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The New Rhetoric of Racism

by KEEANGA-YAMATTA TAYLOR

In recent days, John McCain has been lambasted for telling outright lies in his campaign ads–from the claim that Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a pig to the absurd charge that Obama insisted on sex education for kindergarteners.

The media and the pundits–even the king of dirty campaigning himself, Karl Rove–criticized the untruths underpinning McCain’s increasingly vicious ads.

But most have been silent about another aspect of McCain’s campaigning–an increased willingness to invoke a new lexicon of racist code words, aimed at stoking bigotry among white voters.

While McCain and the other Neanderthals in the Republican Party can’t get away with calling Obama a criminal or a welfare cheat, they’re using new terms to get the point across–he’s Black, he’s urban, and he’s out of step with the “rest of us.” And the us, of course, are “hard-working white Americans,” as Hillary Clinton put it toward the end of her failed bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Last month’s Republican National Convention was a cesspool of thinly veiled racist invective aimed at Obama. Sarah Palin, the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate, sneered about Obama’s history as a community organizer. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani likewise derided Obama for his work “on the South Side of Chicago.”

A few hours before McCain gave his acceptance speech, Republican bigot Lynn Westmoreland, a member of Congress from the former slave state of Georgia, referred to Michelle and Barack Obama as “uppity,” saying, “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they’re uppity.” Given an opportunity to clarify, Westmoreland said, “Yeah, uppity.”

“As a native of the South,” said political commentator David Gergen, “I can tell you, when you see this Charlton Heston ad, ‘The One,’ that’s code for, ‘He’s uppity, he ought to stay in his place.’ Everybody gets that who is from a Southern background.”

For those who have never heard of Westmoreland, all you really need to know is that in 2006, he and 32 of his other Southern white brethren voted against renewing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which, among other things, guarantees Blacks the right to vote.

The hypocrisy of white Republicans–whose party openly represents the interests of the wealthy and the most conservative wing of American capitalism–calling Obama “uppity” and “elitist” would be funny if their actions weren’t helping to legitimize cruder forms of racism that have emerged during the course of this never-ending election.

A few days ago, at a conservative convention where Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were featured speakers–both McCain and Palin were invited, but sent their regrets–one stand did a booming business selling “Obama Waffles” mix for $10 a box.

The box was adorned with a picture of Obama with a big smile, huge lips and bulging eyes–like something out of the antebellum South. On the back of the box, Obama was pictured in a sombrero, alluding to his supposed plans to “flood” the U.S. with “illegal aliens.” And, of course, there was the ubiquitous image of Obama in a turban.

The sellers chalked it up to political satire–and dared anyone to call them bigoted.

* * *

THE USE of racism in American politics isn’t new, by any means, but the methods for invoking it have changed.

In the 1968 election for president, Republican Richard Nixon crafted the so-called “Southern Strategy” of making coded racist appeals to win white votes.

The Southern Strategy was an acknowledgement that open anti-Black racism would no longer be tolerated, now that African Americans’ right to vote was firmly established. But with the Democratic Party falling apart because of its inability to contain the contradictions of being both the formal party of civil rights in the North and the party of Jim Crow in the South, the Southern Strategy was, above all, about winning the rural, white Southern vote into the Republican sphere.

Attacking the Black movement as “criminal” became the centerpiece of this strategy. Black political struggles, from civil rights to urban rebellions, were accused of creating a growing sense of chaos, disorder and crime in American cities. This was conveyed through perpetual references to “urban crime” or “urban disorder.” There were more banal appeals around “urban problems,” but the inference was clear–Blacks were the cause.

Nixon’s cynical use of race was only the beginning. A succession of American politicians–from both major parties–regularly invoked racist stereotypes that conflated social problems found in all inner cities with Black life. These, in turn, became the touchstone for all that was and remains wrong with American society, according to the politicians: drugs, crime, welfare, teen pregnancy, homeless and poverty.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan picked up Nixon’s mantle by campaigning across the South–he launched his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. In office, Reagan regularly invoked fictitious characters like “welfare queens” to justify his program of cutting back on social programs.

Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, declared a war on drugs–which, in reality, meant a war on young Black men. Bush used an unapologetically racist ad–about Willie Horton, a Black man who was accused of a killing a white woman while free on a prison work-release program–against opponent Michael Dukakis, but the first politician to raise Horton was fellow Democrat and future vice president Al Gore.

