In some circles, overt racism is re-emerging from the shadows to which it seemed to have been at least semi-relegated for the last few decades.
The righteous outrage generated by the refusal of Florida law enforcement authorities to arrest the vigilante who shot and killed unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin has spurred an ugly backlash. And it’s not just coming from internet trolls. Even so-called mainstream media are now using an ahistorical racial equivalence as an almost invisible fig leaf for stories spewing far-right hate speech. Take this one from Fox News, for instance, which calls neo-Nazis prowling the streets of Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was gunned down, a “civil rights group:”
The Fox reporter who interviews the Nazi leader fails to challenge him at all, even when he calls the Nazis a “white civil rights organization” and says, “the blacks have Al Sharpton, the whites have the National Socialists [Nazis].”
Each of the remaining Republican Presidential candidates has also been picking up on and channeling the zeitgeist of racial strereotypes, hatred and ignorance:
And, last but certainly not least, Romney, who by virtue of his front-runner status, gets two videos:
The mainstreaming of this kind of thinking is made possible by the comfortable (for white people) illusion of supposedly color-blind “post-racialism,” as if history could be made to vanish and race could be magically extracted from our socially constituted reality. This is the kind of thinking that leads to reporters for a Fox news channel being unable to distinguish a “civil rights group” from a gang of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Let’s be clear. “Racism” is an ideology that reflects and seeks to reinforce power relations premised on the lie of white racial supremacy. I’m talking about power relations that protect a pyramidal hierarchy built on a spectrum of skin color privilege, with midnight black crushed at the base, lily-white at the rarified top, and the gradations of the rainbow in between. Race is a social construct that uses skin color as a marker for social and economic status.
The recent surge of neo-Jim Crow era racial attitudes can be tracked in part to the election of our first African-American President. The day after Obama’s election, media reported a run on guns and ammunition. The weapons pushers couldn’t keep their product on the shelves.
This wasn’t just about the misguided fear that after Obama took office in January he would push for more stringent gun control laws. It was more visceral than that. There were and are millions of Americans who believed that when we elected Obama, it was the beginning of Armageddon, because the mental racial pyramid they carried in their subconscious got turned upside down, and all the irrational fears that prop up the ideology of white supremacy came tumbling out. For these folks, it was as if history was about to have its revenge, as if they were about to be crushed by the generations of Afro-Latino-First Nations-Asian ancestors whose bodies and lives paid for the privilege those of us who were born with light skin carry every day of our lives. It was time to go get a gun.
You couldn’t miss it in the Tea Party:
The Tea Party folks were so desperate to prove their racial attitudes are not what they in fact are, they clumsily embraced a right-wing pizza salesman with a history of sexual harassment- who happened to be African-descended – as their “white knight.” That didn’t work out so well. Nor did their flirtation with Michelle “Black People Should be Grateful for the Christianizing Influence of Slavery” Bachmann or Rick “N—–head” Perry or Donald “Birther-Lover” Trump or Ron “”The Confederacy was Right” Paul. As we’ve already sen, finalists Santorum, Gingrich and Romney have all quite clearly demonstrated overtly racist attitudes too.
If you want empirical evidence of the recent surge in racist hate, here it is:
Don’t get me wrong. We all carry the social disease of white supremacy. Nobody’s immune. Whatever our skin color. In some cases, it’s way down deep, or there’s just a trace. But it infects us all. The folks I’m talking about just have the most obvious cases. Sometimes the ones you can’t see are more dangerous.
But today I’m reflecting on how and why it seems to have become okay to express views that support violence against darker-skinned people. Part of it is a reaction to economic hard times. Blaming darker-skinned people for economic problems, whether it’s African-descended people or immigrants from the global south, is a tried and true tactic of the right. This tactic is clever because it distracts people from the real source of their oppression by setting them against each other. Look at the number of anti-immigrant laws introduced in the first few months of last year alone:
We should really be schooled to these tactics by now. Rulers have been using them against us since at least the 17th century, when the white indentured servants and small farmers were getting a little too close to the African slaves in agitating for freedom. African slavery, like today’s use of vulnerable immigrant or “guest” workers, lowered the wages of European-descended laborers. If the slaves and the white farmers rebelled, if they got together, freed the slaves and took over the land, that was in all their interests (that was what 40 acres and a mule—although it came much later– was all about). But it threatened the powerful landowners. So in Virginia, for example, the elite landowners cut a deal with the European-descended indentured servants—you can own a little property, we’ll call you a freeholder, you can even vote, and the best part is we’ll give you a job making sure these African slaves don’t run away. That’s the beginning of white privilege. Divide and rule.
In fact, the concept of “whiteness” didn’t really exist in what became the U.S. before then. So historically, the concepts of race and race privilege emerged from colonialism and the development of global capitalism, when a tiny group of European elites, acting in their own economic interests, used the false ideology of white supremacy to divide working class and poor European-descended people from and accomplish the global subjugation of darker-skinned peoples.
Today, fear of dark-skinned people, whether they are undocumented so-called “illegal” immigrants or black young people, serves much the same purpose it did in the 17th century.
In reality, the proportion of serious violent crimes committed by African-Americans have been level and even declined slightly over the last thirty years. Yet since Ronald Reagan became President in 1980 the incarceration rate for blacks has more than tripled. (Tonry) Blacks are now 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. (Human Rights Watch).
