The GOP's Blatant Racism
by Gary Younge
January 10, 2012
This article appeared in the January 30, 2012 edition of
In the British original of The Office the main
protagonist, David Brent (US reincarnation: Michael
Scott), wistfully recalls a tender moment during his
favorite war film, The Dam Busters, involving the hero
pilot, Wing Commander Guy Gibson. "Before he goes into
battle, he's playin' with his dog," says Brent.
"Nigger," says his sidekick, Gareth (Dwight in the
States), recalling with glee the name of the dog.
Brent flinches, eager to mitigate the slur. "Yeah!. it
was the '40s," he says, "before racism was bad."
The problem with the illusion of a postracial society is
that at almost any moment the systemic nature of racism,
its legacy, methods and impulses, might have to be
rediscovered and restated as though for the first time.
If the problem has gone away, those who point it out or
claim to experience it are, by definition, living in the
past. Those who witness it in action must be imagining
things. Those who practice it are either misunderstood
So it has been these past few weeks with Republicans on
the stump, campaigning as though in a time "before
racism was bad," when Rick Perry's family had a hunting
lodge known as Niggerhead and white people could just
run their mouth without consequences. In Sioux City,
Iowa, Rick Santorum was asked a question about foreign
influence on the economy. As he meandered incoherently
through his answer, he came out with this gem:
"I don't want to make black people's lives better by
giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them
the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
"Right," said one audience member, as another woman
"And provide for themselves and their families,"
Santorum added, to applause. "The best way to do that is
to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling
The black population of Sioux City is 2.9 percent. In
Woodbury County, in which Sioux City sits, 13 percent of
the people are on food stamps, an increase of 26 percent
since 2007, with nine times as many whites as blacks
Just a few days later, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Newt
Gingrich told a crowd, "I will go to the NAACP
convention and explain to the African-American community
why they should demand paychecks.[instead of] food
stamps." African-Americans make up 0.8 percent of
Plymouth's population. Food stamp use in Grafton County
is 6 percent-a 48 percent increase since 2007.
And then there's Ron Paul, who would like to repeal
civil rights legislation and who once claimed that
"order was only restored in LA [after the Rodney King
riots] when it came time for the blacks to pick up their
welfare checks." Or at least newsletters bearing his
name did-newsletters he paid for and once defended. Paul
now claims that they had nothing to do with him.
The point here is not to accuse the GOP hopefuls of
racism. That would be too predictable and has been done
with great effect elsewhere, prompting denials that are
beyond pathetic. Ron Paul, it turns out, has been
passing as Malcolm X. "I'm the only one up here and the
only one [including] in the Democratic Party that
understands true racism in this country is in the
judicial system," he said. Santorum's defense, on the
other hand, is that he temporarily lost the ability to
speak English. The best he could come up with, after
several attempts, was that he really said "blah" people.
Neither is the point to show how Republicans leverage
racial anxiety for electoral effect. According to the
Agriculture Department, more whites use food stamps than
blacks and Latinos combined. By coloring poverty and
food insecurity black, even in areas where few black
people exist, Republicans hope to spin food stamps as a
racial entitlement program, diverting attention from
their attempts to balance the budget on the stomachs of
the poor. Republicans want to slash spending on food
stamps by around 20 percent and in June voted to cut the
WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which
provides assistance to poor pregnant women, mothers and
children, by 10 percent. All of this is important. But
efforts to encourage whites to identify with their race
rather than their class, as though the two could be
separated and then ranked, is an age-old ploy perfected
first by Southern Democrats.
No, what feels new here is the collapse of the broad
consensus about racial discourse in electoral politics
since the '60s. The Nixon Strategy dictated that racism
would continue to be an integral part of electoral
campaigns, but those who used it would work in code.
Reagan visited Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three
civil rights workers were murdered, to talk about
"states' rights" and went on to trash "welfare queens";
George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University; his dad
had "Willie" Horton (the architect of that ad is now on
Team Romney). The point was to frame a politics that
scapegoated blacks in a manner that racists would
recognize but that would also provide plausible
deniability against accusations of racism.
Today it seems as though Republicans who might be put
off by racist rhetoric are in short supply, as though
the presence of a black president has left them blind to
their own sophism. No candidate's polling numbers nose-
dived after his remarks; there was precious little in
the way of mainstream media frenzy-as recently as 2006,
George Allen's "Macaca moment" cost him his Senate seat.
There is no parsing these statements. They are what they
are. We are back to the days when conservatives feel
comfortable calling a spade a spade. Some commentators
have described it as a dog whistle: a call set to a tone
that rallies some without disturbing others-a special
frequency for the inducted. But this is no dog whistle.
This is Wing Commander Gibson taking his mutt for a walk
and calling him loudly and fondly by name.
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