Some friends and I have been discussing an opinion column from the Washington Post on Facebook on the context of the recent events in Ferguson, MO. The author’s argument that racism is the context of the death of young Michael Brown and the grand jury’s absolution of his killer this week seems to this observer to be rather obvious.
And yet, as Gunnar Myrdal observed nearly 70 years ago in his landmark study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, racism is America’s original sin, an existential stain on our national character and a powerful element in our nation’s psyche. In a nation that prides itself on being the “home of the free and the land of the brave,” racism serves as a limitation if not refutation of our vaunted freedom (with liberty and justice for whom?) and a festering sore of denial that belies our self-congratulatory bravery.
Many Headed Hydra
Racism is a hydra with many heads. Some of the more obvious ones have been cut off. We don't see signs that read "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" in restaurants anymore that were common in my youth in Central Florida, code language for Whites Only. And we don't see white and colored waiting rooms at the bus station and white and colored restrooms and water fountains. Those more obvious manifestations of racism were long ago dealt with through legislation and court decisions.
But the less obvious heads of the hydra are still alive and even more toxic than ever. Our schools are actually more segregated than in the mid-1960s when court ordered desegregation dismantled dual school systems. This de facto resegregation has been accomplished by virtue of the combination of test-driven grading of schools and diversion of public moneys to private and charter schools with selective admissions.
Race also remains the primary correlate to poverty and the determinant of who recovered from the ongoing recession and who got left behind. Race figures largely in voter suppression laws and gerrymandered redistricting effectively shutting people of color out of any meaningful role in electoral politics. This virtually assures explosions of rage like that of Ferguson.
These aspects of race are subtle. They are the refutations of the self-congratulatory persona that Americans wish to maintain that we have somehow dealt with our race problem. They have deep roots that run back 400 years to the Middle Passage and the chattel slavery that awaited those who survived it. And their ongoing presence in our culture is insured largely by the intentional denial of those of us who refuse to recognize racism where it exists and, even more powerfully, in the unconscious racism that virtually all of us are subject to as products of a historically racist culture.
As my classmate from seminary said, "In America, we breathe racist air." We don't have to like that assessment, in fact we shouldn't, but we must make a good faith effort to come to grips with it if we value the ongoing existence of the American experiment.
Unrecognized Racism and the Mixed Race President
The subtleties of racism are particularly difficult to see – and thus the most powerful in effect – in the case of President Obama. The backlash against this mixed race man’s election was fast and furious. It has also largely been both consciously and unconsciously racist.
The ongoing non-controversy about his birth status and his religion were the first indicators of this. Obama wasn’t a true American because his father was Kenyan (and thus, black). Thus he couldn’t have been born in America, he must have been born in Africa (and thus, black). Even the production of his Hawaiian birth certificate failed to end this non-debate, particularly on the infotainment Fox channel and the echo chambers of the Limbaughs and Becks of the right wing bubble. (Besides, we all know Hawaiians aren’t really white).
Moreover, his middle name was Hussein! That’s a Muslim name (and thus, not white, here conflated with Christian)! Never mind that his church, a UCC congregation in Chicago, is quintessentially American, the progeny of the Puritan colonists of New England. His pastor, outspoken about racism in America, has been branded everything from a communist to a terrorist precisely because he dares to speak pointedly about racism (and he’s black!). Thus, Obama must be a Muslim terrorist by association (and he’s black!).
In all these cases, Americans perhaps unconsciously conflated notions of being American with being white and Christian (more specifically Protestant). But this is only the tip of the iceberg of the many ways race is exploited in talking about Barrack Obama. The most powerful aspect of racism in constructing Obama in the imaginations of white Americans is not who he is (because after all, he’s half white like us) but rather what he represents.
Republican strategies to exploit race in electoral politics have been thinly veiled since Nixon’s Southern Strategy of the 1960s and Reagan’s Welfare Queen of the 1980s. Obama was elected in 2008 on a tide of multicultural and multigenerational diversity. Obama represents the future of an America which will be minority/majority by mid-century (Florida should attain that status next year) and thus an America in which WASP hegemony is no longer the foregone conclusion.
The backlash we saw in the elections the first of this month reflects the fears of a white America that sees its dominance slipping away. That’s who came to the polls, in part because of a highly effective campaign to depress voter turnout in non-white voters through voter repression laws and the most expensive campaign in history which pounded the electorate with negative advertising. It was an election in which the name Obama became an epithet that stood in for Ebola Fever (that African disease) and illegal immigrants (who aren’t white). In effect, for many Americans, “Obama” became the socially respectable shorthand for any number of bogeymen not the least of which was “nigger.”
Of course, it is neither fair nor accurate to suggest that any and all opposition to Barrack Obama is based in racism, either conscious or unconscious. Like all presidents, he has made mistakes and while he has the potential to be a far-sighted visionary, he has too often proven to be a naïve strategist and a lousy politician in a Washington that has devolved into a Machiavellian free-for-all with little time for or interest in the common good (What a quaint notion!). Worse yet, his administration has evinced some of the same suzerainty to Wall Street corporate interests that defined his predecessor.
It is quite possible to oppose the President’s politics and not do so solely or even predominately out of a racist animus, conscious or otherwise. Given the power of the culture industry to construct both people and their politics, Obama is seen by many to be liberal even as many of his policies have proven to be quite conservative (drones pounding countries with which we are not at war, deporter-in-chief of undocumented immigrants, bailout of Wall Street but not Main Street). In an electorate which repeatedly reveals itself to be poorly informed consumers waiting for constructed choices to be provided them rather than well informed responsible citizens actively engaging the electoral process, it’s not hard to see how largely meaningless ideological constructions like this could have staying power.
On the other hand, the construction of Obama into various caricatures by his opponents has been, from the very beginning, tinged with a palpable racism. The effectiveness of those caricatures and their ability to motivate voters by fear is borne out by the exit polling data of the last election. It is there for those who have ears to hear, eyes to see and the courage to face the reality.
The question is not whether racism continues to play a major role in American politics. Rather it is simply whether we are willing to confront our demons, the sickness of the American soul that Gunnar Myrdal diagnosed seven decades ago.
The events of Ferguson suggest the answer is “Not yet.”
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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