New populism not about race? Think again

Filed under: Politics |

joewilsonlead-420x0The headlines are now familiar. Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You Lie!” during President Obama’s Health Care speech to the Congress. In response to Rep. Wilson’s outburst, former President Jimmy Carter said “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American.” This comment launched a media firestorm framed around a simple question: is resistance to Obama’s health care plan, or any of his proposals, rooted in racism?

Maureen Dowd, writing for the New York Times, reminded us of Joe Wilson’s association with the Sons of the Confederacy, including his participation in the campaign to keep the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina capital building. The implication was that Joe Wilson’s outburst was motivated by racial antiapthy, or at least latent racial attitudes. On the other side, David Brooks, disclaiming the ability to “peer… into the souls of Obama’s critics,” opined that “race is largely beside the point.” In his view, the debate was one of big government versus small government, federal interventionism versus limited federal government and states rights, urban versus rural, Hamilton versus Jefferson. Brooks claims that it is this frame which illuminates the debate and the reaction by the right-wing populists to Obama’s policies, whether it is Health Care, the Stimulus, and so on.

The next 24 hours of the news cycle was consumed by this question, from Fox News to Larry King. In the middle of it all, the President said that opposition to his policies wasn’t motivated by racism. In an interview, asked about the issue, President Obama said: “Are there people out there who don’t like me because of race? I’m sure there are. That’s not the overriding issue here.”

The debate over the issue was disturbingly shallow because it was framed by the wrong question. Either resistance to Obama’s policies are motivated by racism or they aren’t. And if they aren’t, then, as Brooks put it, ‘race is… beside the point.’ But this is a false dichotomy. The frame that David Brooks employs is the perfect counterpoint for why this is so.

On the various issues of federal interventionism (gun control, the federal reserve, etc) and federal programs (health care), limited government and states rights, taxation, immigration and birtherism, urban versus rural, nay, Jackson and Jefferson, race is ‘largely besides the point’? Point by point, issue by issue, these are the tropes of race. These issues may not be motivated by racial animus, but they are most certainly ‘about race.’

Southern opposition to federal intervention and protection of states rights and a limited federal role was always premised on the protection of existing racial arrangements. This was the essence of Jeffersonianism. While he spoke of the ‘ideal of the independent farmer,’ that farmer was, by and large, a slaveholder. The states-rights tradition cannot be understood outside of race. Opposition to taxes is not simply opposition on the philosophical level; it is tied to the issue of “federal programs,” which to many white Southerners meant taxpayer supported programs to benefit Black Americans, whether it was opposition to the Freedman’s Bureau during Reconstruction, the Social Security Act during the New Deal, or the Aid to Families with Dependent Children during the Great Society, which the Gingrich Revolution’s Contract With America brought to an end.
Think this is ancient history?

Rush Limbaugh told his audience to “Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on.” A few months later, more directly in connection with the health care debate, Glenn Beck blogged that: “[Obama] attended a Black Liberation Theology church for 20 years. Black Liberation Theology teaches it is the white man that has kept you down. It is the white man that you must take money from, you must take power from to make up for the past.” Against this backdrop, Glenn Beck claims that “Barack Obama is setting up universal healthcare, universal college, green jobs as stealth reparations. That way the victim status is maintained. And he also brings back back‑door reparations.”

Race undergirds messages on taxes, immigration, guns, patriotism, family values, and big government spending, making them attractive, particularly in the South. To say that race is ‘largely besides’ the point is to miss the point, and miss the ways in which these issues are framed in such a way as to foment opposition on the foundation of nearly two hundred years of racialized cultural associations. Opposition to these issues may not be the direct result of racial animus, but these issues cannot be divorced from their racial subtext, and that this subtext plays a critical role in fomenting support or opposition.

Although David Brooks may be right in his anecdotal observation that the ‘white tea party protestors’ are not racial bigots in the mold of George Wallace or even Archie Bunker, he hit the nail on the head when he said that these folks, and the ‘populist news media’ decry Van Jones and Acorn to “prove that elites are decadant and un-American.” Indeed, it wasn’t just that federal intervention meant disrupting racial arrangements or that federal programs signaled reparations, there was moral lining to these complaints about who is worthy and who is not. The immoral, decadent, or lazy African-American is a very old idea. The ‘welfare queen’ has is not even the most recent iteration. Recall the Associated Press captions that described a black Katrina victim as “looting,” and the white victim as “finding” food in the wake of the Hurricane. Today, Acorn, an organization advocating around low-income housing and other social issues in predominantly minority areas, has been the latest target, in an attempt to associate the group with prostitution.

Consciously or not, David Brooks drew out the exact associations both to federalism and to morality that have such a deep racial subtext, and yet he claims are not about race. Naïve? Perhaps . But Brooks is not alone. Even as we talk about race, too often the conversation devolves into the narrow and unproductive question of whether someone is a racist or not. These issues have deep racial connotations that operate even in the absence of overt racism. They are successfully utilized by the right to garner opposition to policies and programs by mapping them to their implicit associations. Maureen Dowd pointed out that “For two centuries, the South has feared a takeover by blacks or the feds. In Obama, they have both. “ Although the John Calhoun and George Wallace are, by and large, long gone, it is a critical error to assume that race is beside the point. And unless we call out these associations, with their myriad racial meanings, they will never be defused and their racial implications will continue to work against us, to our frustration and confusion alike.


Line Break

Author: Stephen Menendian (15 Articles)

Stephen Menendian

Stephen Menendian is the senior legal research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. Stephen directs and supervises the Institute’s legal advocacy, analysis and research, and manages many of the Institute’s most important projects. His principal areas of advocacy and scholarship include education, civil rights and human rights, Constitutional law, the racialization of opportunity structures, talking about race, systems thinking and implicit bias.

2 Responses to New populism not about race? Think again

  1. Great article. I believe both race “undergrids” everything and so does politics. When mixed together we get a toxic mix that is very damaging and corosive to our democracy. Thanx for your great insight.

    Cheryl Gittens-Jones

    February 14, 2010 at 5:55 pm

  2. Thanks!!

    Stephen Menendian

    Stephen Menendian
    March 4, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook


7 - = five

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>