American Tea Party Movement Fosters White Racial Resentment

At the National Tea Party Convention held in Nashville, Tennessee this weekend, leaders in this movement sought to turn the fringe group into a serious political force by fostering white racial resentment and suggesting a return to the Jim Crow days of literacy tests for voters.  Several news commentators, including Rachel Maddow at MSNBC (opens video) and Rich Benjamin at Alternet, have commented on the racial subtext of the Tea Party Movement, and there’s building evidence of this based on the recent convention.

Tom Tancredo, former Representative (R-Colorado), was the initial speaker at the convention.  Addressing the overwhelmingly white crowd, Tancredo said, “It is our nation.”    Tancredo repeatedly referred to President Obama by his middle name, Hussein, and said he was thankful Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona lost the 2008 presidential election because Obama has mobilized an uprising.  “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House,” he said.  The kinds of literacy tests Tancredo suggests were once used in the U.S. under Jim Crow to keep blacks from voting.  These racist laws were overturned with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965.

The big news story out of the convention was, of course, the keynote speech by Sarah Palin. Rich Benjamin is spot on when he writes in his analysis of Palin:

“Packed beneath her beehive is a spitfire brew of optimistic, yet aggrieved, whiteness. Palin embodies a bizarre, sometimes alluring, combination of triumph and complaint that many Caucasian Tea Partiers identify with through and through.  Deciphering the racial codes on the movement’s ubiquitous placards does not require a doctorate in semiotics. One popular sign shows the president’s face and a caption: ‘Undocumented worker.’ Another combines Obama’s image with this caption: ‘The Zoo Has an African Lion and the White House Has a Lyin’ African!’   Aside from the festive, ad hominem attacks against President Obama, the Tea Party’s leaders and its rank-and-file rarely mention race in debate, instead tucking it just under the surface of ‘nonracial’ issues like health care reform, public spending, immigration, and pointedly, taxes.”

There is evidence that these sorts of subtle racial cues matter in political elections.  A study by researchers Valentino, Hutchings and White published in American Political Science Review (2002), 96:1:75-90, suggests that subtle racial cues in campaign communications may activate racial attitudes, thus altering political decision making.  In an experiment, they tested whether subtle racial cues embedded in political advertisements prime racial attitudes as predictors of candidate preference by making them more accessible in memory. Results show that a wide range of implicit race cues can prime racial attitudes.

Such research lends support to the critiques by news analysts on the Tea Party Movement’s attempts to gain political support by fostering white racial resentment.

Stealing the Language of Empathy and Anti-Racism

Justice with a swaggerOne striking thing of late is how the words “racist” and “ racism” often appear in the media without reference to the white racism underlying this society. The language of anti-racist analysis and action is now taken to serve conservative political ends (Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya).

In a recent column, Leonard Pitts, a leading media commentator, argues the naming of Judge Sotomayor “racist” by conservatives like Gingrich, Tancredo, and Limbaugh is about much more than political mudslinging:

This is part and parcel of a campaign by conservatives to arrogate unto themselves and/or neutralize the language of social grievance. . . . They made “liberal” such a vulgarity you’d never know liberals fought to ban child labor, end Jim Crow or win women the right to vote. Having no record of their own of responding compassionately to social grievance . . . conservatives have chosen instead to co-opt the language of that grievance.

A very good point. They are not only co-opting and weakening the language of social grievance, but also intentionally taking the focus off the central reality of whites’ continuing racial oppression.

Over at the Dailykos blog, George Lakoff, influential linguistics professor, accents related points about conservatives appropriating the language and idea of “empathy”:

The conservatives are reframing empathy to make it attackable. Their “empathy” is idiosyncratic, personal feeling for an individual, presumably the defendant in a legal case. With “empathy” reframed in this way, Charles Krauthammer can say, echoing Karl Rove, “Justice is not about empathy.”

Lakoff ties the conservative attack on empathy as personal feelings to the attack by Gingrich and others on Sotomayor as “racist”:

[In their view} because of her personal feelings for her own kind — Latinos and women — she will discriminate against white men. It is to support that view that the New Haven firemen case keeps being brought up. The real target here goes beyond Sotomayor. In the last election, conservative populists moved toward Obama. Conservative populists are working people, mostly white men, who have conservative views of the family, of masculinity, and of the military, and who have bought into the idea of the “liberal elite” as looking down on them. Right now, they are hurting economically, losing their jobs and their homes. Empathy is something they need. The racist card is an attempt to revive their fears of affirmative action, fears of their jobs — and their pride — being taken by minorities and women. The racist attack has a political purpose, holding onto conservative populists.

