Nearly 50 years after the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, the conservative movement is mobilizing its electoral base by using the wedge issues of race and racism. The principal targets are not new — African Americans and “illegal immigrants” from Mexico.
To whip up fear among white voters and to support their pro-Wall Street, pro-Big Business agenda, wealthy white politicians and talk show hosts are in hyper drive leading up to the November elections. The strategy has worked in the past and appears to be working today. Whites — workers as well as small business people — are sucked into the hate vortex (of course while denying they have any bigotry) that the African-American president and his Black wife are seeking “revenge” against all white people.
Although this campaign began before the 2008 election — and Obama still won! — the narrative is working now because of the Great Recession, which has led to a notable shift in opinions among whites, even those who voted for President Obama. While it is easy to blame the economic crisis, however, the undercurrent of race and racism is evident in the right’s anti-Obama propaganda.
The extremist propaganda of the far right (such as the assertion that Obama was not born in Hawaii and is a secret Moslem planning to impose Sharia law) is now a mainstream view within the conservative movement and the Republican Party. A recent CNN poll showed that 41% of Republicans believe President Obama is “probably” or “definitely” not a U.S.-born citizen.
A growing number of whites now agree with Rush Limbaugh that Obama and his White House are out to “get whites” for past discrimination of African Americans. Many liberals — and the Obama White House — have bent to the backlash to appease these same white voters. It’s left the Black and Latino majority in a weaker position while trying to deal with double digit unemployment and fewer economic options than whites.
While it is easy to believe that the Obama election means legal gains can’t be turned back and that the demographics in 30 to 40 years will mean whites will become one of the minorities making up the United States, history teaches us that a powerful group with wealth and power can prevent historically oppressed minorities from coalescing and getting their fair share of political power.
History Can Retrace
It is thus not inevitable that the white supremacist wing of the conservative movement will be isolated and defeated. They have already successfully shifted the politics to the far right — where moderate conservatives are pushed to the sidelines. The failure of the Democratic Party mainstream to understand and respond to the success of the white fear tactic is why racial progress is under attack and why more challenges to equality will occur.
The Arizona Republican Party decision to push for the gutting of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that grants automatic citizenship to all persons born in the United States is the latest example. The “show me your papers” politicians seek to take away the citizenship of what they call “anchor babies,” in effect to dehumanize children of undocumented workers.
The 14th amendment was adopted after the Civl War to grant full citizenship to former slaves. (The 13th amendment banned slavery and indentured servitude.) The opening sentence states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
Yet the right says otherwise. Some supporters openly call for a new interpretation of the 14th amendment that expels children (they would be stateless persons) if one parent is illegal. The fact that the Constitution was written to protect individuals and minorities from the tyranny of the majority is not accepted by the right.
The Obama White House, and unfortunately many civil rights organizations like the NAACP, refuse to aggressively take on the use of race by the right. The liberals fear a white backlash if they defend Black or minority rights. They fear giving the conservative movement a tool to attack Obama. (It is the justification the White House quietly used to fire those in the crosshairs of Fox News.)
The Shirley Sherrod Case
The case of Shirley Sherrod — a lifelong fighter for civil rights who worked for the Agricultural Department in Georgia — shows what happens when the right sets the agenda. The incredible 48 hours in July involving Sherrod, the NAACP, the Obama White House and liberal media is instructive. The latter groups responded with panic to an orchestrated smear campaign by a right-wing blogger.
What’s most striking about the Sherrod story is how many liberals took the right’s bait and jumped feet first before even Googling her name (her husband was a founder of SNCC in the 1960s) or read her speech. The NAACP even called her distorted remarks “racist.”
Sherrod’s father had been murdered by a white Klan member who was never brought to justice. Black farmers are still waiting to receive compensation for discrimination they suffered from the Agriculture Department. (A recent settlement was approved but not funded by the Senate because of a Republican threat of filibuster.)
Once it became known that Sherrod was supported by the white farmers she helped 24 years ago, she was offered a new job by the Agriculture Department.
What Sherrod actually said in her speech is relevant to the debates about race and class. “It’s not about poor Black versus white,” she explained. “It’s about poor versus rich, and how the system works to keep it that way.”
She added that historically dividing the races had been “working so well, they said, looks like we’ve come up on something here that can last generations — and here we are. Over 400 years later, and it’s still working. What we have to do is get that out of our heads. There is no difference between us. The only difference is that the folks with money want to stay in power and whether it’s health care or whatever it is, they’ll do what they need to do to keep that power.”
This point is downplayed by mainstream media. Yet it is the heart of the attack by the right against the NAACP and Obama. Even though he hasn’t done much for the poor in his first 18 months in office, the conservatives believe that Obama’s secret objective is to take from the rich and give to the Black poor. The tactic is to convince poor and better-off white workers to buy this lie, even though a true program for the Black poor would benefit all ethnic groups.
