On November 5, 2008, the day after the country elected its first African-American president, an op-ed appeared in the Los Angeles Times written by the conservative black academic Shelby Steele titled “Obama’s Post-Racial Promise.” In it Steele asks: “Doesn’t a black in the White House put the lie to both black inferiority and white racism? Doesn’t it imply a ‘post-racial’ America?”
Thus began a trope that has bounced around our political discourse ever since. Commentators and pundits and even the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court have assured us that with the passage of time since the end of Jim Crow segregation, and culminating in the election of Barack Obama, racism in America has become a thing of the past.
But with the controversy over the racist remarks of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling, one a rural cattle rancher in Nevada, the other an urbane California billionaire, we might want to reconsider just how “post-racial” America’s race relations have really become.
Bundy and Sterling have exposed attitudes about race that most people would prefer remain subterranean. Yet codes and dog whistles have become part of the normal functioning of our politics and are the methods of choice for those who want to drop race into the conversation for political gain without doing so overtly.
One striking aspect of the Cliven Bundy/Donald Sterling revelations is that these perverse opinions about black people come from two men who circulate in entirely different universes. One guy is a parochial bumpkin who rips off the federal government for grazing fees, the other guy is a cosmopolitan Jewish billionaire and NBA team owner who gives away Ferraris to his mistresses. But when it comes to black people, these two disparate souls are of like mind. The demographic and cultural Grand Canyon that separates these two men illustrates the pervasive nature of racism in “post racial” America.
What has been missed in the commentary and speculation about what lurks in the hearts of men like Bundy and Sterling is a wider critique about the connection between racial appeals and the other dominant right-wing trope: “makers” versus “takers.” Central to the Right’s ideology are the myths associated with rugged individualism, folks pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, and a wholesale fetishizing of Ayn Rand’s fictional portrait of capitalist society. This way of looking at the world by those in power creates a welcoming atmosphere for the idea of white victimization and the use of stereotypes that blame deficiencies in minority culture as the root cause of poverty.
Cliven Bundy’s brief stint as the number one folk hero in the Republican media bubble was because his story fit perfectly within the narrative of white victimhood. What better way to rile up the base for the November midterms than fan the flames of a standoff between a “real” American and the jackbooted thugs of the Bureau of Land Management?
It’s also not surprising that this media-fueled glorification of aggrieved white people, which pitted the government (Obama) against hard-working rural folk, would include among its ranks an unreconstructed racist who had become for a while virtually the co-star of The Sean Hannity Show.
So now that everyone on the Right, with a few exceptions, seems ready to condemn both Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling for their racism, does it now mean we can count on these people to help us have an honest discussion about the less overt racial appeals of codes and dog whistles their ideological soul-mates so often deploy?
Don’t count on it.
Let’s review: We have Republican governors and legislators across the country passing strict voter ID laws and other measures ostensibly to prevent “voter fraud” that demonstratively will have the effect of suppressing the African-American vote. We have a Supreme Court that gutted a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 that will make voter suppression efforts against blacks and other minorities even easier. And we have as a result of aggressive Republican gerrymandering a political party (Obama’s) that won 1.4 million more aggregate votes in House races in 2012 yet for only the second time since World War Two ended up the minority party (234-201).
We also have a white working-class population that has been economically pummeled for decades now and searching for scapegoats. Millions of people in this country are working harder and longer hours but seeing their standard of living stagnate. Instead of demanding a revivified New Deal and social programs that might help make their lives a little better cunning political strategists have channeled their economic insecurity, fear and anger toward condemning a convenient scapegoat: the “takers.”
Coded racist appeals going back to the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” of the late-1960s have largely succeeded in dividing working people along racial and ethnic lines and have facilitated the cementing of a plutocratic agenda in Washington. It’s no accident that the last Democratic president to win a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson.
Washington Republicans today sound like a broken record going on and on about how public policy should give “job creators” (the “makers”) tax cuts and deregulation, while punishing the “takers” by slashing food stamps and other social programs. It’s just a rehash of “trickle down” Reaganomics and the terrible policies that laid the country low in the first place.
Cliven Bundy became a rock star that the Republican base ate up, that is, until he publicly lamented that black people “never learned how to pick cotton.” Of late it was Bundy, but tomorrow it will be some new poster boy for aggrieved white people exploited for political effect. What new code or dog whistle will emerge this August, September, and October when the races that could deliver Republican control of the Senate heat up? Stay tuned.
Despite their “abhorrence” at people like Bundy and Sterling, the spectacle of prominent Republican politicians and their mouthpieces attacking the “takers,” the “entitlement mentality,” “inner city men,” and “illegal aliens” will continue. It has become a permanent fixture of our politics.
Fox News can exploit the racial fears generated by Jeremiah Wright or the New Black Panthers; Bill O’Reilly can refer to Representative Barbara Lee as a “race hustler”; Ted Nugent can call President Obama a “subhuman mongrel”; Ann Coulter can declare that racism in America is as “rare as cholera”; and Paul Ryan can speak about the lagging work habits of “inner city men.” Yet when a Cliven Bundy or a Donald Sterling is caught turning up the volume a notch or two suddenly they’re all “shocked” and “deplore” these not-so-different sentiments.
Until the Right in this country agrees to drop its “post-racial” pretensions for a moment and makes a real effort to come to terms with the negative social effects of its divide-and-conquer “Southern Strategy” politics, we’ll continue to limp along from one new dog whistle to the next, all the while enabling the plutocrats to push through their agenda even in a time of robber-baron levels of inequality.