The Backlash Against Obama's Blackness
From Arizona to Ground Zero via birthers, the
Republicans are riding a wave of white
resentment. It's reckless and frightening
By Dan Kennedy
August 24, 2020
The August madness into which America has descended is
about several things. It's about the still-sputtering
economy, of course, and the fear it engenders. It's
about xenophobia, never far below the surface. And it's
about a rightwing media-political complex that plays on
the public's ignorance.
But there's a unifying theme that few wish to
acknowledge. What we are witnessing at the moment is
the full, ugly furore of white backlash, aimed directly
and indirectly at our first black president.
The case was made, inadvertently, in a Wall Street
Journal op-ed piece last week by Republican
congressman-turned-lobbyist Dick Armey, the godfather
of what might be called the Tea Party movement's
corporate wing. Armey and his co-author, Matt Kibbe,
proudly dated the birth of the Tea Party to 9 February
Barack Obama's $800m stimulus bill was not approved
until three days later. Which is my point. The most
notorious political movement of the Obama era, grounded
in racial fears if not flat-out racism, sprung into
being within weeks of Obama's inauguration, before he'd
had a chance to do anything, really. If Obama was for
it, they were against it.
The Tea Party winter and spring of 2009 led to the
"death panels" of summer, and to rightwing hero Glenn
Beck's declaration that the president harboured "a
deep-seated hatred for white people or the white
culture". Minor issues involving Acorn, a heretofore
obscure agency that helped register urban, mostly
minority voters, became a cause cAclA"bre. A little-known
African American bureaucrat, Van Jones, was hounded out
of office for having allegedly expressed offensive
views about the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001
- views he later said he had never voiced and did not
hold. Protesters spat upon and directed racial epithets
at African American congressmen as the healthcare
debate reached its climax.
And now we come to the full fruition of all this race-
baiting. According to the Pew Research Center for the
People and the Press, 18% of Americans - and 34% of
conservative Republicans - believe Obama is a Muslim,
proportions that have actually risen since the 2008
campaign. Another poll, by CNN/Opinion Research, finds
that 41% of Republicans believe Obama was definitely or
probably not born in the United States.
Far worse is the racial, ethnic and religious hatred
that has been unleashed, starting with the proposed
Islamic centre to be built in New York several blocks
from the devastated World Trade Centre site, which
Obama endorsed and then (to his discredit) unendorsed,
sort of, the next day.
Yes, we've all heard Newt Gingrich draw an analogy
between Muslims and Nazis, and we all know that more
than 60% of the public has expressed its opposition to
what is inevitably, and inaccurately, referred to as
the "Ground Zero mosque".
But to experience the pure fury, you have to watch this
video of a black man who had the temerity to walk
through a group of people protesting the centre. It is
a terrifying moment.
There is more - so much more. The anti-immigration law
approved in Arizona, which made a star of Republican
governor Jan Brewer, notwithstanding the inconvenient
truth that illegal immigration across the Mexico-
Arizona border is at its lowest level in years. The
political crucifixion of Shirley Sherrod. The
continuing phenomenon of Sarah Palin, who, at long
last, feels empowered enough to reach inside the
deepest, darkest recesses of her tiny little heart and
embrace a fellow rightwinger's repeated use of the N-
It's a frightening time to be an American and to watch
this insanity unfolding all around us. There's a sense
that anything could happen, none of it good.
What's all too easy to forget is that though Obama was
elected with the strongest majority of any president in
recent years, he received only 43% of the white vote.
Now, it's true that no Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in
1964 has won a majority of whites. But it's also true
that 100% of voters who would never support a black
presidential candidate cast their ballots for someone
other than Obama. Now they're roaming the countryside,
egged on by the Republican party and the Tea Party and
Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, looking for new objects on
which to unload their bitterness.
The traditional media, built as they are on the notion
of fair-minded coverage of equally responsible, equally
reasonable political forces, can barely process what's
going on. You literally cannot understand the current
moment without watching the political satirists Jon
Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But, hey, they're only
Not that there's anything new about the Republican
party's playing racial politics. Richard Nixon was
elected in 1968 on the basis of his infamous "southern
strategy", designed to appeal to white voters alienated
by the historic civil-rights legislation shepherded
through Congress by Lyndon Johnson. Ronald Reagan
kicked off his 1980 campaign against the incumbent
president, Jimmy Carter, in Philadelphia, Mississippi,
where three civil-rights workers had been murdered, by
invoking the toxic phrase "states' rights".
As the economy slides into another trough, with no
prospect of another stimulus passing political muster,
it's only going to get worse.
Strangely, there are virtually no political observers
who hold out the prospect that the folks whom the right
has alienated will turn out to vote against the
Republicans this November. George W Bush, after all,
worked mightily to appeal to Latino voters. That's
gone. Bush even won 70% of the Muslim vote in 2000.
That's long gone.
The Republicans hope to ride the white backlash back to
power, and perhaps they will. But they may also find
that the hatred they have embraced will come back to
haunt them this November - and well beyond. For the
rest of us, though, the consequences of that hatred
have yet to play out
[Update: Glenn Beck criticised this commentary on his
Fox News programme on Wednesday evening. I have posted
the relevant excerpt and a brief response here:
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