When I think of Tom Harkin, I’m reminded of the scene in True Grit when Rooster Cogburn is surrounded by four bad...
Just before he was pummeled to the ground and beaten on election night, his attackers shouted “Obama,” ......reports Ali Kamara, a teenage Muslim and black immigrant from Liberia. “I see the car coming. . . . They were not happy. They had hoodies on. They started hitting me with bats, and my body started vibrating,” Kamara told reporters. “I was bleeding all over. I did not know them . . . I think it was a racist crime,” said Kamara, who lives on Staten Island, New York.
A few hours later, a church in Springfield, Massachusetts, serving a predominantly black congregation, was burned to the ground in an arson attack believed to be a hate crime. Crosses were burned in the yards of Obama supporters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Black figures hanging from nooses tied to trees were discovered in Maine.
Across the country hundreds of similar incidents—far above the normal rate—have been recorded by the Southern Poverty Law Center, according to spokesperson Mark Potok.
The election of Barack Obama has poked the racist beehive, and we can expect a lot of buzzing around in the months ahead. Rightists, ranging from neo-Nazis to mainstream conservatives, are eager to reframe issues in ways that invoke racialized fears among some white voters: affirmative action, poverty, education, language, taxation, health care, immigration, terrorism, and national security all have potential.
At the farthest end of the spectrum, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement saw opportunity in Obama’s victory. In an essay titled “Why Obama Is Good for Our Movement,” the group predicted that “President-Elect Obama is going to be the spark that arouses the ‘white movement.’ Obama’s win is our win. We should all be happy of this event.”
It went on: “For far too long, sixty years or so, our race has been doing nothing but losing ground. . . . Our elected leaders have sold our race out time and time again. They have made concessions to the ‘minorities’ of this nation. Those minorities are rapidly becoming the Majority! This is our fault. . . . We need to lead our race to the forefront and get back what is ours. We need to keep our race alive and pure. Working together we can get things done!”
Some racist groups, on the other hand, will pursue a strategy of masking their overt racism for the duration, in order to lure recruits. They will feature essays on ethnic identity for white people. The website Stormfront.org has practiced this technique for years. Stormfront describes itself as a “White Nationalist Community,” promoting “White Pride World Wide.” Dig a little deeper into this website, which claims it is not racist, though, and you discover the song lyrics for “A Warrior Does Not Return, Without Blood On His Axe,” posted after the election of Obama. It laments:
“The arrival of lower races has begun . . . Hear my call for Aryanism . . . Archetypes of Teutonic grandeur DNA & RNA . . . You my enemy, of pure cold hatred! Bring out your worst psycho gimp! I’m going to smatter his face into pulp! With my sharp frenzy battle axe!”
Then there are closet white nationalists like Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, who differ from the white hood and brownshirt crowd because Buchanan and Dobbs have better tailors and access to major corporate media. Expect to hear the nativists and xenophobes ramp up their bashing of immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, Arabs, and the entire country of China.
During the election campaign, while appearing on CNN, Obama singled out Dobbs for his harsh stand on immigration policy, saying: “When I hear . . . Lou Dobbs . . . talking about how we need to send them all back. We’re not going to send them all back.” Dobbs later responded by saying “I mean, this is to me an atrocious moment for a Senator who is trying to pander on the issue of illegal immigration.” Dobbs claimed Obama had misrepresented his position. That same night, however, author David Neiwert noted on the Orcinus blog, “You need only go back to less than a year ago [to May 2007] to find an example of Dobbs advocating the deportation of all illegal immigrants—while disingenuously claiming he’s not.” Dobbs became incensed when in the summer of 2007 journalist Laura Flanders confronted him for using the term “illegal aliens” to describe families—including citizens and legal residents—protesting burdensome current restrictions and regulations. Dobbs was obnoxious on the air and then stalked after Flanders off the set. “He flipped. It was as if no one had ever challenged him on the use of the word ‘alien’ before. He followed me into the make-up room berating me, ‘How dare you . . . ’ then down the hall and to the elevator,” reports Flanders.
Watching the rise of Obama, nativist firebrand Pat Buchanan lamented the incompetence of the Republicans, saying that “while Barack was locking up black America, McCain failed to hold onto Bush’s share of the white working class.” Buchanan also faulted McCain for not taking a strong stand against abortion and gay rights, and condemned the “mainstream media” and “Beltway Republicans” for keeping McCain from being “out front on these moral and cultural issues.”
In reacting to the election of Obama, once again Buchanan spoke to multiple constituencies by using coded language. Buchanan writes of “social insecurity . . . traceable to mass immigration, legal and illegal, which has brought in scores of millions who are altering the character of communities” creating the “perception that we are losing the America that we grew up in.” This can be interpreted as simply an ode to times past or a polemic longing for the time when whites ruled America and people of color knew their proper place.
Stripped of artifice, Buchanan was saying that the color of America was changing to a darker hue, especially through a swarm of swarthy Mexicans allegedly stealing “our” jobs and changing “our” culture.
In an essay anticipating an Obama victory, Buchanan made predictions that horrified his rightwing audience:
“Affirmative action—hiring and promotions based on race, sex, and sexual orientation until specified quotas are reached—will be rigorously enforced throughout the U.S. government and private sector. . . .
“Universal health insurance will be enacted, covering legal and illegal immigrants, providing another powerful magnet for the world to come to America, if necessary by breaching her borders.”
Obama is expected to keep the heat on white nationalists. During the campaign, he observed that some pundits had “basically been feeding a kind of xenophobia. There’s a reason why hate crimes against Hispanic people doubled last year. . . . If you have people like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh ginning things up, it’s not surprising that would happen.”