He also makes a very important point that by constantly repeating the comments on her as “racist,” liberal Democrats and other liberals are reinforcing this theme in the public mind. That should be replaced with a reframing that positions Gingrich and company as extraordinarily racist and anti-democratic, using that type of language. In addition, Lakoff suggests liberals, both Democrats and others, must speak about real empathy that links to social justice:

They need to point out that empathy leads one to notice real social and systemic causes of our troubles and to notice when and how judicial decisions and legislation can harm the most vulnerable of our countrymen. And finally that empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness — which are necessary components of justice.

Pitts and Lakoff are on target in tying these white-racist attacks on empathy and the language of anti-racism to a much larger reactionary political agenda. The attacks are not only on real multiracial democracy, but on organizational and individual efforts to break down systemic racism–that is, to probe deeply the systemic realities of racial oppression and to increase organizational efforts to overturn that system.

Recurring racial discrimination targeting Americans of color requires a breakdown of normal human empathy among whites. Racial oppression not only severely distorts human relationships but desensitizes the minds of racial oppressors. Oppression requires in oppressors a lack of recognition of the full humanity of the exploited others. The psychiatric term “alexithymia” describes individuals unable to understand the emotions of, and empathize with, other people. Hernan Vera and I have suggested going way beyond this individualistic concept to a concept of “social alexithymia.” Essential to being an oppressor in a racist society is a significantly reduced ability, or an inability, to understand or relate to the emotions, such as recurring pain, of those targeted by racial oppression. And this involves many white individuals acting collectively both today and historically.

Since the days of slavery and Jim Crow, most whites have revealed a rather high level of social alexithymia, the sustained inability to relate to suffering of those oppressed. For centuries, systemic racism has both required and constantly bred a lack of empathy and recognition of the full humanity of Americans of color. Today, most whites still do not “see,” or do not wish to see, the impact of institutionalized racism or to recognize its determinative role in everyday life. A substantial majority persist in denying that white racism is systemic, commonplace, and devastating for its targets.

Today the challenge for those seeking to expand antiracist strategies includes the creation of widespread conditions where a great many whites will have to confront the catastrophic reality of the pain that the white-imposed system of racial oppression has caused Americans of color, especially including those with whom they come into daily contact.

It is this aggressive move in the direction of increasing real collective empathy and new invigorated organizations to expand that collective empathy that white conservatives and reactionaries seem most worried about.

Race and the Republican Party: The Elephant in the Room

The GOP - It's a party, alright.Recent political news has focused extensively on whether modern times are sounding a death-knell for the Republican party (Creative Commons License photo credit: makelessnoise). After bruising losses in the mid-term elections of 2006 and in the presidential election of 2008, near record-low numbers of individuals who identify as Republicans, and an extraordinarily popular Democratic president, many commentators and pundits have questioned whether the Republican party is facing a crisis of being. Even some Republican leaders have acknowledged the peril they face as a party, giving rise to debates over whether they should become more moderate and create a “bigger tent” that includes a broader coalition of supporters, or stick to their principles and align themselves even more strongly with their remaining conservative base.

In my mind, these debates reveal a major problem for the Republican party and highlight the ways in which narrow racial framing is limiting their future opportunities and success. When Republicans debate whether to “stick to their guns” (pun intended) or establish a “bigger tent,” they are thinking short term and avoiding some very real racialized realities that have an impact for their future and ultimately their continued existence. This is perhaps unsurprising for a party whose only engagement with racial issues over the last half century has been creating coded language to justify their opposition to civil rights advancements (“states’ rights,” “urban crime,” “welfare queens,”), or appealing to racialized fears (Willie Horton, fabricating links between immigrants and swine flu, blaming “unqualified minorities” for the housing crisis) as a way of maintaining and consolidating reliable votes. So it’s not especially shocking that Republicans would be oblivious of what—and who–they are ignoring when they think only in terms of going more moderate or staying conservative.

