If It Walks Like a Duck and Talks Like a Duck: Racism, Bigotry and the Death of Respectable Conservatism
For the most part, I’ve tried to be restrained.
Although conservatives accuse those of us on the left of thinking that all critiques of President Obama are rooted in racism, this has certainly never been my argument. Indeed, I’ve written two books highly critical of Obama’s positions on a number of issues (from a place well to his left), and am fully aware that decent, honest people can disagree with Barack Obama from the right, too, without their disagreements serving as proof of some latent, let alone blatant, bigotry or anti-black bias.
That said, what I have also long maintained — and what seems increasingly evident as we move into the heart of the 2012 campaign — is that the style of opposition, its specific form, and its particular content are too often embedded in a narrative of white racial resentment, white racial anxiety, and a desire to “other” the president in ways that go well beyond the politically partisan. It is not that criticisms of Obama are quantitatively racist, per se, but rather that they are qualitatively so in too many instances; a distinction, yes, but one that does not alter the underlying reality.
In other words, it is one thing to disagree, even mightily, with a president’s policies.
It is quite another to suggest that that president is really a foreign imposter: over, and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And to accept no proof, no matter how extensive, that he really is an American after all.*
Or to suggest that he is a secret Muslim who wishes to see Sharia Law imposed in the United States, and who is working to usher in just such an outcome, and that he and his wife engage in “terrorist fist jabs” as their preferred form of greeting.
Or a Manchurian Candidate, bent on destroying America, or at least deliberately destroying the economy so as to pay whites back for slavery and racism, and insisting that he only appoints people to his administration if they hate whites, and that he only received the endorsement of Colin Powell because he’s black.
Or that he’s the equivalent of an “African colonial despot,” who is “more African” than American, and who chose to go by the name “Barack” rather than “Barry” specifically as a way to thumb his nose at America, and who “hates this country” and is trying to dismantle it “brick by brick.”
Or that his political model is Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, and that soon he, like Mugabe, will be confiscating white people’s farms. Or that, even worse, he is just like Hitler, that his administration is a throwback to the Nazis, and his calls for national service and volunteerism are tantamount to the creation of a new SS.
Or that he uses the New Black Panther Party as his personal “army of thugs”, that he stands by while they intimidate white voters (despite the evidence that utterly contradicts that conclusion), and that his Department of Justice has targeted whites for oppression just like blacks were oppressed in the 1950s.
Or that he’s an “Indonesian Muslim” and a “welfare thug”.
Or a vampire, sucking the blood of American businesses, who deserves a stake through the heart.
Or maybe even the anti-Christ.
Or that he isn’t a real American because he didn’t sufficiently gloat over the killing of Osama bin Laden, and because he didn’t desecrate bin Laden’s body the way a real American presumably would have.
Or that he’s a “third worlder,” who is “appeasing his Islamic overlords,” who wants to put Jews on trains to extermination camps because he is an “evil” anti-Semite, who is responsible for “Kick-a-Jew day” hate crimes at certain schools.
Or arguing that his health care reform bill, which will of course amount to literal “armageddon,” is really just about getting “reparations for slavery,” and portraying him on anti-health care reform signs, or mass e-mails, as an African witch doctor with a bone through his nose.
Or to claim that his presidency causes black kids to beat up white kids on school buses.
Or that he plans to put whites in slavery.
Or that his proposal to impose a small tax on visits to tanning salons is a racist imposition on whites who comprise the bulk of such customers.
Or that he looks like a “skinny ghetto crackhead,” who by virtue of meeting with an African leader from Gabon, and inviting rapper Common to a presidential event, is hosting “hoodlums in the hizzouse”, and whose drinking of a pint of beer in an Irish pub when visiting that country is derided as “chugging 40s”, as in 40-ounce bottles of Malt Liquor.
Or implying that he didn’t really deserve to get into Columbia or Harvard Law School and that he may have been admitted as an affirmative action case, and that he was “involved with a crack whore” in his youth.
Or wondering whether we should still call the presidential residence the White House at all, given the family that currently lives there.
Or insisting that Obama needs to “learn how to be an American,” as Romney surrogate John Sununu suggested last month, and that he is taking us down a course that is “foreign” in the words of Romney himself.
Or suggesting that the president doesn’t, for some unspecified (and surely not racial reason) “fully appreciate” the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” shared between the U.S. and the U.K., and that he had a bust of Winston Churchill removed from the Oval Office because of his anti-colonial hatred for the West.
