Racism or legitimate dissent: how do you tell the difference?

ObamaRacist.jpg image by kwpres_photosBarack Obama refuses to get sucked back into the media’s great American race war.  Jimmy Carter upped the ante in the “You Lie” debacle by imputing a racist motivation to Joe Wilson’s remark.  White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assured the press corp that President Obama does not share Mr. Carter’s view of the matter.  When a string of reporters asked variants of the same question, Gibbs repeated his mantra. 

The press doesn’t deal in the intricacies of the health care debate unless the issue can be framed as a good old he-said-she-said cat fight between ideological opposites.  If Carter says Wilson is a racist the press scours the earth for a white guy willing to counter the assertion.  In this case, they got Joe Wilson’s son to swear that his daddy doesn’t have a racist bone in his body.

You can’t blame Barack Obama for sitting this one out.  The slightest hint that he shared Carter’s viewpoint would create several news cycles dominated by counter-assertions from the Right, demands for an apology and calls for impeachment.  Thus far, the “Joe is a racist” debate has been dominated by Mr. Carter’s comment and rebutals from conservative opinion leaders like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh who accuse the left of using the “racist” label to stifle legitimate dissent.

This how-dare-you-call-me-a-racist argument plays well in Middle America, and for good reason.  Millions of people voted for Hillary Clinton and John McCain in the last election cycle for entirely non-racial reasons.  Logically and politically, the assertion that all opposition to Barack Obama is motivated by racial animus is a non-starter. 

On the other hand, when you see folks waving rebel flags and hoisting posters featuring Mr. Obama with a bone in his nose it’s pretty clear that Jimmy Carter is on to something: a solid segment of the anti-Obama crowd can’t abide the notion of a black president.

How then do we distinguish between the racism and principled dissent? 

Middle America has developed a simple metric: if you hear overtly racist rhetoric or see unambiguous and pejorative references to Africa, monkey’s and other crude racial stereotypes, you are dealing with a racist; otherwise, it is best to assume that race isn’t a factor.

A recent article on the Carter-Wilson dust-up in the New York Times was followed by the sort of partisan reader comments we have come to expect.  Ironically, a Canadian reader captured the non-partisan mindset of Middle America.  Here is her comment in its entirety:

There is no doubt plenty of racism in the U.S., and plenty aimed at Obama.

Still, no matter how rude, out of line, and downright wrong Rep. Joe Wilson was when he shouted “You lie!” at Obama during the latter’s recent speech, only Wilson knows what was going through his head at the time.

Jimmy Carter, no matter how well-intentioned he may have been when labeling the gibe racist, has no way of knowing whether Joe Wilson’s childish catcall was in fact “based on racism”. By stating that he believes it was, Carter did not contribute anything useful to the public forum.

Certainly, we need to combat racism, not to mention promulgate a reality-based world view in the U.S — something that seems increasingly rare here.

But unprovable accusations — no matter how tempting and possibly even correct they may be — do not promote any useful cause.

In other words, in the absence of unambiguous evidence, fair-minded citizens should avoid ascribing racist motives to political opponents. 

The success of the Southern Strategy was rooted in the ubiquity of this common sense rule of thumb.  So long as southerners defined themselves as small government, anti-socialist, southern heritage-affirming conservatives, Middle America welcomed them into the political mainstream.  There is a certain genius to both progressive and conservative political and social philosophies and most Americans, myself included, believe that balanced, pragmatic social policy is shaped by a healthy give-and-take between sincere proponents from both camps. 

President Obama is precisely the sort of bi-partisan pragmatist the American electorate has been willing to support.  His race has little to do with it.  John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, white boys all, won elections as moderate progressives who avoided ideological extremes. 

That’s one reason we have made so little progress on heath care reform (but I digress). 

What American president hasn’t been denounced, renounced and vilified by partisan opponents?  Regardless of political affiliation, we all find it hard to live with a president who rejects many of most deeply cherished values.  So shouldn’t we be cutting the conservatives some slack here?  So what if Barack Obama is being compared to Adolf Hitler–what American leader hasn’t suffered the same fate?

Similarly, what American opinion leader, black, white or indifferent, hasn’t been accused of racism?  Had Martin Luther King Jr. outlived the 1960s, the epithet would surely have been applied to him.  So maybe we should just bury words like “race”, “racist” and “racism” and be done with it.

Many moderate Republicans and Democrats have embraced a color-blind orthodoxy rooted in the healthy-minded belief that Jim Crow bigotry died many moons ago and is unlikely to emerge from the grave.

