White Women, Race Matters (Pt.1)

White women are at the forefront of the Tea Party, a political movement that’s trying to move American backward on race and civil rights.   Sarah Palin, former Vice Presidential candidate, half-term governor of Alaska and likely presidential candidate in 2012, is the charismatic leader of the Tea Party movement, if not the official head of it.  Palin has a new book, America by Heart, due out soon (just in time for pre-presidential-run campaigning).  In passages leaked from the book on perceptions of racial inequality in the U. S., Palin slams President Obama, who, she asserts, “seems to believe” that “America — at least America as it currently exists — is a fundamentally unjust and unequal country.” And then she goes after First Lady Michelle Obama:

“Certainly his wife expressed this view when she said during the 2008 campaign that she had never felt proud of her country until her husband started winning elections. In retrospect, I guess this shouldn’t surprise us, since both of them spent almost two decades in the pews of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church listening to his rants against America and white people.”

(Sarah Palin at an event launching her new bobble-head doll
from Scott, Flickr/Creative Commons)


Sarah Palin’s dog-whistle racism should be no surprise to anyone that has followed her or paid attention to the rise of the Tea Party.  (She’s wrong, of course, but that’s another matter.) In fact,
recent research from The Nation Institute‘s Investigative Fund, documents the ways that the Tea Party is working hand-in-glove with white Patriot movement radicals – many of whom have close ties to neo-Nazis and anti-government armed militias (reported by Alternet).  Yet, what many writers on the left are missing in this important story is the key role that white women are playing in the movement.  Sarah Palin is not the only woman involved in the Tea Party.  At a recent Tea Party rally in Paducah, Kentucky, singer Diana Nagy performed for the crowds (pictured below).

(Diana Nagy performing at Tea Party Rally,
from Gage Skidmore, Flickr/CreativeCommons)

Nagy’s song, “Where Freedom Flies,” (she composed and sings it) has become something of an anthem for the Tea Party movement, and Nagy something of a poster girl.   The song is in the genre of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to be an American,” and it’s fine if you like that sort of tune: heavy on the patriotic lyrics, light on the social criticism, and completely devoid of a driving back beat. The video of her song on YouTube, is a short clip (2:01) with about 19,000 views.  There are a couple of telling features of the video: the images used and the link at the end.   The song is meant to be a tribute to those serving in the military (although, presumably not the gay/lesbian soldiers – but I digress).  It makes sense that the images used in the video would all be of soldiers, but after the first :30 seconds or so (flags, promotional slide of Nagy, another flag), all the images of soldiers are almost entirely white (near the end the backs of two men are shown that may be men of color, but it’s hard to tell).  Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I suspect it’s part of the larger iconography of the Tea Party, which is intentionally appealing to white peoples’ fears, rooted in racism.  It’s the end of the video clip which is the most telling, however, as it invites viewers to “get the entire song” at MoveAmericaForward.org.

As it turns out, MoveAmericaForward is another far-right group, also run by a white woman, Melanie Morgan (pictured below).

Morgan, along with Howard Kaloogian (another Tea Partier), formed Move American Forward in 2004 as a pro-war group. According to SourceWatch, Morgan gained national notoriety in the summer of 2006 when she suggested that Bill Keller, an editor of The New York Times, be killed in a “gas chamber” for the crime of “treason” after the Times’ reporting on US government spying on Americans.  Perhaps that’s just Morgan’s brand of hyperbole, but when I hear someone suggest “gas chambers” I immediately conjure Nazis and antisemitism, but maybe that’s just me.  She seems undaunted by criticism that she might be fomenting racism and antisemitism with her remarks.

In a July 2007 appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, Morgan repeated her claim that Keller and other journalists who reported on the government’s SWIFT program for tracking terrorist bank transactions “should be tried for treason. If they were found guilty of treason, I would have no problem with them being executed.”  Morgan continues to make such claims on her website, and, is a promoter of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.   Today, the underlying MoveAmericaForward message is conveyed in the website’s imagery: soldiers are white, terrorists are black, and the government needs to be “taken back,” preferably by George W. Bush.

So, why does it matter that these are white women, and what does it have to do with race? It matters for a few reasons.

