American History 2.0

HA_HA_-NELSON_SIMPSONSThe mainstream media had a heyday last week when Rep. Mo Brooks’ (R-AL) went on the radio with Laura Ingraham and declared that the Democratic Party is waging a “war on whites.” Brooks’ follow-up, “if you look at federal law, there’s only one skin color you can lawfully discriminate against. That’s Caucasions – whites…” added fuel to the fire.

Brooks’ comments are no doubt reprehensible. But, what is of real consequence to us is not that Brooks is a racist, there’s no surprise in learning elected representatives are racial conservatives, it is  that he is appealing to a growing bloc of white voters who are angry and fearful over their perception that white social advantage is being eroded by demographic change. Brooks warned of a war on whites to rile them up, putting an exclamation mark on an increasingly obvious point: we are still a country deeply divided by race.

Beyond this, Brooks’ comments don’t teach us much. Yet liberal pundits appeared almost gleeful when the story broke, using Brooks as a foil for witty jokes and no small amount of signifying concerning their positions on the “right” side of the liberal consensus concerning race.

But the tragic killing of Michael Brown in St. Louis begs the question: how do we pick “right” from “wrong” on questions of race among values that comprise a social consensus that allows extrajudicial killings such Brown’s, and similar incident here, and here, and seemingly everywhere?  What is the “right” position on race in a society where public policy like Stand Your Ground, and and law enforcement regimes that regularly target people of color for harassment, arrest, and imprisonment like the war on drugs and Broken Windows are constitutionally protected?

When Black people are wildly overrepresented in prisons and jails, often for drug crimes they commit less frequently than whites, what’s “right” that falls within the realm of business as usual? Unless we are challenging the fundamental legal basis for racial repression and even murder, and a social consensus that tolerates more than 50 years of 11.6 percent average unemployment among Blacks, yet react in crisis mode when unemployment rises among the rest of us (though never to that extraordinary level) does it matter what we have to say about Mr. Brooks? Or are we, like him, just cynically exploiting racism to score political (or worse, ratings) points?

Injustice, by the way, isn’t confined to our treatment of Blacks. Racism is far more ubiquitous. The assault on Indian tribal recognition and treaty rights is almost constant (and that link excludes federal violations) even while rarely being reported on. Asian Americans are falling into poverty faster than any other racial group in the U.S. while simultaneously being stereotyped as a “model minority” in order to make the argument that we’re post-racial, or, worse, that the supposed success of some groups is indicative of a failed culture in others. Meanwhile, the closest thing we have to humane immigration reform is Senate Bill 744, a proposal that would reduce deportations at the cost of making eligible migrants into a class of highly exploitable long-term guest workers, and all in order to assuage racist fears of a criminal invasion from Latin America.

When injustice of this sort is where political compromise lands us, that fact trumps whatever Mo Brooks has to say about who we are waging a war on in importance. So, in the interest of starting a different kind of dialogue concerning the awkward bigotry of those on the political right, here’s a bit of American history to contextualize the paleo-racism of Mo Brooks, et al.

In every generation since the abolition of slavery, American liberals have proclaimed the dawning of an enlightened post-racialism, and racial conservatives have warned of the opposite: that a new, anti-white regime is creeping into power. Progress elicits backlash. Like elastic, which springs back to its original shape after being stretched, we flex back toward the “original construction and intent” of the founders.

14 years of Reconstruction (1863-1877) whipped the white right into a backlash that continued for nearly 90 years. During most of those 90 years, we were unable to get Congress to take action against an veritable epidemic of lynching. Jim Crow ruled the South. The New Deal was cut, but only after racially exclusive provisions were included to satisfy Southern legislators, an act that equally implicates Northern accommodationists. 20 years of Civil Rights gains elicited 50 years of backlash, and that wave hasn’t crested yet, what with constant attacks on voting rightsaffirmative action, and government entitlement programs continuing to this day. And the election of one Black man to the presidency has caused a Tea Party uprising that is putting what amount to neo-Confederate ideologues into positions of power, bringing us, in a manner of speaking, full circle.

Whenever political and/or economic pressure is applied to the American racial regime, a reaction occurs that makes it clear that the regime is, in fact, racial. An economic downturn, migration pressure, demographic shifts, integration, all bring the racial basis of society out of hiding. Out of the margins come those like Cliven Bundy, Mo Brooks, Steve King, Sarah Palin, and worse. Pundits practically rub their hands in glee. We point and laugh, appalled that he/she/they actually had the gall to say whatever it is they said as if they’re just klutzy, out-dated, soon to be marginal dinosaurs who are just so, you know, embarrassingly (not like the rest of us) racist, even when we have witnessed and documented this cycle again and again throughout our history.

Racism isn’t out of style in a society in which racial inequity and exclusion, persecution and exploitation has been a central dynamic in the whole of our history and continues to maintain that central, definitive position today. Pointing and laughing when awkward, unfiltered racism pops out of the mouths of public officials as if they are outliers, soon to be relegated to the dust bin of history, doesn’t help us any. We know better. Those who don’t haven’t been paying attention.

Over the centuries, racial codes have fallen only to be replaced by new, often more subtle but no less effective forms of racial injustice.  Slavery is replaced with share cropping, an exploitative system facilitated in no small part by fear of the chain gang, and the exclusion of many Black women from welfare. Jim Crow falls, only to be followed by a regime of colorblind racism that, incidentally or not, disrupts Black political progress by targeting Blacks for persecution and imprisonment in the name of peace-keeping, and rolls back civil rights gains on the grounds that they are racially exclusive.

Social mores shift, but the underlying power dynamics stay fundamentally the same. Those on the downside of unjust racial relations remain there, even if the compromise we reach to preserve this status quo improves the terms of political subjugation. People like Mo Brooks play a critical role on a political spectrum of actions and attitudes that together serve, intentionally or not, to reproduce the racial regime. The 1% remains overwhelming white, while the .1% is whiter still. Whites still dominate all of the professions, media, government, nonprofits, unions, and the business sector, even at the level of the smallest enterprises.

In this context, all the shaking of heads, the pointing and laughing, that goes on when we witness overt expressions of racism is a form of deflection. It treats as exotic a worldview that is all too American, and promotes a lie about who we are at our core that has been told through the generations to justify the wrongs we have done and are doing. We tell ourselves we are a beacon of fairness and liberty, a land of unfettered social mobility, and a model of democracy for the world. We point to people like Mo Brooks as if they are outliers in a society that though founded in white supremacy is fundamentally just, as if  justice is in our national DNA, our inevitable destiny. But the reality is that we have waited on democracy while white supremacy has reigned for over 200 years. Not reconciling ourselves to that fact makes us the enemies of the very story of American exceptionalism we tell to the world, the living evidence of all we are not.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.