What are the causes of this? Loic Wacquant argues that prison is the latest in the historical series of “peculiar institutions” that have taken on the task of confining and defining African-Americans, following slavery, Jim Crow racial subordination laws, and the ghetto. In the post-industrial era, the vestiges of the neighborhoods demarcated by skin color and the expanding prison system entrap a population of young African-Americans who have been rejected by the deregulated labor market that Clyde Woods refers to as part of a “neoplantation” development tradition. Around the world the term that’s often used to refer to this phenomenon is neoliberalism.
Specifically, the elimination of social welfare programs that began during the Reagan administration and came to fruition during the Clinton administration with the 1996 welfare reform, which was said to be intended to break a cycle of dependence, instead recreated a much deeper and more dangerous form of dependency. The disappearance of the very limited safety net that the government provided, combined with global economic policies that support outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, capital and labor mobility, wages below the level needed to survive, classes of people who are less than full citizens, educational disaster zones and incarceration as a substitute for education, threw the historically marginalized sectors of our society, including the African-American working class, undocumented immigrants, poor people, together with much of the post-WWII middle class, into dependence upon what Woods calls the plantation owners of the late 20th and 21st century. These are the same folks that the Occupy Wall Street movement has us referring to as the 1%.
A deliberately weak federal authority has failed in its obligation to protect the economic human rights of education, housing, jobs, income support and child care for all. It has allowed the creation of a privatized state, at least in terms of these rights. African-American youth and other historically marginalized people have been thrown on the “mercy” of the so-called prison-industrial complex. Young black people who are considered unnecessary in the globalized, deindustrialized service economy of 21st century America are warehoused in prisons and ghettos,
or shot as they return home from buying Skittles and iced tea.
Clyde Woods and others argue that the so-called “discourse of black savagery” is a conscious political strategy predicated on white economic and racial fears that is essential to this neoplantation development model. The persistence of this discourse is exemplified by incidents ranging from the infamous Willie Horton ads in the 1988 Presidential campaign to Don Imus’ racially and sexually disparaging remarks about the Rutgers womens’ basketball team to the media’s obsession with Trayvon Martin’s school suspensions (as if that justified killing him) to the failure to arrest George Zimmerman.
When the economy is okay, and the ruling class feels relatively secure, overt racism can be safely stowed away, ready for use when needed. During those times, we see the emergence of a more sophisticated form of white privilege. Tim Wise calls this version of white privilege “enlightened exceptionalism”: Individual darker-skinned people who don’t make white people uncomfortable—if they talk a certain way and their skin isn’t TOO dark and they don’t act “threatening”–are okay. We might even vote for them for President, as Harry Reid so awkwardly pointed out.
The rest of those dark-skinned people? Uh uh. Most white folks still carry around a battered old suitcase bulging with stereotypes and fears about those “others.”
Of course, even after Obama’s election, the reality continued to be that the vast majority of darker-skinned people were crushed at the bottom of the global pyramid of wealth and power. But pundits in the mainstream media invented this new category of people of color who, the pundits said, “transcended” their race. These “liberal” commentators invented and embraced the idea of a “post-racial” Presidency, in hopes that if we wished away the reality of white privilege and white supremacy, those irritating activists who persist in challenging the whole racial power structure would be marginalized and might just go away. Meanwhile, who was asking white people to “transcend” their whiteness? Whiteness is not “normal” —as we’ve seen, it’s an ethnic construct used to maintain the power and privilege of a very narrow spectrum of rulers at the top.
It was silly to believe that Obama’s election alone was enough to threaten the old social hierarchy of race. But some white folks believed it. And his election happened in the midst of an economic crisis. The combined impact of the two “crises” (from the perspective of those whose reality was premised on the old order) was enough to crash the comparatively “civil” discourse of the new racism and unleash the rabid dogs of the new Jim Crow.
They attack fear-filled white folks too, who, in seeking the illusion of “safety” from our country’s changing demographics by barring entry into their gated communities, instead lock themselves into a stilted and stunted world in which Mitt Romney’s “trees the right size, buildings the right size” dog-tied-to-the-top-of-the-car world view defines normalcy. The rabid dogs of racism attack many people of color with crushing self-hatred. They deny us all the richness of life in a society of equals, where each of us celebrates the diversity of everybody’s humanity.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m forced to pick, I’ll take Obama’s soulful “Let’s Stay Together”
over Romney’s milquetoast “America the Beautiful” any day.
But the point is we shouldn’t have to choose. Let’s face it, Katherine Bates’ and Samuel Ward’s beautiful song sounded a whole lot better when Ray Charles got through with it.
And our country would be a whole lot better with more communication, more equality and a lot less fear of the “other.”
As the Occupy movement re-emerges this spring, we must give the struggle for racial equality more prominence, foregrounding police “stop and frisk” tactics against youth of color, the disparate impact of bank foreclosures and debt slavery on people of color (along with the rest of the 99%), and the desperate need to transform a history of racial inhumanity into a present of real equality.
But until African-American youth and other young people of color gain the tools to rebuild their lives, until the U.S. as a nation, as a society, finally redresses the legacy of slavery, we will have an increasingly restive and alienated African-American urban underclass. This is a struggle that young people of color must lead. It is a positive project in which the rest of us should be prepared to support them with our hearts, our souls, our resources, our work and our lives. When we do that, as a nation, as a society, in Sanford, in New Orleans, in New York, in LA, in Chicago, in Detroit, “from sea to shining sea,” we will truly be engaged in the process of building the nation that our country has long claimed to be.