  • Because of sexism, white women get a pass on racism. – There’s a pervasive myth that women are somehow less racist, less capable of evil, than men.  It’s not true, and it’s an idea rooted in a kind of sexism – that women are inherently somehow kinder, gentler, and by extension, less racist, than men.  It’s just not the case, but it’s a powerful idea that still holds a lot of sway, nonetheless.   What this means is that white women are called out less, taken to task less than men are for their racism.
  • White (straight) women benefit from all kinds of unacknowledged privilege. The fact is that all these women, like other women on the far-right, benefit from privilege – heterosexual privilege, white skin privilege, and many of them, class privilege.   That unacknowledged privilege makes them not that different from the men in the Tea Party and other far-right movements.    It also feeds into the “born on third base, thought I hit a triple” version of meritocracy that they espouse.
  • Asking if these women are “feminists” is the wrong question. Lots of people have been posing the question, “Is Sarah Palin a feminist?” and I would argue that’s the wrong question.    Sure, Sarah Palin’s a feminist if she wants to call herself one.  So are Diana Tagy and Melanie Morgan.   I get that makes some feminists who don’t share the racist agenda of the Tea Party uncomfortable.   What we should be asking instead is why is (white) feminism so easily compatible with racist, far-right movements like the Tea Party?

I’ll be back tomorrow with Part 2 of “White Women, Race Matters,” in which I’ll explore the media and cultural portrayal of white women beyond the realm of political parties.

Comments

  1. Joe

    Thanks for the great post, Jessie. I keep wondering who funds and/or generates all these organizations in the background. I know this question sounds a little conspiratorial, but are white (actually, white male) billionaires behind all this? Who funded the rise of Palin?

  2. Jessie Author

    Thanks, Joe. There’s a lot of rich Republicans, so it’s not exactly conspiratorial to say that they’re behind a lot of this. If you check the links to SourceWatch I posted above, especially in connection with Melanie Morgan, you’ll find some wealthy Repubs there. Palin is a more complex case, and I think that there’s no underestimating how conventionally attractive and telegenic she is. At about the time she was picked by McCain as running mate, there was a great piece in the New Yorker about why McCain chose her. I’ve added that link to the original post (at the first mention of her name).

  3. parvenu

    All of life is an evolution!! For decades America has been moving steadily towards becoming a “Gossip Nation”. My critera for this statement is that there is a history, progressing from the days of “Heda Hopper’s Hollywood” gossip broadcasts and newspaper columns along with Walter Winchell’s broadcasts, up to the present day deluge of gossip information that daily floods the American media. Even so-called TV news consists of gossip and talking head subjective opinionated programs. So with gossip enshrined as the highest level of public information it is no wonder that a generation of cosmetically correct harpies have stepped up to the presenter’s table as the glamourized purveyors of the latest re-echoed gossip tripe which they feed to the American TV audience thirsty for the latest news.

    It is important to keep in mind the lack of complexity inherent in the gossip message. Gossip content is not cerebrative, rather it is simple and mostly emotionally toxic. Hence, it has proven to be attractive to a number of “conservative” female political activists as the perfect vehicle to reach people who only aspire only to information content presented in childish catch phrases and rhythmic sound bytes. Many of these conservative harpies are essentially small time con men in high heels, who have recently become aware that there is a boat load of money to be made when one becomes a notorious standard bearer of the conservative/neo-confederate cause. It is only in recent times, largely in response to the long standing Republican Party’s gender gap that the male dominated Republican leadership grudgingly made room for the new emerging “conservative female leaders”.

    I am certain that many of these new conservative women are just a racialist as their male counterparts. Likewise, I am sure that there are just as many right wing con-women as there are male right wing con-men. Regardless, for both groups the ticket to money and power is the public peddling of periodic racialist remarks. The publication of these remarks are designed to send a signal to the right wing politician’s financial benefactor that their financial donations are being well spent and the recipient is on the job (namely, keeping Negroes in their place). This technique of “conservative” politicians using well publicized racially tinged statements to signal their benefactors that they are on the job (keeping the Negroes down) has been a Southern political tradition going back to the days of reconstruction America. Every right wing politician, regardless of their gender, learns this as “lesson 101″ in conservative political practices.
    It is ever thus….
    peace…

  4. Maria

    Thanks for highlighting this issue, Jessie. White women have been able to have it both ways: they can claim to be discriminated so they are sympathetic and anti-racist in talk, but when it comes to action they have the choice of how much they decide to care; and, ironically they have been the beneficiaries of much equal rights legislation such as affirmative action policy. This isn’t to say there are some white women who are truly committed to equity and justice, but from my reading of history and politics (from at least Susan B. Anthony to Geraldine Feraro), as well as my personal experiences, I am not left too optimistic about their position on race. The quotes I could cite about people of color that have come out of my white female colleagues mouth’s are shocking.

