... I *never* thought about that -- didn't realize that.

The movement from "welfare queen" rhetoric to "Hitler" rhetoric is a humongous one -- because of what the "Hitler" rhetoric implies: the calculated and deliberate white supremacist-based (explained & justified) mass slaughter of Jewish women, men and children.

The leap from "welfare queen" to "Hitler," I think is about white men and white women's fear and perception that their supremacy of the U.S.'s social, cultural, economic, political, and ideological institutions is waning -- no - -is in fact, crashing into a fiery hell because the air "ship" is being piloted by an ignorant "Negro" (or "mulatto" -- depending on the speaker).

The "Negro" of which I (they) speak is Obama, of course.

How could those stupid, starry-eyed white liberals betray their race and vote a black into the Oval Office! It's called the "White House" for a reason, dontcha know. And let's not forget those ungrateful "coloreds" who helped turn red states blue. "We" did so much for them with slavery -- they don't understand that (things were much better then).

Most white people who oppose Obama's presidency, period, and his policies by virtue of that don't mobilize such blatantly racist rhetoric -- but racist hostility -- racist rage at the audacity this black man has to think that he is a deserving and worthy of presidential office -- the racist anxiety that blacks are taking over -- THAT'S what made white South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson yell "You Lie!" when Obama was giving his speech on health care reform -- THAT'S what made a white man cross the isle to rip a Rosa Parks poster out of a black woman's hands to the tune of 100s of white people applauding at a town hall meeting on health care reform in Tennessee -- THAT'S what makes white folks so afraid that Obama will kill/is killing the economy with poor leadership and socialism (!!!) -- THAT'S what makes white folks poor 100s of 1000s of dollars (perhaps millions) into printing propaganda that "Hitlerize" Obama in the process of explaining and assaulting -- and flat out lying -- about his health care reform plan.

Projections of "black power" and the reality of a black person in power brings out the crazy in white folks, for real.