The racial issue that I refer to is this. All demographic data indicates that within a mere 30 to 40 years, this country will no longer have a clear white majority. What we are headed towards, whether Republican elites like it or not, is a nation that is mostly multiracial and where whites are irrevocably becoming a numerical minority. I don’t think many Republicans have really taken that fact in, perhaps because it is hard to imagine in a nation that has been run by a white majority for centuries. But it’s happening, and evidence of the implications of this were even present in the last election. While some commentators like to pretend that Obama’s election is indicative of the fact that we’re past “all the racial stuff”, the reality is that most whites did not vote for Obama. It took a multiracial coalition of African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, and a small but important minority of whites to get Obama into the White House. Ultimately, however, he won without the support of most whites, because there are finally enough Americans of color to have a significant, determining impact on electoral outcomes. Had Obama not had the foresight to appeal to a broad variety of racial groups, we would be dealing with President McCain and Vice President “I Can See Russia From My House” right now. Republicans would do well to think about how this dynamic plays into their “more moderate or more conservative” dilemma.

What I think it means is that if they want to “stick to their roots,” that in itself needs to involve a fundamental paradigm shift. Of late, the Republican roots haven’t just been small government and tax cuts, those roots have also included appealing to white racism and demonizing groups of color. Even though he broke with his party to champion immigration reform, McCain paid the price for his party’s thinly veiled anti-Latino/a sentiment when they went decisively for Obama. If Republicans want to stay relevant in an America that looks less and less like their base, they need to consider strategies that will endear them to the voters they’ve been excluding from that base. Suggesting that these voters carry swine flu or are responsible for the housing crisis is not the way to do this.

This does mean Republicans will have to make some changes that will probably be painful for them. They can’t just do what has been comfortable in the past, like appealing to those charming folks who show up at their rallies with sock puppets that suggest Obama looks like a monkey. If Republicans want to stay a viable political party, it is time to drop the racist ideology, language, and imagery that has too often been a part of their “core values.” This alienates voters of color that they will need if they want to win at a national level. If Republicans really believe in small government, they should think about how they can make that commitment appealing to growing, important sectors of the population whose primary concerns may be to immigrate safely and easily, find work, go to good schools, and get affordable health care. If they really want low taxes, they should consider how that can win them votes from the many black women who work in low-paying jobs and struggle to find affordable child care. Instead of working themselves into a frenzy over the president’s preference for Dijon mustard (I’m talking to you, Sean Hannity!), Republicans would be better served putting serious thought into how those core principles they tout can be put to use to attract segments of the electorate that they have derided, but now need to reach, if they want to remain relevant. This may well lose them the base they have cultivated, but it might buy them a newer, more expansive base that can actually get them elected. In an America that is growing increasingly multiracial, there is no other way to win at a national level. Unless Republicans acknowledge this (other) elephant in the room, they will continue having the wrong discussion and missing the big picture.

The Nation’s Agenda: Left Blindness on Racism

This is a brief letter that the savvy scholar of US racism, Steve Steinberg, had published in The Nation just recently. It shows how the left itself has trouble with thinking beyond the white racial framing of things.

His letter was in response to this article in the December 29, 2008 The Nation.

Colorblind? Your lead editorial, “The First 100 Days” [Dec. 1], issues a welcome list of ambitious initiatives that would “get a real start on repairing our nation,” including a renewed war on poverty. No mention, however, of race and racism, despite the fact that a mobilized black community provided the margin between victory and defeat. A colorblind approach will not address the distinct problems African-Americans confront: occupational apartheid that leaves almost half of black men in cities like Chicago and Washington without jobs; the evisceration of affirmative action by all branches of government; mass incarceration that exceeds 2 million, two-thirds of them black or Latino, often for violation of drug laws; rampant discrimination in housing; a scurrilous lack of enforcement of civil rights laws, especially Title VIII. Can we “repair our nation” without confronting the legacy of slavery? Is the colorblind left going to participate in the charade of using Obama to sidestep racial issues? And is the Democratic Party willing to risk a backlash from blacks who feel betrayed by the election of “the first black President”?  ~ Stephen Steinberg

The Spirit of Justice

Racism usually seems to be the elephant in the room that whites of all persuasions cannot see, or do not want to see (Creative Commons License photo credit: kimberlyfaye). Where is the concern with racial justice going to be put in this new administration? In the goals of progressive media and organizations?