  5. ThirtyNine4Ever

    I’m not even sure what this “Tea Party” stands for to begin with, but I can certainly say it has benefited from having a conservative female voice. I would wager that the average “Tea Party” affiliated person would not want to be associated with the likes of Melanie Morgan, but somehow Palin has brought everyone together.

  6. Jessie Author

    Thanks for your comments @parvenu, @Maria, @ThirtyNine4Ever – I appreciate you taking the time to drop by and leave a few words.
    .
    @parvenu – It’s interesting that you mention the gossip world. A friend and colleague is working on a book about the gossip blogs, and in particular Lindsay Lohan. I was saying to her the other night that I think in some ways Lindsay Lohan represents a kind of ‘race traitor’ or fallen white woman through her violation of sexual / gender norms through her drug / alcohol use.
    .
    @Maria – Yes, there’s a whole post (I dare say a whole book) in the expressions of white academic women on race. Many years ago, I didn’t get a job I’d applied for, and the white feminist chair of the committee took me aside afterward to tell me: “Well, you know why we had to hire her,” referring to the Latina woman that got the job.
    .
    @ThirtyNine4Ever – The notion of a “tea party” is supposed to harken back to the American revolution and tax revolt. Of course, the left-wing has had enormous fun playing around with the double entendre of “tea bagging” but I digress. I get the sense that Melanie Morgan only wishes she were as successful as Sarah Palin.

  7. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    Sorry, this is being a picky, but I think, parvenu, racialist is a little too soft in this context. They’re just plain ole racist.

    re gossip – That makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes good sense.

    re conservative “feminists” – The problem (actual) feminists have with Palin and others calling themselves feminists is there stance on women’s rights. In addition to their anti-abortion stance, there’s their general stance against laws like the Lily Ledbetter act. The contention, as I understand it, has to do with women, not race. Feminism has a race problem, no doubt about it. (Hence, womanism.)

    re Tea Party – They called themselves tea baggers first. It’s supposed to stand for “Taxed Enough Already,” even though 95% of Americans received tax cuts. To decry being overtaxed just as you receive a tax cut demonstrates you’re not paying attention and don’t know what you’re talking about. Or, to put it simply, “Eh, duh!” You also don’t know history, as the issue of the 1776 was Parliamentary representation, not taxation as such. Eh, duh! “No taxation without representation!” All that said, it was enough for me that they harkened back to a time when blacks were slaves. (And, by the way, women couldn’t vote or own property, and children were “owned” by the husband, even if he was only the stepfather.)

    re Palin’s comments – The country is fundamently unequal and unjust. Like you mention Jessie, I find it incredibly insulting that white people have the audacity, no pun intended, to question black patriotism (I question it, too, but for the opposite reason.) and our own understanding of our lived experience. Besides, seriously, let’s remember that the Constitution, which they so dearly love, had slavery in it. Also, this is where women’s rights come to the fore. Right? I know millions of white women are “always proud” of their country, but there’s still income, hiring, and promotion discrimination. The “2nd wave” feminism ended in their life time. What’s the matter with these people? And that’s not even discussing marriage and military equality.

    Moreover, Jeremiah Wright didn’t say anything against white people. So why so easy to equate criticizing the US to racism against whites? Eh, duh! Right? It’s easy because in their minds, US=white, right? And that’s the problem!!

    So here they are, overtly denying the rights of nonheterosexuals, equating the US with whiteness (which is racialist if not racist), protesting against over-taxation just as their taxes are cut, calling themselves tea-baggers when the revolt in 1774 was about representation . . . etc, etc, etc. I understand why even now, having reading tests in order to vote is a terrible idea. I rant against it myself. But would it be wrong to have someone read aloud basic facts of US government history and policy before voters were sent inside the booth?

    And can someone explain to me why it’s so “patriotic” for them to criticize the government, or blame national disasters on gays and lesbians; but anti-white rhetoric when people of color do the same?

  8. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    Just one more thing – as far as I’m aware, most economists acknowledge that a capitalist economy is by its nature unequal at at least unfair if not unjust. Especially if the rich are allowed to pass down and inherit great sums of wealth. American capitalism is particularly inhumane. So it’s ridiculous that so many people are offended when the US is described as unjust and unequal.

  9. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    Sorry, sorry. Just remembered that while the majority of tea pot grassroots leaders are women, the majority of people who’d vote for Palin and other conservative women are white men, 2010 midterm elections notwithstanding.

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