I would like to believe that racism in America is only a long-gone sad episode in our national history, and that we are at last free of its shame. I am here not referring to some generic definition of racism, but to the racial bigotry that began with the coming of slavery and is still focused on African Americans. Certainly to a large extent we have become colorblind. And yet I believe there are still deeply imbedded pustules of racial prejudice that continue to affect attitudes and habits.
Instead of waiting until the end of this column, let me state my conclusion up front. I believe much of the hostility that has plagued President Obama is the result of a lingering racial prejudice. There are still pockets of bigotry that cannot accept a Black President, and that certain sectors of the Republican Party have taken advantage of this bitterness. It comes wrapped in different code names, but I’ll get to that shortly.
First, a bit of American history. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, bigotry basically remained the governing philosophy of the Democratic Party in the South. The former Confederacy was firmly lodged in Democratic hands. This party was the home of the Klan, the White Citizens Councils, and Jim Crow. The worst public bigots were US Senators from those States. The “Solid (Democratic) South” dissolved with the passage of a Civil Rights plank in the1948 Democratic platform, followed by Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and1965. The Dixiecrats, under Strom Thurmond, disavowed their Democratic roots and bitterly fought their former party and its northern and western blocs.
Richard Nixon realized that these disaffected Democrats might be easy pickings, and developed what became known as “the Southern Strategy.” Its fundamental plan was to capitalize on the lingering bigotry against African Americans by which the Republicans won victories in five of the formerly solid Democratic states in 1964 and 1968. The profoundly prejudiced Strom Thurmond delivered the Dixiecrats to his new political allegiance, and led the fight to forestall integration, which was sweeping much of the nation.
The Republican political wizard, Kevin Phillips, put it this way, “The more Negroes vote as democrats(sic) in the South, the sooner the Negrophobic whites will become Republicans.” “States’ Rights” became a code word for opposition to civil rights legislation. As far back at 1954, Lee Atwater, another Republican operative, opined, ”You can’t say nigger — that hurts you, backfires — so you say things like forced busing, states rights … This is much more abstract.”
Having lost the argument about voting rights for African Americans, in more recent years these same now solidly Republican state governments have sought to redesign their congressional districts in order to minimize black votes, which tended to go heavily Democratic.
“Stand your ground” is still another coded way to control what many white people think is the criminal mind of their African American neighbors. Trayvon Martin didn’t just happen to be African American, he was stalked because he was.
The vicious attack on the nutrition vouchers formerly called “food stamps,” is not so quietly aimed at so-called welfare mothers, who are falsely assumed to be largely Black.
Robertson’s “Duck Dynasty” racism may not be the norm in his part of the world, but it is not an isolated example of what goes on when nobody outside is listening.
Affirmative Action, which gave African Americans a way to make up for continued lost opportunites, inferior separate and unequal schools, blighted neighborhoods and invasive poverty, is being attacked in the conservative press and now in the courts. So you hear stories about how some deserving white person was denied admission to a university even through her/his academic record was better than that of an African American who was admitted, as if that is now the essence of racism.
And to top it off, the Supreme Court has effectively dismantled the Voting Rights Act by holding that its enforcement is no longer necessary.
Racism in America has not disappeared, it has simply gone underground. Anyone who really believes that among working-class white males President Obama’s color is not an issue is either naive or simply denying a political reality. The good news is that the United States is becoming less dominated by white males every year. Latinos, Asians and African Americans are increasingly a formidable political force. As long as red states fail to come to terms with this reality, they will lose political ground. That is just the way the arc of justice continues to bend.