Or that he is a “revolutionary” who believes in creating economic hardship as a way to atone for the nation’s founding, which he naturally views as “illegitimate” and “unjust.”
Or portraying him as a slavemaster, whipping a white taxpayer.
Or insisting that he doesn’t have a life story that “has much in common with anybody in this country,” (in part because he didn’t grow up in the Midwest) and that he “cannot relate” to the “American Experience.”
How many times, one is left to wonder, must a person be called un-American before it’s accurate to claim that he’s being accused of being foreign, and a danger to the nation? A cancer to be excised from the body politic?
How many times can a man be the butt of racist humor, or likened to black dictators, or accused of seeking racial revenge upon white people, before it is no longer outrageous or the playing of some mystical, magical race card to assert that, indeed, the people doing these things are really just race-baiting white nationalists in conservative garb?
How long, in short, before we call that which walks and talks like a duck, a fucking duck?
And yes, please, I realize that not all of these criticisms are explicitly about race (though most quite obviously are), but even those that seem free of racialized content at first glance, continue a process of othering, whereby the president becomes not just someone with objectionable policies, but someone who actually wants to hurt you, to destroy your country, to pillage the values you hold dear, to crush you and everything you believe into dust. One would have to look far and wide to uncover any rhetoric that apocalyptic said about previous presidents. Even Bill Clinton, whom the right dearly loathed, never was characterized as a would-be dictator, whose re-election would potentially spell the end of America, or whose presidency was seen as literally endangering the republic. Indeed, even when Clinton proposed health care reform that was about as moderate and lukewarm as Obama’s, those who opposed the plan never accused Bill of advocating death panels, or using health care to exact racial revenge on whites, or looking to take money from old white people and spend it on health care for undocumented immigrants. Interestingly, the extent to which Obama has been effectively othered thanks to racial resentment, actually causes whites to oppose his health care reform plan, even while they profess support for the very same plan so long as they’re told it was Bill Clinton’s.
In addition to the blatant othering of the president, so clearly demonstrated in the above-mentioned examples, there are any number of more subtle ways that his political opponents have sought to separate him from the circle of human decency and Americanness to which they themselves insist they belong.
So to suggest that there is something fundamentally un-American about Barack Obama’s views — that, for instance, his belief that the rich don’t build their fortunes alone, or his support for government intervention in various arenas such as health care or housing, or his support for slight tax increases for upper-income individuals place him beyond the pale of the American political tradition — is so transparently nonsensical as to leave very little doubt that it is his visage and not his vision that provokes much of the hostility. After all, Abraham Lincoln agreed that labor created the wealth of business owners, and that labor was indeed prior to and superior to capital. It was Dwight Eisenhower who presided over some of the biggest government projects in history like the Interstate Highway program, the expansion of the FHA and VA loan programs for housing, and under whose leadership tax rates on the wealthiest Americans reached a whopping 91 percent: well above double that which would exist even if all the Bush-era tax cuts expired, and President Obama got his every wish on tax policy. Ronald Reagan signed one of the biggest tax increases in history so as to protect the solvency of Social Security, and ran up massive deficits by substantially expanding military spending, and it was George W. Bush who spent money like a drunken sailor on a three-day pass for the projects he believed in (principally unfunded wars and a prescription drug benefit), all without incurring the kind of “otherization” to which Barack Obama has been subjected. Even when those men are thought of today, and critiqued by some, their fundamental location at the heart of the American experiment, and their Americanness itself are not what are being questioned. Their views on capital, on taxes, on government spending, all may provoke disagreements, but those are rarely if ever disagreements in which these persons are placed outside the orbit of mainstream Americanism itself.
Likewise, although it is fine to criticize the president for his approach to rectifying the economic crisis and to disagree with the methods he has employed for doing so, it is also legitimate to point out how certain of those critiques — like referring to him as “the food stamp president,” or claiming (falsely as it turns out) that he has removed work requirements for persons receiving cash welfare assistance — are predictably calculated to trigger long-held racial stereotypes about who the beneficiaries of those programs are presumed to be. That there are actually only about 1.1 million able-bodied adults in the nation (only about 450,000 of them black) receiving cash assistance (and even many of these work at least part-time) doesn’t alter the fact that the perception of welfare recipients — and especially the perception that commentators like Rush Limbaugh play upon when they contrast welfare recipients with “working class whites” — is that large numbers and percentages of African Americans are dependent upon government support, and that Obama is on their side. That it’s all a lie only makes its continued repetition more transparent as to its real purpose. They know exactly what they’re doing.