The fear of white backlash is so deep-rooted among Obama’s supporters that “saving face” or “cutting your loses” is more important than responding to the false attacks. The failure only leads to new lies, no matter that those attacks are later ripped apart as fabrications such as occurred with the community group ACORN. By the time the lies are exposed, the damage is done.
A great many liberals, including the Black leadership — despite their denials — for the most part are more worried about right-wing bloggers and Fox News blowhards like Glenn Beck than in advancing their own agenda, They know that the right’s game plan is to destroy the Obama presidency, yet they walk on tiptoes until a signal is given from the White House.
Protecting the back of the first Black president is not an effective tactic to advance the interests of the working poor in the Black community. Instead of counter-mobilizing, there is paralysis by supporters of civil rights. It’s almost like the racist right has a green light to do what they want. Appeasement does not work; it emboldens racist elements.
Lessons from History
The biggest error being made in this context is to believe that the clock cannot be turned back. “History is on our side,” so let’s wait the right out. Yet reversals have happened before in U.S. history.
After the Second American Revolution — the Civil War — that ended slavery and made former slaves citizens, a counter-offensive by the southern-based white power structure rose up to mobilize poor whites against the newly freed slaves. The progressive Radical Reconstruction period in the 1870s was cut short.
By the 1880s, the counterrevolution was in full bloom and newly won rights were violently taken away. The changes were later codified in the infamous 1896 Plessey v Ferguson Supreme Court ruling that allowed legal segregation to live on for decades.
Few people on the far left thought Jim Crow could ever be overthrown without a Third American Revolution — one directly against the capitalist state. Instead, a mass civil rights revolution reformed the system in a fundamental manner. It didn’t go far enough to dismantle institutional racism but it did end legal inequalities.
The backlash was again immediate. The Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” played the race card and fearmongering to convince southern whites to leave the Democratic Party in the 1970s.
These historical examples show how quickly counter offensives occurred, even if there was no complete return to previous eras. The aim was to protect the privileges of the white majority.
Today’s backlash is in line with that history. Its purpose is not to re-impose Jim Crow laws or kick out every “illegal alien,” but to reverse as many of the gains as possible such as affirmative action and ethnic studies. It is to use charges of “reverse racism” and support for a “colorblind” society to justify reasserting white privilege in all walks of life.
Since white control in big business and politics has never fundamentally changed, the goal is re-segregation of other aspects of life. (For example, school desegregation programs are almost nonexistent.)
Even President Obama believes that affirmative action is not for his own kids because they have opportunities that other Black kids don’t. But race and racism have not been structurally eradicated, which means that even Obama’s children could face a backlash if the racist right gets its way.
Racism versus Bias
Every human being has biases and prejudices. There is no problem with Irish or German whites preferring to be with other Irish or German people. They share common heritage, food and other cultural identities. Likewise African Americans, Mexicans, Asians and Native Americans tend to prefer their own cultures.
This type of bias is normal. It is not racist. Diversity is good too, as long as it is not mandatory by law.
Racism, however, has to do with supremacy and power. When Hitler said the “Aryan” people were the superior race, his targets were Jews, Africans and Asians, “inferior” whites like Slavs, and ethnic mixing. This was a racist construct that translated into privileges and power for “pure” Germans.
In American history, the “white race” — a mythical entity based on their skin color — had special privileges compared to Blacks, Latinos and Asians. In the Deep South, poor whites could vote when educated Blacks could not. White superiority was taught in schools. The racist attitudes were interwoven in the laws of the land.
It was no longer about benign biases. Legal and structural privileges were given to whites by the state. White elites were given advantages over working-class whites. When poor whites began to challenge the owners of capital, the wealthy fooled them into believing that Blacks seeking equality would take away white workers’ “privileges,” small as they were.
African Americans do not have wealth or power as a social group. They cannot impose a similar power relationship on whites because they don’t have control of big business and the state. President Obama and the Black middle class have achieved unprecedented positions of authority, but do not control Wall Street or state institutions. There cannot be “Black revenge” for past injustices for this reason alone — even if that were the goal, which it isn’t.
In this context, the challenge for civil rights groups and supporters of full equality is to explain and understand this contradictory history. The far right leaders in the conservative movement are not interested in the economic well-being of poor white workers who fear a Black president. They are simply trying to re-establish full white privilege and prevent the advances of the past 40 years from consolidating.
It is not a surprise that the Arizona legislature began its attack on “illegal” immigrants, then targeted teachers with a heavy Spanish accent, and are now after the citizenship of children of undocumented families.
It’s time to recognize that we are in a serious battle that is structurally about class (poor versus rich) but pivots on race and racism.
- Malik Miah, Solidarity