The combination of color-blind optimism and “if-he-doesn’t-wear-a-hood-he-can’t-be-racist” naivete has been exploited by genuine bigots for decades. 

Jimmy Carter has good reason to ascribe racial motivations to Joe Wilson’s latest outburst.  Although Wilson worked hard to cultivate African American support in the early stages of his political career, moderate black leaders saw through the facade years ago.  When a man maintains his membership in a group like the Sons of Confederate Veterans a decade after the organization adopts an unambiguously racist agenda questions must be asked.  When a man fights to the death to keep the Confederate flag flapping over the state legislature it is legitimate to wonder why. 

The face of American bigotry is rapidly evolving.  South Carolina has had the fastest growing Latino population in American two years running.  It is not coincidental that Wilson’s outburst was in response to the president’s promise that the undocumented would not be covered under his health bill.  For years, Joe Wilson has allied himself with the most extreme, and openly racist, elements of the anti-immigration movement.  Racism isn’t just a black-white thing anymore. 

Is Joe Wilson merely insensitive to African American opinion or is he sending a dog whistle message to white voters who despise the civil rights movement and secretly wax nostalgic about a white-power southern heritage? 

When we see Joe Wilson signing autographs for people who were thrilled by his rude interjection you have to question the sincerity of his apology.

When you see Republican politicians refusing to rebuke Wilson you wonder why they encouraged their errant colleague to apologize in the first place. 

Strident and unapologetic support for white supremacy was the only politically viable position for southern politicians circa 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.  Five years later, most southern schools were integrated as school boards bowed to the inevitable.  Can we conclude that hearts and minds changed dramatically in the course of five years?

Nothing changed but the law.  In 1965, politicians could shout their pro-white, anti-civil rights sentiments from the house tops–and were doomed to defeat if they didn’t.  Five years later, these same men quietly eschewed overt racial rhetoric.  Some became Republicans, others soldiered on as Democrats, but few changed their thinking on the race issue. 

After twenty years of race-neutral rhetoric, Middle America started talking about the New South.  Forty years later, it was time to celebrate a Color-Blind America.

Racial attitudes have changed.  Public attitudes are shaped by political rhetoric.  When kids grow up hearing the public vocabulary of racial pluralism their thinking is affected.  Political correctness has political consequences.  When white children see tributes to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks on television they get the message: pluralism is cool and bigotry sucks. 

But political correctness is a superficial phenomenon.  A political maestro like Ronald Reagan learned that by launching his 1980 presidential campaign up in Neshoba County (of Mississippi Burning infamy) and talking about “state’s rights” he could appeal to racist southerners while employing an ostensibly race-neutral political style.  

Reagan mastered the art of political correctness.

There was a trade off.  So long as politicians avoided incendiary racial rhetoric, the public assumed they were on the side of the color-blind angels. 

White voters knew better.  When a politician votes consistently for policies that damage poor communities and favor white suburbanites, overt racial references are redundant.

The Republican party is a complicated mix of New South pluralists, pro-business pragmatists, social and religious conservatives and unreconstructed racists (North and South).  To tar such a diverse group as a pack of racists simply because they oppose the policies of the Obama administration is unfair, unkind and unwise.  

But we dare not ignore obvious signs of bigotry and gross racial insensitivity. 

The election of America’s first black president changed the political equation in profound and irreversible ways.  Small government, pro-market conservatives may oppose health care reform for ideological reasons, but they stand elbow-to-elbow with mean-spirited zealots whose political vision has no place for non-whites and non-conservatives.  We are witnessing a fundamentally undemocratic impulse.

Progressives may be doing most of the hair-pulling at this point, but sincere conservatives should be worrying too.  If the Republican brand is defined by its least tolerant faction, the party will soon be confined to the deep South, the southern portions of Indiana, Ohio and Illinois and a few low-population Western states.  You can’t win the White House with that kind of coalition.

Fortunately, there is an upside to our Summer of Hate.  Realities long catalogued by groups like Hate Watch  are gradually creeping into the national consciousness.  The desire for a color-blind society is so strong that we risk becoming a hate-blind society.  Recent developments, including Joe Wilson’s ill-tempered outburst, are a lighthouse beacon warning us away from the jagged rocks.

3 thoughts on “Racism or legitimate dissent: how do you tell the difference?

