Posted on August 30, 2010

The Backlash Against Obama’s Blackness

Dan Kennedy, Guardian (London), August 24, 2010

From Arizona to Ground Zero via birthers, the Republicans are riding a wave of white resentment. It’s reckless and frightening

The August madness into which America has descended is about several things. It’s about the still-sputtering economy, of course, and the fear it engenders. It’s about xenophobia, never far below the surface. And it’s about a rightwing media-political complex that plays on the public’s ignorance.

But there’s a unifying theme that few wish to acknowledge. What we are witnessing at the moment is the full, ugly furore of white backlash, aimed directly and indirectly at our first black president.

The case was made, inadvertently, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece last week by Republican congressman-turned-lobbyist Dick Armey, the godfather of what might be called the Tea Party movement’s corporate wing. Armey and his co-author, Matt Kibbe, proudly dated the birth of the Tea Party to 9 February 2009.

Barack Obama’s $800m stimulus bill was not approved until three days later. Which is my point. The most notorious political movement of the Obama era, grounded in racial fears if not flat-out racism, sprung into being within weeks of Obama’s inauguration, before he’d had a chance to do anything, really. If Obama was for it, they were against it.

The Tea Party winter and spring of 2009 led to the “death panels” of summer, and to rightwing hero Glenn Beck’s declaration that the president harboured “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture”. Minor issues involving Acorn, a heretofore obscure agency that helped register urban, mostly minority voters, became a cause célèbre. A little-known African American bureaucrat, Van Jones, was hounded out of office for having allegedly expressed offensive views about the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001–views he later said he had never voiced and did not hold. Protesters spat upon and directed racial epithets at African American congressmen as the healthcare debate reached its climax.

And now we come to the full fruition of all this race-baiting. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 18% of Americans–and 34% of conservative Republicans–believe Obama is a Muslim, proportions that have actually risen since the 2008 campaign. Another poll, by CNN/Opinion Research, finds that 41% of Republicans believe Obama was definitely or probably not born in the United States.

Far worse is the racial, ethnic and religious hatred that has been unleashed, starting with the proposed Islamic centre to be built in New York several blocks from the devastated World Trade Centre site, which Obama endorsed and then (to his discredit) unendorsed, sort of, the next day.

Yes, we’ve all heard Newt Gingrich draw an analogy between Muslims and Nazis, and we all know that more than 60% of the public has expressed its opposition to what is inevitably, and inaccurately, referred to as the “Ground Zero mosque”.

But to experience the pure fury, you have to watch this video of a black man who had the temerity to walk through a group of people protesting the centre. It is a terrifying moment.

There is more–so much more. The anti-immigration law approved in Arizona, which made a star of Republican governor Jan Brewer, notwithstanding the inconvenient truth that illegal immigration across the Mexico-Arizona border is at its lowest level in years. The political crucifixion of Shirley Sherrod. The continuing phenomenon of Sarah Palin, who, at long last, feels empowered enough to reach inside the deepest, darkest recesses of her tiny little heart and embrace a fellow rightwinger’s repeated use of the N-word.

It’s a frightening time to be an American and to watch this insanity unfolding all around us. There’s a sense that anything could happen, none of it good.

What’s all too easy to forget is that though Obama was elected with the strongest majority of any president in recent years, he received only 43% of the white vote. Now, it’s true that no Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has won a majority of whites. But it’s also true that 100% of voters who would never support a black presidential candidate cast their ballots for someone other than Obama. Now they’re roaming the countryside, egged on by the Republican party and the Tea Party and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, looking for new objects on which to unload their bitterness.

The traditional media, built as they are on the notion of fair-minded coverage of equally responsible, equally reasonable political forces, can barely process what’s going on. You literally cannot understand the current moment without watching the political satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But, hey, they’re only comedians.

Not that there’s anything new about the Republican party’s playing racial politics. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 on the basis of his infamous “southern strategy”, designed to appeal to white voters alienated by the historic civil-rights legislation shepherded through Congress by Lyndon Johnson. Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign against the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil-rights workers had been murdered, by invoking the toxic phrase “states’ rights”.

As the economy slides into another trough, with no prospect of another stimulus passing political muster, it’s only going to get worse.

Strangely, there are virtually no political observers who hold out the prospect that the folks whom the right has alienated will turn out to vote against the Republicans this November. George W Bush, after all, worked mightily to appeal to Latino voters. That’s gone. Bush even won 70% of the Muslim vote in 2000. That’s long gone.

The Republicans hope to ride the white backlash back to power, and perhaps they will. But they may also find that the hatred they have embraced will come back to haunt them this November–and well beyond. For the rest of us, though, the consequences of that hatred have yet to play out.