American Racism

American racism is getting more coverage on the mainstream news than it has since the Civil Rights era.   And, that’s not surprising given antics like this image included in a mailing from the Chaffey Community Republican Women, a regional arm of the GOP in California (more on the story and image source here).  For her part, the group’s president, Diane Fedele, draws on the rhetoric of “race-blindness” to defend her actions.  She reportedly said that she received the illustration in a number of chain e-mails and decided to reprint it for her members in the group’s newsletter because she was offended that Obama would draw attention to his own race. She said she doesn’t think in racist terms, pointing out she once supported Republican Alan Keyes, an African-American who previously ran for president. She continues this “race-blind” rhetorical strategy when she says:

“I didn’t see it the way that it’s being taken. I never connected,” she said. “It was just food to me. It didn’t mean anything else.”

Now, the somewhat encouraging news is that lots of people are pointing out this overt racism and calling it what it is, including those on rather mainstream (albeit left-leaning) blogs and cable news networks.

However, the way stories like the one about the circulation of this image of “Obama bucks” are overly focused on individual racism, rooted in psychological explanations.  For example, Fedele made the top of Olbermann’s “Worst Person” list on his nightly broadcast, as have others in this political season who’ve been guilty of engaging in the most overt racist tactics.  And, in a perfectly fine piece at the Huffington Post, Peter Wolson has a thorough discussion of the psychology of “othering.”   I don’t disagree with either of these. Indeed, I welcome more discussion of American racism in as many venues as possible.  The problem with these is that the focus on the individual and psychological aspects of racism within a larger political discourse of “race-blindness” elides the way in which racism is systemic, built in, institutionalized, and structural.

The focus on the individual expressions of overt racism and the psychological roots of such expressions also forestall any sort of discussions about responses to racism by society as a whole. To illustrate this, note the contrasting response to individual racism in Denmark recently.  A 33-year-old woman was convicted under Danish laws against racism after posting racist remarks on her personal web page (she was given a fine).   Unfortunately, in the U.S. we seem reluctant to adopt such a societal-level response to overt expressions of racism, even in this political season and even when many, many people see such expressions as wrong and immoral.   Instead, there is a knee-jerk, libertarian response to any call for accountability under the law for such expressions in the United States.  In point of fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of decisions that restrict certain types of racist speech that don’t make a contribution to the public sphere.    Yet, prominent figures such as Rush Limbaugh, get away with what amounts to enciting racist hatred with their speech, such as this recent tirade against black children allegedly “raised as militants.”

Identifying individuals who engage in overt racism is important, and understanding the psychology of such expressions is valuable, but coming to terms with American racism takes much more than that.  And, dealing with it will require a broad-based political will and systemic social change.   We’re not there yet.

Not So Subconscious White Racism

An article in the Washington Post earlier this week asked “Does your subconscious think Obama is foreign?” (Hat tip to HarlemWriter via Twitter and Light-Skinned Girl).  Shankar Vedantam, the author of that piece, went on to cite the work of Mahzarin Banaji at Harvard, one of the developers of the Implicit Association Test, which we’ve written about here before.   Vedantam has a provocative interview quote from Banaji in which she says: “African Americans in their [own] minds are fully American, but not in the minds of whites.” And, indeed, this seems clear in this short video clip (2:08) that includes interviews with white Ohio voters:

In these interviews, reporter Casey Kauffman reveals the misconceptions, racism, and just plain foolishness of these white people (to me via Alternet).  It would be funny if it weren’t so scary.

McCain Supporters Reveal Racism

While the McCain/Palin campaign tries to run a “respectable” official campaign by apologizing, his supporters continue to display some pretty overt racism in a variety of ways.   For example, a white man attending a McCain/Palin rally over the weekend showed up with a “Curious George” doll with an Obama sticker on it (link opens a video).    Nice.

And, there’s this photo of a sign in Warren County, Pa., taken on Oct. 5 by Maryland resident Kurt Kolaja, who was attending a wedding in the area (and first published here).  Very nice, indeed.

So as the McCain/Palin campaign tries to officially distance itself from these overt expressions of racism, attributing this sort of thing to the actions of the “occasional nut.” While I was initially willing to cut McCain some slack when I heard him challenge some of his supporters this weekend, as time rolls on, his protestations seem half-hearted and disingenuous.   All of this raises the issue of whether or not the campaign should be held accountable for their supporters’ amped up the racist expressions that seem emboldened with a sense of entitlement and outrage.