Just like they know what they’re doing when they dishonestly blame the economic crisis, and especially the housing meltdown, on poor people of color, who received home loans for which they weren’t qualified thanks to the presumed meddling of civil rights activists. Although there is literally no evidence to support the bogus claim that the Community Reinvestment Act and other lending regulations caused the crisis (indeed the vast majority of bad loans weren’t even written by CRA-covered institutions, and those loans that were covered under CRA tended to perform better than others), by connecting economic insecurity to people of color — to financial “affirmative action” if you will — the right hopes to create synaptic and memetic links between white pain and black gain.
So too with their baseless claims that people-of-color led organizations like ACORN were responsible for massive election fraud in 2008, and their suggestions that such fraud may even have stolen the election for Obama. Though the claims are the stuff of ignorant and paranoid fantasy (the only fraud uncovered was registration fraud, which ACORN itself discovered and reported, and which involved registrants filling out cards with names like Donald Duck — unlikely to result in actual vote fraud unless Donald actually managed to waddle into the booth), they push oversized buttons of white fear and trepidation that those people are stealing your country from you!
And to consistently contrast the president with the founders, as the Tea Party is so quick to do, is hard to countenance other than as an implicitly racial message about how the nation has changed, and not for the better. After all, other presidents have created government programs every bit as large or larger than anything implemented by the current administration; they have created far higher taxes, and added much more to the deficit. Yet it is this president, whose beliefs and actions we are to see as uniquely breaking with the nation as the founders envisioned it. And more to the point, we are to revere without comment that bygone nation, making no note apparently of the founders’ racism, sexism, or classist elitism. Indeed, to critique the founders for their prodigious shortcomings in this regard is seen as an unjust and evil calumny. The nostalgic reverence for people who openly held to a belief in white supremacy, who believed in restricting the franchise to white male property owners (as do at least some among the contemporary right wing), and who in all regards intended to establish a white republic, with liberty and justice solely for a few, is an inherently racial message. Whether it transmits that message loudly, like a cell phone on full volume (to borrow a metaphor from Michael Eric Dyson), or quietly, like the same phone on vibrate matters little. The call is received, and the message is left in the inbox of an anxious white polity.
When you look at the persistent racialization of anti-Obama rhetoric, and the lost cause-type nostalgia that is so central to the modern conservative narrative, it is very difficult to ignore how whiteness and implicit white supremacy forms the cornerstone of the Republican Party and especially its rightmost wing. And when you then examine the particular strategies being employed by the right to help “take the country back” from the interloper they feel has hijacked it, such as limiting early voting (because it tends to increase turnout among folks of color and the poor), or the Voter ID craze (which won’t actually stop mythical fraudulent in-person voting but which will disproportionately effect turnout among people of color and the poor who are less likely to have photo ID), the relationship between white anxiety and modern conservatism becomes even clearer.
Hard though it may be to remember, there was once a time when movement conservatives, precisely because of the patrician erudition to which they aspired, tended to speak in measured tones, and sought to engage on the battlefield of ideas with a rhetoric that — however filled with nonsense it may have been — nonetheless imagined itself as the very embodiment of enlightened reason. Conservatives were like the prim and proper family members who told you never to speak of sex, religion or politics at the dinner table. Even when they engaged in the most despicable forms of racism, such as William F. Buckley’s defense of segregation and whites-only voting in the pages of his National Review, you got the sense reading through the claptrap that, though it be utterly venal codswallop, it had been written less with a sense of hatred and more with a sense of sad and pitying regret. Buckley, it seemed, really wanted black people to be civilized enough to participate in the election of public officials; it’s just that, as he saw it through his blinkered, privileged, and phony-accented Connecticut eyes, they simply weren’t there yet. Offensive? Yes, as hell, in fact. But when you watch him getting his argumentative clock cleaned by James Baldwin at Oxford — Baldwin having been both his literary and intellectual superior by many orders of measurable magnitude — you get the sense that he was almost relieved. It was as if from that point forward he began to take the turn that many, many years later would cause him to admit (at least partially) that he had been wrong in his support for southern apartheid.
Would that conservatives today were even half as introspective about the more extreme of their own ventilations. When one can be wistful for the likes of a Buckley, or even a Goldwater or a Reagan for goodness’ sakes — who for all their mendacity and support for policies the effects of which were racist and classist to the core nonetheless would have likely avoided calling the objects of their political derision “vermin,” who should be “hung high” or “human parasitic garbage,” or that they should be beaten to death with shovels — one knows, or should, that respectable conservatism is dead. It is rotting in a grave, out of which hole has crept the most nefarious and zombified substitute, reeking of an acrid and putrescent characterological rot, upon which no calm and dispassionate bit of reason may find even a temporary home.