When he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton made fighting crime and ending welfare big aspects of his campaign–both of which were used to convey a message that he was not beholden to Black “special interests.” The most outrageous example of this was his public admonition of a Black female rap artist–a strange target for a presidential candidate.

During the hotly contested election of 2000–the one that George W. Bush eventually stole–both Bush and McCain, his main opponent for the Republican nomination, jockeyed over the meaning of the Confederate Flag during the South Carolina primary. Their pandering signaled their contempt for African American voters and their desire to win the white, racist rural vote.

In the current election, it was the Clintons who unleashed the racist genie from its bottle during the Democratic primaries, out of a sense of desperation and entitlement when Hillary Clinton fell behind Obama. After all, it was Hillary Clinton–she with a net worth of $34.9 million–who first accused Obama of being an “elitist” who is “out of touch” with “hardworking” people.

* * *

THAT CLINTON’S strategy ultimately failed says quite a bit about the degree to which the grip of racism on American society has loosened since Nixon’s Southern Strategy campaign 40 years ago. Millions of ordinary whites voted for Obama, and he now stands on the verge of becoming the first African American president of the U.S.–a country founded on slavery.

That said, racism remains an effective tool of division and distraction in the hands of politicians who have no answers for the growing and profound crises gripping the U.S.

Clinton’s campaign did help narrow Obama’s lead in the waning months of the Democratic primaries. Clinton was able to prey on the anxieties, cynicism and despair among many white workers who are frustrated and angry about declining living standards and, in some cases, quick to blame immigrants and Blacks.

McCain and the Republicans are set on using the same strategy. Thus, opinion polls show that efforts at demonizing Obama as urban, elitist and “out of touch” have had some success in convincing some white voters, who under other circumstances would vote Democratic, to consider McCain. Plus, there’s also a small group of former Clinton supporters who refuse to vote for Obama and threaten to join the McCain camp.

The irony is that Obama has gone out of his way to avoid being associated with the issues of race and racism throughout the campaign. His rhetoric about change has generated a lot of enthusiasm, but his actual political positions belong to the mainstream of the Democratic Party, which has been complicit in the re-legitimization of racism in American politics and policies that have made living standards and conditions worse for millions of African Americans, and working people generally.

Obama’s silence has given the Republican creeps a free hand. Asked about Lynn Westmoreland’s comment that Obama was “uppity,” his campaign denied that race had anything to do with it. Questioned about the “Obama Waffles” slur, Obama’s campaign had “no comment.”
Since Obama’s historic and effective speech on race last spring, his campaign has been quiet–unless it was to attack Black men on Father’s Day or denounce Rev. Jeremiah Wright. By remaining silent, Obama both legitimizes media silence on these issues and simultaneously allows the right to continue with the same garbage.

Obama is no doubt concerned that if he were to speak out against the different expressions of racism from the Clintons or McCain and Palin, the media would focus on this alone and bury anything else about his campaign. He is frightened of being labeled by the media as an “angry Black man,” running a campaign like Rev. Al Sharpton–in other words, one that isn’t to be taken seriously.

It is certainly true that the media have a long record of trivializing and dismissing Black candidates and discussions of race in election campaigns. But there are consequences to the course Obama has chosen.

First, Obama is the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, so it’s unlikely that his campaign will be treated dismissively at this point, no matter what the past record of the media.

Second, Obama’s silence means the smears will continue because there is no political price to pay for those who make them. If the Republicans didn’t fear being seen as racist, then they would forgo the symbolism and code words and go for outright slurs.

Finally, Obama’s tepid response to campaign racism, combined with his generally nebulous political message, which has moved to the right since he locked up the nomination, is blunting the momentum that carried him through the early primary season last winter.

If Obama were to devote even a small amount of time and energy to challenging racism–rather than Sarah Palin’s governing experience or whether McCain knows how to send an e-mail–he would stand a better chance of sending the Republicans back under the rocks they skulked out from. As it is, his failure to make a stand leaves opportunities for the Republicans to exploit–and shows that his promise to bring change is about rhetoric, not reality.

KEEANGA-YAMATTA TAYLOR writes for the Socialist Worker.

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