Of Republican Race Cards and White Denial

It’s official. The symbolic head of the Republican Party is not Ronald Reagan. It’s Pee-Wee Herman.

It was Herman after all, as portrayed by comic actor Paul Reubens, whose only comeback to every criticism was, “I know you are but what am I?”

And it is this mantra — this maddening, childlike, playground-worthy, makes-me-wanna-slap-you-in-your-damned-face mantra — that has been elevated as of late to the level of official GOP dogma. Whenever someone dares to point out the rather obvious ways in which Republicans (and especially the most conservative among them) have been using symbolic dog whistles to appeal to white racial resentment ever since the election of Barack Obama (and even long before that, going back decades), the Republican retort is hardly more complex than Herman’s above-mentioned rejoinder.

We know you are, but what are we?

Seriously, that’s pretty much it.

And so, for instance, they insist that the left has “racism on the brain,” that we “see racism everywhere,” and that by accusing conservatives of this thing, we only indicate that it is we who are really racist. Because, see, if you see racism, it’s because you are race-obsessed, and if you are race-obsessed, it’s because you are the racist. But as for them? Nah, they’re just happy-go-lucky, colorblind pixies who throw peanuts at black people while calling them animals.

I wish I was being silly and hyperbolic here, but I’m not.

And so, for instance, Newt Gingrich seriously thinks we’re the ones who are racist, when we call out the racial undertones of the totally inaccurate, utterly dishonest welfare commercials being run by the Romney campaign. Apparently, to Gingrich, it is only liberals and people on the left who think of black folks when the word welfare is used. Oh yes, because conservatives would never be thinking of that. Like, when Ronald Reagan embellished that story about the “welfare queen” driving the Cadillac to the welfare office in Chicago and getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits thanks to dozens of fake names, he wasn’t picturing a black woman and didn’t intend for you too either. Even though the story the legend was based on involved a black woman on the city’s south side, who was actually guilty of only about $8000 in fraud, he wasn’t even talking about Linda Taylor, the black woman in question. No, he was imagining a white woman in Northbrook, swinging by to pick up her AFDC check before heading off to meet her tennis pro, scamming the system at the expense of all the hard-working black taxpayers in the Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor homes. Who could possibly have gotten that twisted? I mean yes, since the story was essentially fictitious, he could have made the fictional woman from a whiter place like West Virginia or Nebraska or Vermont, but the fact that he didn’t, and instead picked a big city with a large black population was merely coincidental. And if you don’t understand that, it’s because you’re race-obsessed.

And when Reagan made up yet another story about some “strapping young buck” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps, he didn’t specify the “buck’s” race, so if you see a black man in your mind’s eye, it’s obviously because you are the one with the problem. Why, for all you know, when Reagan said “buck,” he might have been referring to a large deer. You obviously have race on the brain!

And when the head of some Republican women’s association sent out those “Obama Bucks” back in 2008 — ya know, the ones that had then candidate Obama’s head superimposed on a food stamp certificate, surrounded by pictures of fried chicken and watermelon — that had nothing to do with race! Good grief, only a racist would make the association between fried chicken and watermelon on the one hand and black people on the other! What, ya’ think white people don’t like fried chicken? Didn’t you see all those white people lined up around the block for Chik-Fil-A recently? God, you’re such a racist!

And when Rick Santorum said he didn’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money — ya know presumably with welfare payments — he didn’t really say black people at all. He said “blah people,” and he meant it. Seriously. What, you mean you’ve never met a “blah person?” Why sure you have. They’re everywhere! And the last thing we’d want to do is make their lives better by giving them “wha” people’s money. But what does any of that have to do with race?

And when Joe Walsh (not the guy from the Eagles, but the Congressman from Illinois), made that comment about how Democrats want to make Hispanics dependent on government handouts “just like African Americans,” he wasn’t talking about African Americans as a race. He was talking about African Americans as rapping, breakdancing, basketball players. Oh, and I bet you’ll think that’s some racist stereotype too, huh? God you liberals are so predictable!

And when Rush Limbaugh recently said that Mitt Romney’s welfare ad, attacking President Obama would work because “working class whites” don’t like “slothful welfare recipients,” he wasn’t intending to racially contrast white people — whom he mentioned racially by name — with the lazy “takers” as he went on to call them. His reference was completely color-neutral, and only a race-obsessed, racity-racist would jump to the conclusion that a person who just so happens to draw a distinction between one group that he labels as white and another group, which he doesn’t label at all, is thereby implying that the second group might be something other than white! Oh, and when Hurricane Isaac was bearing down on New Orleans, and Limbaugh advocated sending bags of money to the city for use in plugging the levees, so that residents there would go to steal the bags to get to the money and then drown, he wasn’t being racist or actually advocating the death of anyone. And the people he envisioned taking the money might well have been rich white people who live on Audubon Place, uptown! I mean, you can’t really know for sure can you? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

And as for the accusation that conservative republicans have a history of making race-based appeals: why that’s preposterous. Yes, Lee Atwater — one of the most successful Republican operatives of all time — admitted that the Party manipulated coded language to attack black people, and quite deliberately at that; but honestly, he only said that on his death bed, when he was no doubt suffering the effects of chemo-brain, and so you can’t rely on such medically-induced testimony as that!