Rep. John Lewis stepped into this controversy with the following statement:

“What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse,” Lewis said in a statement.

George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights.

I agree with Jill (at Jack & Jill Politics) that Lewis was right to draw this parallel.  What do you think?

As Economic Crisis Worsens, is Racism a “Luxury” Whites Can No Longer Afford?

As the economic crisis worsens (and the forecasts look pretty gloomy), some people are speculating that undecided racists may no longer be able to afford the “luxury” of racism (image source).  Here’s a snippet from an email Ben Smith received at Politico.com:

“What’s crazy is this,” he writes. “I was blown away by the outright racism, but these folks are f***ing undecided. They would call him a n—-r and mention how they don’t know what to do because of the economy.”

And, the polls seem to indicate some support for this trend.  Among voters for whom “the economy” is their first priority, Obama leads by a wide margin.   This has given some writers cause for optimism, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes (for The Atlantic):

“Call me crazy, or overly optimistic, but… [I think] … Racism is a luxury that, at this point, a lot of white voters can ill-afford. I think a crucial number of them know that.”

I wish I could share Coates’ (and others’) optimism.  However, there’s lots of evidence that the McCain/Palin campaign is pandering to the lowest (racist) common denominator in ways that are both overt and intentional, as well as in ways that are practically subconscious they’re so automatic.   For example, at last night’s presidential debate, John McCain referred to Barack Obama as “that one” and at the close of the debate refused to shake his hand (opens video link).  I doubt seriously that McCain or his handlers planned either of these. Rather, McCain’s rhetorical choices and his body language suggest a deep disgust for Obama.  This may be merely personal disdain and might have been directed at any political opponent of McCain’s, but one suspects that it reflects a deep well of racism (recall, McCain for years opposed the King holiday in Arizona and until very recently publicly used the term “gook” to refer to just about any one of Asian descent).

The verbal and non-verbal cues coming from McCain are easy-to-latch-on-to forms of symbolic racism for those inclined to interpret them in that way.  And, once again, it’s clear that the campaign’s strategy is to leave the more overt signaling of this racism to Palin.  For instance,  witness the kinds of vocal responses from crowds at a recent Palin rally when supporters shouted “terrorist” and “kill him” at the mention of Obama’s name.  This kind of irrationality is a powerful reminder that historically whites have voted (and acted) in ways that were not in their economic interest in order to maintain white privilege (and not only working-class whites).  Choosing a political leader (indeed, choosing a team) based on who is best equipped to deal with the economic disaster at hand makes logical, rational sense.  Unfortunately, for many whites, this may well be the last luxury they learn to do without.

More Campaign-Related Racism

As election day approaches, the campaign-related racism is getting amped up to new levels, both from the McCain campaign and from individuals not officially associated with the campaign.  Let’s start with the individual-level racism.

Greg Howard, a Florida middle school teacher and football coach, has been reassigned (but not fired) for his lesson in acronyms.   He spelled out the word “CHANGE” (part of the Obama campaign’s tagline) on the board in his classroom, and asked the class if they knew what it stood for.   The answer: “Come Help a (N-word) Get Elected.” Apart from the weak pedagogical strategy, Mr. Howard’s lesson was clearly and overtly racist.   The fact that he has been reassigned (to adult education) rather than fired speaks to the continued level of tolerance we have as a culture for this sort of racism.

Along with this individual-level racism that’s erupting like an infectious disease, the the McCain campaign is also engaging in a slightly more subtle, though no less racist, strategy.   The campaign’s strategy is to let Palin do much of the heavy lifting of peddling their racist message, and she seems eager for the task.      In a cogent analysis for AP about Palin’s character attack on Obama in which she questions Obama’s association with William Ayers, a member of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground, Douglass K. Daniel writes:

And though she may have scored a political hit each time, her attack was unsubstantiated and carried a racially tinged subtext that John McCain himself may come to regret.

Daniel, and lots of other writers, have noted again and again that Obama’s association with Ayers is “exaggerated at best if not outright false.”   There is simply “no evidence shows they were ‘pals’ or even close,” yet the innuendo along with the racially tinged subtext – repeated over and over – is apparently what passes for “straight talk” in the McCain campaign these days.