  1. It’s always interesting to me to see who is giving the interpretation of what is racism. Of course most folks who identify as white Americans have never experienced racism yet they are convinced that they know how to identify what is racism and what is not racism. Whether white folks want to believe racism had a part ot play in the motivations of Joe Wilson is really not important to me. I think that most Americans do not validate others experience if they can’t relate to it. But I cannot let others invalidate my life experience, even though it’s not part of white mainstream America.

    One of the many “myths” of American democracy is just that – that we are a “democracy.” Racism has been an American institution and part of our culture since the writing of the constitution. People of color in the US have, up until very recently, not been allowed to participate in this so-called “democracy.” In the United States, there were literally thousands of race-based laws. Or maybe folks think that with a simple signature by LBJ on the Civil Rights Law of 1965, that racism was immediately erradicated in the US. Sorry, not the case. There is still racism in this country just as there are still problems with voting rights for people of color in this country. And, there are still problems in this country based on the fact that black folks were not allowed – legally – to participate in democracy up until very recently.

    We are a country of laws based on democracy. If someone is unequal legally – how do they think these unequal folks are viewed in general?
    Black folks (and other minorities) were essentially “illegal” for most of our history including recent history. And our culture reflects this.

    I grew up learning only about contributions from white Americans in my history books – much the same as it is today. If a people’s contributions are negated from the history of the country, then they are invisible, they don’t exist, and certainly their complaints have no validity. How many white Americans, for example, know that slaves built the White House, and virtually much or the American economy of the 18th and 19th century.
    How many white Americans know that approximately 20 million Native Americans were slaughtered between 1800 and 1900. We are just not taught that we have a negative, racist history and we are certainly not taught the consequences of this racist history.

    Maybe some Americans or the Canadian quoted in the article can go along with the sentence “But unprovable accusations — no matter how tempting and possibly even correct they may be — do not promote any useful cause” but I can’t. Going along with this means that the dialog on racism is only relegated to overt words and not to underyling reasons which we all know exist.

    I believe that President Carter, a son of the American South, certainly knows that racism is a part of our American culture and the motivations of the people he grew up with. And apparently, he is one of the few white folks with the courage to express it. Certainly he knows Joe Wilson, and the fact that the policies he has promoted (flying the confederate flag, etc) promote certain values that are race based and therefore we can extrapolate motivations based on that.

    One last thing. We are all tainted by racism in this country. However, we need dialog on this issue, not denial on this issue. If this is what it takes to form a “more perfect union” then let this be the forum and let Joe Wilson be the catalyst.

  2. good morning: i am so glad to have this forum accept me and my variable points of view. our local newspaper, here, in nashville is the Tennessean. i have posted many on-line comments about matters that were dear to me such as school re-zoning plans, gentrification, public education, unfair lending laws, habitat homes for humanity(which is re-segregating neighborhoods and concentrating poverty), creation of a police state and other, unappealing and seemingly, racially motivated actions on the part of our so-called political leaders. the Tennessean newspaper has recently answered my question of why they were no longer allowing my comments to be read but were, instead, deleting them from their newspaper. up until today, i have been so “smashed” by their response saying that my comments are very racial and are therefore not allowed to appear in their paper.
    they are so wrong about me. i’m black but of mixed heritage with white relatives and many white aquaintances. i’m not a member of any particular group of people. i’m an independent minded person who has never fit into a particular mold. the Tennessean is actually denying me freedom of speech. i was trying to use the comment section of their newspaper as a open line of communication with others and someone, undoubtedly, has been so offended by the truth that the door of open dialogue has been slammed shut in my face. HOW insulting and slanderous of them. but such is and always has been the plight of ANYONE who “bucks” the system. for instance, the President knows of wilson’s background but the president is caught in between a rock and a hard place. jimmy carter has nothing to gain or lose.
    i tried to speak out against the injustice that i see and feel in nashville, tennessee and this is the thanks that i get, Censored and banned in 2009 for speaking words of wisdom. the racial curses can be broken but it will take an act of GOD.

  3. you deleted my comment like the Tennessean has done. do you wish to comment on why? i will, willingly, unsubscribe from any and all news media who display blatant biasness. you are listed as Friends of Justice. to me, freedom of speech is a friendly and vital part of the justice system. you stated in your column something about the superficiality of laws changing but people not changing. your moderator’s decision to not allow me to defend myself from name-callers and fearful people causes alarm. how do we tell the difference in whose racist and whose simply a lover of freedom and equality for ALL?

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