Two years into the Obama presidency it is fair to say that racist ideology is the main mobilizing discourse of right-wing extremism. In subtle and crude forms, it has become the main poison to draw white people into the theater of politics on the side of the most reactionary sections of corporate capital.
Its amplifiers are many and well positioned to spread this poison to a national audience. More and more, the discourse of racism has become shrill, threatening, and dangerous.
In this discourse based on sheer invention, the president is a Muslim (as if there is something wrong with that). His birthplace is Kenya, not the U.S. He is Hitler in “blackface,” and at the same time a closet socialist (a terrible thing in their view). Stealth and deception were his path to the White House. He hates private enterprise and loves intrusive government. He is tearing up the Constitution.
The latest instance of the right wing’s racist imagery of Barack Obama appears in a Forbes magazine article. Authored by Dinesh D’Souza, a well-paid literary pimp, the article’s thesis is simple: the president is channeling the anti-colonial, creepy, evil mentality of his “tribesman” father into the Oval Office.
“[I]nstead of readying us for the challenge,” D’Souza writes, “our President is trapped in his father’s time machine. Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father’s dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. American today is run by a ghost.”
Wow! Is this guy for real? How can anybody believe this pseudo-psychological pulp fiction? The rest of the article is no better, full of smoke and mirrors, cobbled together from innuendo and falsehoods.
Truth is the first victim of D’Souza’s right-wing extremism. If anybody is a “ghost,” it’s not Obama, but D’Souza – not of his father, but of the Nazi propagandist Goebbels.
But here’s the rub: If it were only a few angry white men, sitting in a coffee shop, who took this stuff seriously, it wouldn’t matter much.
But that’s not the reality. This racist garbage is resonating with a much larger audience, cutting across class, income, religious and regional lines. It strikes a chord among some wealthy and middle-class people, but it penetrates into white working class neighborhoods (urban, suburban and small town) too. Yes, class-consciousness is growing among white workers as evidenced by the massive labor mobilization for the One Nation rally and the November elections. But its growth is an uneven, contradictory and contested process in which anti-racism among growing numbers of white workers cohabits with a resurgence of racism among some others.
To ignore or minimize the impact of this racist offensive is exceedingly dangerous. Nor should we think that a vigorous response to it is a diversion from “more pressing” economic issues.
If left unchallenged, this ramped up and revamped ideological racist counteroffensive could throw the country back to days long thought gone by or into a future that we long thought could “never happen here.”
Many commentators, myself included, have pointed to the role of right-wing extremism in fomenting racist rage in all its versions (Obama is a Muslim, un-American, socialist, father channeling, etc.), but what goes unexplained and needs to be explained is why do so many white people embrace this poison that is so harmful to their well being, why are so many so strident, why are so many so ready to accept the most far-fetched racist pronouncements?
What is the triggering mechanism for this new wave of racism?
One answer is that a stagnant economy and harshly competitive job market have increased racist tensions and divisions between white workers and workers of color as well as between native-born and immigrant workers.
Another is that it is natural to blame the president, no matter who or what color he is, for the nation’s ills.
Still another is that the top layers of our society – Wall Street, Big Energy, the military industrial complex, etc. – dismayed with the president’s agenda, have turned loose the dogs of racism and political extremism.
Yet another explanation for the surge of vile racism is the power, reach, and spin abilities of right-wing mass media.
Each of these explanations contains a measure of truth. They are part of the mix.
But, I would argue that they are not at the heart of matter. To understand what set into motion this surge, we have to turn our analytic eye to the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in our land and the racial dynamics surrounding that historic event.
The election of an African American president was rich in symbolic meaning and far-reaching in impact on white Americans (and Americans of other races and nationalities), but not in the same way for every white person.
For many white people it was an exhilarating and transformative moment. When the president and his beautiful family walked onto the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night, tears of joy poured from their eyes. It felt like an insuperable barrier had been surmounted and a new era worthy of our nation’s best ideals and promises was commencing.
But for many other white Americans the president’s election was traumatic; their world was turned upside down; their way of life and values were not reaffirmed, but challenged. What was symbolically liberating for some white people was perceived as symbolically a disaster by others.
If an extremely smart, magnetic, young, democratic-minded African American is to sit in the highest position in our land, many must have wondered, what’s next?