Of course, even as the right has changed (and for the worse), in quite another way, perhaps there’s really nothing new to see here. Black and brown peoples have always had to prove, even to the more restrained among the conservative cognitariat, that they were really human beings and deserved to be treated as such.
And it is this reality, about which peoples of color are so well aware and white Americans so splendidly naive, which makes this process — of having to prove, again and again that the world really is round and that people of color really are experiencing their lives and are more capable of interpreting the meaning of those lives than we are — so maddening. Being forced in every new generation to demonstrate, whether you’re Barack Obama or anyone else, that you really belong here — indeed that for most, your ancestors were here before most white folks’ ancestors were, and in that sense you are, if anything, more entitled to be here than they — is exhausting. Having to prove that you are not, in the main, looking to go all Nat Turner on our asses, to burn all of our proverbial barns, to rape “our women,” to take “our jobs” or “our children’s college slots,” but that instead you would like simply that for which you have worked, and toiled — that which you have Goddamn earned — is like having to prove that one is not an alien from Venus, or a child molester, or a wife-beater, or a Satan worshipper. In short it is something that can never be proved to the satisfaction of those whose minds have become so besotted with fear and insecurity that the lie is, to them, more comfort than the truth, for it allows their tidy worldview, however stressful, to be maintained; for their sense of righteousness and superiority, amid substantial evidence of their own utter and stifling mediocrity, to be kept whole.
Their mentality is transparently obvious, and sounds roughly like this within the echo chambers of their own ideologically diseased brains:
If we can keep you and others like you constantly as junior partners in this thing called America, then we can retain our status as the prototype, the floor model, the one in the corner office, with the gold-trimmed nameplate who makes the rules, allows you in the boardroom occasionally — but only on our terms — and who, when we damned well feel like it, can send you to get us coffee. But when the nation’s political leader no longer looks like us, has a name that sounds funny, and a family history too exotic for our liking, and when the popular culture changes into one that is thoroughly multicultural, and as the economy melts down, confronting us with a kind of insecurity that hadn’t been our lot for three generations, however normal it might have become for the black and brown, and as the demographics — of the local school, the towns in which we live and even the country — change, confronting us with the possibility that, have mercy, within 40 years our kind will no longer be the majority, the norm, the walking talking definition of an “all-American boy or girl” (which is a concept we fucking created), then the patience with which we have tolerated you begins to wear thin.
You are at the gates, and because we believe those gates are ours, that we built them — even though in every conceivable way you did — we begin to lose our sense of self. We cannot be special except in relation to you and your lack of specialness. If you gain access to that which has always been ours — be it the presidency, or just affordable health care, a decent job, access to a college education and a home to call your own — then you pose a symbolic threat to our sense of worth. What good is membership in the club if it can’t be restricted? The distance we have been able to put between ourselves and you is how we’ve been able to daily remind ourselves of our betterness. It has mapped the territory of our greater work effort, our superior morality, our more significant sacrifices, and so too the territory of your indolence, laziness, dysfunction and pathology. Your failure, at least in relative if not absolute terms, is a necessary prerequisite for the proper functioning of our contorted egos. Your gains, however much they fail to truly challenge our disproportionate advantages in every measurable realm of daily life, manage nevertheless to pose an existential threat to the psychological wages of whiteness, which W.E.B. DuBois told us (though we hardly wanted to hear it from such an uppity Negro as he) were central to our existence roughly a century ago.
In short, how will we know we’re good if we don’t know you’re bad? And how will we know you’re bad, if you’re able to live next door, work beside us (or perhaps even as our superiors), and if our kids have posters of people like you all over their bedroom walls? Our entire self-concept has been rooted in your otherness. We do not exist in any meaningful sense without you as a reference point, to remind us of the floor beneath which we are not to fall. And when you say enough of that, and force us to examine our own anxieties, our own lack of specialness (at least in any terms other than those we invented in our fevered imaginations and used as substitutes for real accomplishment), well then, we will not be the ones who remember to speak in measured tones at that dinner table. We will turn the table upside down.
And we’ll say you did it.
* According to a spring, 2012 survey, roughly two-thirds of Republicans say they believe Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., and with many others saying they aren’t sure either way, only about 1 in 5 accept the truth of Obama’s citizenship. Which is to say that only about 1 in 5 Republicans can claim the mantle of being even remotely rational and informed human beings.