Liberal political reporting regarding the Republican’s campaign strategy of exploiting racism to defeat Barack Obama is giving me a serious headache.
I’m sure you’ve heard the rhetoric. Romney’s now said that the Obama philosophy is foreign (which is equated with dangerous). His campaign surrogate John Sununu went further, saying that President Obama needs to “learn how to be an American.”
Liberal news makers are calling this what it is – pandering to racism. But by reducing this kind of pandering to a campaign issue (as if the cure for the racism that makes it effective would be to re-elect Obama), reporters and pundits are trivializing its consequences.
The Republicans’ use of coded racism needs to be seen in the broader context of racist politicking and our particular moment in history.
For instance, we ought to consider rising, hyper-reactionary Islamophobia and the Bush (and now Obama) war on terror. Widespread fear of Islam is driving the growth of a repressive national security state and war machine that is coming at us from the top-down, while simultaneously inspiring a jihadist racism among conservative Christians from the bottom-up.
And, then there’s racist anti-immigrant politicking more generally. That’s a top-down and bottom-up phenomena, too. Conservative politicians scapegoat immigrants for our economic problems, promoting racism and distracting us from the real causes of our woes. Meanwhile, their racist rhetoric is contributing to the rise of a xenophobic worldview at the community level that is contributing to a rapid rise in vigilante white supremacist groups, as evidenced by the SPLC’s report that white nationalist Patriot groups have experienced an almost ten-fold increase since 2008.
Coded racist attacks on public assistance programs and so-called entitlement junkies are causing an uptick in racism as well. These attacks suggest that we, and especially Blacks, have become too dependent on economy wrecking public assistance programs. Some even double-down on this argument, suggesting that this dependency is being fostered on purpose. In this scenario, capitalism-hating left-wingers are promoting programs that get the poor hooked on socialism.
And then there’s a rise in model minority stereotyping of Asian Americans. This rise in stereotyping that suggests that the quality of life and financial success of Asian Americans is rising while the rest of the country is in decline. To make matters worse, this is happening at the same time as we are seeing a rise in Asia bashing, especially targeting China and India.
Finally, in this by no means exhaustive list, there’s the generalized anxiety among whites concerning the changing U.S. demographic. As we tilt toward 2042, when the U.S. is predicted to become a majority people of color nation, conservative white folks are reacting in a way that builds upon the angry-white-man reaction to African American civil rights gains.
And all of this at a time when folks of all races, and especially middle class white folks who believe themselves to be entitled to better, are righteously angry over our terrible economic and political situation.
In this context, the Romney/Republican attack matters because it is the most visible and well-financed effort to use racism to organize white middle class anger for political gain. These aren’t marginal right wingers, but they are using what started out as marginal right wing arguments and, by doing so, legitimizing them and the radical right wing forces who are attempting to use them to build a potentially violent racist movement.
It’s time for racial justice advocates to step up our game.
I won’t pretend to know the right strategies for every community, but I will suggest that Asian American civil rights groups are particularly well positioned to speak out and be heard on this issue. Asian Americans can draw upon our own experiences of exclusion and internment to put contemporary efforts to label people of color as foreign, dangerous, and disloyal in the context of our own long history of persecution.