The election of Barack Hussein Obama to the foremost position in our country was, for a not insignificant minority of white people, an intellectual, emotional and existential challenge to a set of social arrangements and attitudes that assigned African Americans to an inferior and subordinate status on the basis of skin color and nationality.
It upended what seemed like a natural order in which their own status and sense of well being was heavily invested.
More than most of us appreciated at the time, it signified for some the closing of one era and the beginning of another, in which “the last will be first.”
Thus I believe that the election of Barack Obama was a powerful psychological blow to a section of white people, triggering an immediate spike in their racial anxieties, insecurities and resentments. Without any prompting from right-wing extremism or a word from the president’s mouth, the moment Barack Obama was declared the winner he became in their minds illegitimate, a menace, someone to be brought down “asap.”
In this atmosphere, right-wing extremism – ranging from numerous think tanks and foundations to the Republican Party leadership, to radio talk and Fox News, to the tea party, to personalities like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich (with the mainstream media sometimes an abettor) – had (and is still having) a field day. It gave voice to this disaffected and angry grouping of people, repeated ad nauseum its vicious racist lies, and organized this scattered mob into shock troops to obstruct the president’s agenda and re-tilt the balance of political power in favor of the most backward elements of the ruling class and its closest allies.
What is more, this racist upsurge and its right-wing enablers combined to aggressively promote and further amplify the whole panoply of right-wing ideological notions that are designed to cause division, hatred and the dumbing down of the American people. If we unpack right-wing ideology – an exceedingly nasty variant of capitalist class ideology – we find multiple, mutually reinforcing, and connected strands (immigrants steal jobs and feast on government benefits; government is too big and out of control; taxes kill jobs and incentives to work and invest; private is better than public; a culture of dependence shapes communities of color; the Democrats, liberal elites, and the left are soft on terrorism, hostile toward religion, and contemptuous of America; gay culture is corrosive of marriage and family values, and so forth). But at its core and winding their way into and giving credibility to each strand are racist ideology and practices, and especially anti-African-American racism.
That there would be this dynamic should have been anticipated. Only a quick glance at some earlier episodes in our history – the Civil War, the Reconstruction period, and the civil rights revolution of the 1960s – tells us that white ruling elites and their supporters were first shocked by their loss of privilege, power and wealth to multi-racial egalitarian movements, but then regrouped and went into overdrive to restore their former unrivaled dominance and re-subordinate the African American people and allied groups. Their weapon of choice was terror combined with a fierce ideological counterattack.
And in another instance of “the more things change the more they stay the same,” the Black-led Reconstruction governments in the 19th century and Dr. Martin Luther King and his supporters in the 20th century were also considered illegitimate, inferior, arrogant and incapable of judicious self-governance, much like President Obama is today.
So history repeats itself, but in a new era and with new forces, new obstacles, and new possibilities and dangers.
While the jury is out as to who will win this irrepressible conflict, the political imperative for the broad labor-based coalition that elected this president is clear. The fight against racism has to be the property of every democratic-minded person, and, in the first place, workers in the “white skin” as Marx would say, not as a favor to their brothers and sisters of color, but in their own interests.
The class and democratic struggle is hanging in balance and only a sustained struggle for anti-racist unity will tip the pendulum of power in the direction of progressive change.
A point of departure in this struggle is to rebuff the fierce racist assault on our nation’s first African American president.
For anyone to affix to the president singular or even the lion’s share of the blame for the present impasse reveals an incredible ignorance of class and, especially, racial dynamics.
To sit on one’s hands and make pithy critiques of the administration while the president is the target of racist discourse that we thought was forever buried away in our historical memory gives license to the worst racists as well as opens the door for the extreme right’s return to political power.
In earlier periods when racism gained ascendency over anti-racism, the only real winner, regardless of what some historians of “white privilege” claim, was the white ruling classes, slavery-based and capitalist, and their closest allies.
Racism strikes people of color the hardest. About this there is no question. But at the end of the day working people of all colors are scarred. It is an ideology and practice that denies equality to people of color, heightens exploitation of all who labor, and destroys real democracy.
It remains, as the Communist Party has said for decades, the most dangerous and formidable barrier to progress. It has to be contested on every front – none more immediate than the November elections.