And yes, it’s true that Jesse Helms ended up winning a tightly contested race for re-election to the Senate in North Carolina, only after running that commercial, in which a white man crumpled up a rejection letter and the voice over intoned that “you needed that job, and you were the most qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a quota.” But that had nothing to do with the fact that Helms, prior to running that ad, had been trailing his opponent — the black Mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt — and was hoping to link the black guy who was trying to get his job with the black guy who apparently just took yours. OK, actually that one was pretty bad, but hey, it was a long time ago and Helms is dead. Oh, and did we mention, back in the 60s, Helms had been a Democrat: so BLAM: take that, you Hitler-loving, commie bastard!

This is the level of intellectual dishonesty to which the right is willing to stoop. So long as they never actually mention a person’s race, nothing they say about them can be considered racist. So if they call Obama a foreigner, it’s not intended to push racial buttons, because there are lots of white foreigners, and hell, they could be accusing him of being from Lichtenstein. If they call him a “lyin African,” it’s not intended to push racial buttons because there are white Africans, like Charlize Theron and Dave Matthews. If they send around pictures of him dressed like a pimp, it’s not about race, because there are white pimps, like James O’Keefe. And if they say that the only way to get promoted in the Obama Administration is by “hating white people” (as Limbaugh said back in 2009), it’s not because they’re trying to scare white people about the black president. It’s because they just really need you to know how much Tim Geithner hates your cracker ass. And when they make a button that asks whether we can “still call it the White House” if Obama wins, that’s not a racial thing. It’s just that they heard that Michelle Obama is partial to soft pastels, and ya know, might want to repaint the place.

And if they portray Obama as a monkey or a chimpanzee, or even call him “the first monkey president,” that’s not because they’re trying to play along with the long-standing racist association between black people and apes. And anyway, everybody likes monkeys and they’re known to be really smart: which is actually what a conservative talk show host who recently called the president a monkey and e-mailed a picture of him as a monkey said in her defense. Because as someone who is militantly opposed to President Obama and everything he stands for, she nonetheless really wants you to know how smart she thinks he is.

And they want you to know that when they say that the Department of Justice is oppressing white people just like blacks were oppressed in the 50s, or that the health care reform bill is Obama’s way of getting “reparations” (both of which Glenn Beck said a few years ago), it’s not an attempt to get white people all geeked up about some racial “payback.” It’s just because they lack all rational perspective and are stupid as fuck.

Hell, even if they call you the n-word that’s not racist, because Toure, who’s black, used it in a totally different way, on television this month (and, ya know, actually had to apologize for it, unlike any white person who’s used it in the last, forever), and anyway they have “black friends,” which is apparently the new word white conservatives use for the guy who shines their shoes at the airport. And we all know that if you have black friends you can’t be a racist, just like, obviously, if you are a straight guy, who likes and dates women, you couldn’t possibly be a sexist!

Yes indeed, the only people who are really racist are the people who talk constantly about racism. Ya’ know, people like Martin Luther King Jr. and all the folks in the civil rights movement. Talk about race obsessed!

Oh, and Barack Obama, because of that tax he imposed on tanning bed customers, who we all know are mostly white. That sneaky racist bastard! Trying to make tanning more expensive for white people, and thus, perhaps cut down on how often white people go to the tanning salon, and thus, ya’ know, save lots of white people from skin cancer…all so he can keep us alive and milk us even longer for taxes! That bloodsucker!

Look, this is simple, really. The reason we say political appeals that rely on images of welfare recipients are about priming racial resentment and even racism, is because study after study after study after study after study after study says they are. The actual research, by actual scholars, indicates quite clearly that this is the effect of such tactics. Now granted, maybe Republicans didn’t know that (bullshit), because, after all, conservatives don’t read social science literature, because it has that word “science” in it, and science is scary and makes baby Jesus cry. But the bottom line is, we on the left are not race-obsessed. We’re fact obsessed. We have a thing about evidence. You should try it, really. It’ll be OK, and God won’t punish you for your lack of simple faith.

Oh and one last thing: please enough with that whole “race card” term.

Race, if you learn nothing else, is not a card. And this thing we’re talking about is not a game. It’s real life, where actions have real consequences. Your actions have consequences and we’re just counting them up. You don’t have to like that. But you can’t blame the calculator.

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