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Mitt Romney and the Gift of White Supremacy

“White supremacy was all but world-wide . . . [t]he using of men for the benefit of masters is no new invention . . . [t]he imperial width of the thing, – the heaven defying audacity – makes its modern newness.”

W.E.B Du Bois, Darkwater:  Voices from within the Veil

The words by the 2012 Republican presidential candidate reflecting on his losing campaign reverberated around the nation:  “The Obama campaign was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they could get to vote for them and be motivated to go out to the polls, specifically the African American community, the Hispanic community and young people. . . . In each case they were very generous in what they gave to those groups. . . . The president’s campaign focused on giving targeted groups a big gift – so he made a big effort on small things.  Those small things, by the way, add up to trillions of dollars.”

Commentators from across the political spectrum have roundly denounced the former Massachusetts governor’s illogical political reasoning.  Not only did Mitt Romney lack a politically sound sensibility for critical reflection on his tragically limited campaign and an equally limited campaign ticket, but it also appealed to a base logic that people of color and young people lack the requisite political acumen to vote rationally – and Republican.   In Romney’s world, these political outcasts are easily manipulated, thus they vote for what the Republican National Committee is reported to have resorted to promising during the 1928 presidential campaign, “a chicken in every pot.”

Given Governor Romney’s statement, it is hard to imagine that he would have the ability or willingness to think through the implications, drawing from Ralph Ellison’s elegantly complex statement “geography is fate,” that demography is a politician’s fate.  Since the beginning of representative democracy in the United States, politicians have constantly contested how to construct a winning coalition of “We the people” in light of an expanding voting public.  History is replete with schemes of attempting to limit the franchise and, in substance, arrest the development of a truly robust and representative democracy.  The 2012 campaign is no exception.

But a crucial dimension of Romney’s statement has almost been completely lost on the political class and in public discourse.  That is, the gift of the Romney candidacy.

Underpinning the us versus them logic of this losing coalition was an appeal – implicit and explicit – to the racial (un)conscious of the current conservative majority within the Republican party.  In our “postracial era,” the Romney campaign served as a stark reminder that the protean and ever changing racial politics of white supremacy are anything but dead.

To be sure, we are not talking about stock images of burning crosses in southern woods, but an appeal to what the late political scientist Ronald Walters termed “white nationalism” – the racial logic informing the policy choices and political options that, in the absence of a deep belief in the legitimacy of multiracial government, reinforce the necessity of a properly right and white governing political coalition.

Such an appeal does not militate against recognizing other competing elements present in the dominant configuration of Republican party politics.  But this racial (un)conscious does highlight a critical dimension and often under remarked character of contemporary conservative politics, a politics embraced by the Romney ticket.  And it is such a politics that critically informs placing the blame for losing on the “political immaturity” of black and brown communities who only look for handouts and whose votes are easily bought with political trinkets and young people who often move seamlessly across racial frontiers, particularly in the realm of popular culture.

To think about Governor Romney’s remarks absent a critical consideration of his gift of a white supremacist political logic attuned to the dynamics of a 21st century racially and ethnically diverse polity is to miss a crucial dimension of what transpired this electoral season.  Indeed, it is to miss a growing and pronounced trend in American politics that was electorally successful with the ascendancy of President Reagan in 1980 and has continued to morph and change over the course of three decades.

The work of electoral politics is never about the last election.  It is about the next election.  And if we are to move beyond an electoral politics predicated on the gift of white supremacy, we must begin again the hard work of creating a new politics that values the lives and life chances of all citizens and all people across the world.  This is a gift we all must give to our future world.

Corey D. B. Walker is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University.


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