By Alan Bean
I received this graphic from a Facebook friend. I clicked on “like”. My friend probably wondered why. I’m not sure. Something about the image appeals to me. The “conservative” is literally lionized, an invisible force for good. The “liberal” is a scavenger, an impostor, a hyena attempting, in this case unsuccessfully, to feast on the carcass when he didn’t make the kill.
I have often felt like the hyena in the picture, a hapless liberal do-gooder confronting the conservative juggernaut. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to mouth off several sentences too many.
Some conservatives would reverse the image. They see themselves as a lion surrounded by a pack of liberal hyenas.
These savanna fantasies obscure more than they illuminate. “Liberal” and “conservative”, two grand words with a goodly heritage, are now debased currency. When liberalism is associated with superficiality, debauchery, and profligate sentimentality, who wants to be a liberal? When conservatism becomes a code word for racial bigotry, intolerance and privilege, who wants to be a conservative?
The brand of conservatism suggested by the lion-hyena graphic is described most accurately by this bold statement:
“We believe that the United States of America is a Christian country, that its people are a Christian people, and that its government and public leaders at all levels must reflect Christian beliefs and values. We therefore oppose all efforts to deny or weaken the Christian heritage of the United States, including the unconstitutional prohibitions of prayers and other religious expression in schools and other public institutions.
We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people. … We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime.
We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies.
We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”
-Excerpt from the Council of Conservative Citizens statement of principles
Many conservatives would reject these sentiments, but this statement is a strong, uncut, form of a very popular sentiment. A sentiment so popular, in fact, that it shaped American politics for thirty years.
Not all “conservative” politicians think this way, but they know how to win the votes of those who do. This intolerant philosophy is powerful because rightward leaning politicians dare not challenge it.
On the other hand, few outside the neo-Confederate fringe of American life dare to openly embrace a strong version of religious white supremacy. If you want to exploit white racial resentment for political gain, you can hint, you can employ code language, but you can’t come right out and say what you mean.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is the patron saint of American liberalism. Drain away the biblical references and the soaring rhetoric and you are left with applause lines from a Democratic national convention. King’s words can be embraced with passion and trumpeted from the rooftops, but savvy politicians have found it necessary to domesticate and depoliticize the message. They can embrace the virtue of “inclusiveness” but must never decry injustice. They can advocate love, but must never confront hatred.
If the Council of Conservative citizens give us the uncut version of American “conservatism”; Dr. King’s dream speech is undistilled American liberalism:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.
We should not picture an America as a struggle between Dr. King and the Council of Conservative Citizens. A few white folks (I am one of them) place themselves solidly on the side of Martin’s dream. A few white folks would give the CCC’s racist credo a hearty “hell, yeah!” But the largest section of our tribe wanders in a no-mans-land between the two. We kind of assume that people who look like us are standard-issue Americans and that people of color and white people with odd accents fall short of full citizenship. How far short, we aren’t sure. We don’t want to deprive them of the vote, exactly; but we wish they’d stay home on election day, and we sure don’t want any more of them crossing the border to muddy the national complexion.
We don’t like to put it that way. So we speak of preserving a noble heritage. America is a Christian nation, we say, and we don’t want to lose that. So we focus our attention on secular white people who don’t believe the Bible, are down with abortion and are fixing to bankrupt the treasury. It’s just a coincidence that 99% of the people who rally to this non-racial message happen to be white.
People of color don’t by this argument, unless they are being funded by wealthy conservatives eager to show that they have no quarrel with Martin’s dream. In fact, non-white Americans commonly assume that most white people, in their heart of hearts, endorse the strong version of white privilege championed by the Council of Conservative Citizens.
Are they right? In states like Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, I suspect they are. Sixty-seven percent of Texas Republicans want to impeach president Obama. Why is that? It is one thing to disagree with the man’s politics, but impeachment? How do we explain this kind of hostility?
It’s partly a bi-product of the culture war. During a stop in Fort Worth yesterday feminist icon Gloria Steinem called on Texans to impeach Governor Rick Perry because his “authoritarian” opinions on abortion made him a “dictatorial, unacceptable American”.
“Unacceptable?” To whom? Rick Perry keeps getting elected because a majority of Texans like his politics.
Is America losing faith in the democratic process? Are politicians like Obama and Perry “unacceptable Americans” simply because we are turned off by their policies?
Elections are a reflection of the electorate. If our politicians spout opinions we find objectionable it is because the majority of our neighbors endorse these opinions. I live in the reddest section of a very red state. If you are white in Tarrant County, Texas, people assume you are conservative . . . in the sense outlined above. That’s why I identify so strongly with the hyena in the picture.
I wish we could address issues like mass incarceration and immigration without reference to race. Bring up the subject and white audiences shut down. And these are the folks who control public policy. These are the folks we need to convince. We shouldn’t be surprised that reform advocates have devised clever strategies for tap dancing around the racial stuff. But I have been driven to the conclusion that our criminal justice and immigration systems are powerfully impacted by white racial resentment and the paranoia it engenders.
Every nation needs a sane immigration policy. Every nation must deal with crime and violence. No argument there. But why are we so troubled by the presence of undocumented residents? Why is our prison system six times as large in 2013 as it was in 1963 when crime rates are largely unchanged? And why are African Americans and Latinos grossly over-represented in our jails, prisons and detention centers?
The answer is complex, no doubt. But if we ignore the undercurrent of white resentment coursing through our nation, we will never find a sane and satisfactory answer.