Racism often flies in formation with anti-Semitism and red-baiting. The claim that Jews and communists based in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood connived to arrange for the Presidential candidacy of fellow resident and “radical” black activist Barack Obama was discussed on the blogsite Free Republic, a favorite nest of the xenophobic and Nativist anti-immigrant movement. “Obama’s Cuddly Old, Terrorist Friendly, Socialist Rabbi, Friend and Neighbour—Arnold Wolf” was the headline for a crosspost from New Zealand blogger Trevor Loudon that appeared a few days before the election. “Considering some of B Hussein Obama’s other friends—e.g. Farrakan [sic] and Wright—this rabbi must be self-destructive, suicidal, or willfully naive,” responded Rummyfan. “Is there ANYONE that Barack Obama knows/associates with/allies himself with that is NOT a socialist/Marxist/Communist radical?” asked FarRightFanatic.
Less toxic but perhaps more prevalent is the “post-racism” sentiment pursued by cultural conservatives.
During the next few years, progressives will likely face a direct assault on all government programs described as supporting racial “privilege” or “special rights” for people of color, immigrants, and women. Calls for abandoning affirmative action and other government programs addressing racial disparities came quickly after the election, as did suggestions that Obama be bipartisan and not move too fast.
Some conservatives have also wasted little time blaming the economic meltdown on people of color and the impoverished.
In National Review online, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies speculated that the financial collapse of Washington Mutual resulted from affirmative action employment programs that promoted multiculturalism and diversity. Krikorian quoted from a WaMu press release touting its recognition “as a top employer by Hispanic Business magazine and the Human Rights Campaign” shortly before failing, and mused that this might be “Cause and Effect.”
Over at Fox News, business anchor Neil Cavuto criticized a California Democratic Congressman, saying: “I don’t remember a clarion call that said, ‘Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster.’ ” Cavuto conveniently ignored data proving that most subprime lenders with ethical practices are thriving and have lower default rates in these same communities than many commercial banks. Even though most progressives will dismiss Cavuto’s claims as empty racist rhetoric, the broad scapegoating of people of color is going to increase during the hard times that Obama will face once he is the first black man in the White House.
“Do Americans really buy this kind of nonsense?” asks J. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Are we “supposed to believe that impoverished blacks and Latinos across our country brought down the titans of Wall Street with their wild-eyed dreams of owning their own homes, taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford? We’re supposed to believe that’s why stock markets are plummeting and the global banking system is collapsing like a house of cards?” According to Cohen, many people unfortunately do believe these racist raps, “especially when they hear the lie repeated over and over again by politicians and supposedly mainstream pundits like Fox News’s Neil Cavuto.” Cohen warns that the current conditions are “relished by those who thrive by stoking fear and division in America, from the cross-burning Klansmen to the loudmouths of rightwing talk radio to the suit-wearing academics who cloak their bigotry in pseudo-scientific research.”
The intensity of the racist backlash may depend on the direction the Republican Party takes. Regional differences are significant when analyzing Republican white voters. Of sixteen states where 60 percent or more of white voters picked McCain, almost two-thirds (ten states) were in the secessionist Confederacy. These are also states with a large number of fundamentalist Christians, raising the issue of whether it is race or religion or both that guides the voting patterns here.
Pollsters noted that Obama did better with white Protestants than Kerry, but that’s misleading, since Kerry was such a poor candidate. Comparing Obama with 2000 Democratic candidate Al Gore reveals that both Gore and Obama picked up 34 percent of the white Protestant vote. In 2000, however, Gore attracted an estimated 30 percent of the white evangelical vote, while Obama garnered only 24 percent in 2008.
Precisely predicting the future of race in the Republican Party is foolish because there are so many competing forces and factions prodding the giant toppled elephant on the living room floor. Christian nationalists, white nationalists, Rockefeller Republicans, and economic libertarians are looking for coalition partners to grab power. Some factions of the political right are engaged in a battle to resuscitate the Republican Party elephant and drape it with their racing colors.
If a coalition of Rockefeller Republicans and economic libertarians can’t expel or at least displace the Christian nationalists, the Republican Party will continue to move to the political right. This might create the space for a centrist third party or an exodus of centrist Republicans into a cluster of Independents. A post-election survey by the Pew Research Center found that “roughly two-thirds (68 percent) of Republican and Republican-leaning voters identify themselves as conservative, and three-quarters of these voters think the party should turn further to the right.”
How the Republicans reconstitute themselves will affect how racism plays out. A core group of Southern white Christian voters could emerge in control, and then struggle over race as an issue.
Also, when Democrats are in power, and Republicans seem weak, it may kindle acts of terrorism and assault by the most zealous racists who want to mobilize potential recruits to step outside the electoral process.
A few days after the election more than 900 people gathered in Oakland, California, to attend the Facing Race conference sponsored by the Applied Research Center. Rinku Sen, the group’s executive director and publisher of ColorLines magazine, said, “Working to achieve racial justice is the key to building the society in which we as progressive activists want to live. That’s at the center of the work in front of us. The election of Barack Obama was one important step forward, but now we all need to keep stirring so we can go the rest of the way.”
According to Sen, this will involve “reframing the messages” in a way that focuses on “structural racism and systemic inequality rather than simply personal prejudice.”
Jeff Chang, who covered the campaign for Vibe magazine, agreed, saying, “Obama was able to draw on the metaphors and tropes of the racial justice movement,” but it wasn’t the centerpiece of his campaign. Chang said we need to “make racial justice explicit, talk about why it was at the core of his victory, and move forward.”
To do that, we must guard against a counterattack from the right.
Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a blogger, and co-author of “Right-Wing Populism in America.”