Sunday, October 19, 2008

White Racists for McCain/Palin

In what ways is the rise of racist behavior among McCain/Palin supporters the same racism that one might have seen in the U.S. in the 1980s, the 60s, or even earlier? That’s one of the questions I’ve been asking myself lately while simultaneously wishing that this campaign season would get itself over with a little more quickly. It’s not a question I have a complete set of answers to (obviously) so much as a set of observations and speculations. I’m not trying here to take up the issues of structural or institutional racism but to look at ways in which racist attitudes showing themselves in this election season seem like or unlike past manifestations.

What’s new is calling a Presidential candidate a terrorist and associating African Americans and other minority groups with terrorism. This seems very much a post September 11 phenomenon.

What’s new also is the degree of fear and anger at the idea that a black man might be President. Of course that’s new because it’s never really been a possibility before.

What’s not new is the anger of economically marginal whites at finding themselves competing for jobs with minority groups and sometimes losing out and believing that such a situation is unacceptable. White people’s feelings about entitlement seem pretty similar to what they have often been.

What’s also not new is the lack of jobs and loss of opportunity in rural areas. That said, there’s certainly a new cycle going on in U.S.’ boom and bust tendencies that has different features than earlier. I’m not sure what those features are exactly, but they have to do with what kinds of jobs have vanished and what few kinds remain. With most industrial and agricultural jobs long gone, what remains other than low wage retail work and various small business attempts at making a few dollars? Still, that particular change isn’t all that new, although at the moment it may be particularly severe.

What is new is the degree to which the white middle class is disappearing in many small city and rural environments. The degree of division between a few elites and a struggling underclass is less hidden, while more small cities begin to resemble abandoned urban areas.

What is also new is the increasing number and types of minority group citizens in small city and rural areas. This demographic shift may suggest that even rural whites now encounter more types of minority groups than in the past.

What’s new also is the degree to which even racists often seem to understand that being labeled a racist is a bad thing. Racists are more quick than ever before to deny that they are racists and to make a public ruckus if anybody calls them racist. As unpleasant as that phenomenon is, it indicates a profound shift in U.S. history. Even many racists grant that racism is wrong and so in some instances have to struggle with how best to code racist language so that it doesn’t seem transparently racist.

But does the above also suggest that there may be less white racists than ever before? That’s something I don’t know.

What’s new also is the relationship between Americans and material goods. Of course if one compares standards of housing and kinds of available material goods between 2008 and the 1960s and further back, it would be immediately clear how many more material goods are available to economically marginal people than were 50 years ago. But, for instance, the explosion of the price of gas means that it’s more difficult to afford to drive a car, if you actually have one, so that a basic element of rural life seems endangered. And people are less likely to own their own homes and more likely to not be able to afford the homes they have recently tried to purchase.

What’s not new is the degree of scapegoating and its perpetual illogic: that minority groups are to blame for the problems of white people, rather than the financial and market practices of people who often may have a similar cultural background.

This list is hardly complete. Certainly I’m not talking here about the more subtle, sometimes even unconscious racism that continues to pervade U.S. culture: the identification of behavioral traits with race and racially coded behavioral preferences, etc. The effects of the less visible racism practiced by comfortably well-off suburban and urban people is also much harder to recognize and describe. And it’s difficult to know the degree to which any of these things will finally affect the voting on November 4. Still, it has been interesting (as well as troubling, obviously) this election season to witness the ways racism itself changes in relationship to other changing social dynamics.


tmorange said...

thought-provoking post, mark. here's my rundown on your rundown (given of course that i was an infant when our country was going through its most turbulant grappling with these issues)...

1) clearly the fear is that obama is "other," "not like you and me," etc. how much of that otherness is that he's black, too black, not black enough, too muslim, too liberal, pals around with terrorists, is all very murky. in other words there are gradations and shadings here irreducible to skin color. the tactic seems to be: paint him with a broad brush and the full spectrum of fear in order to play into whatever any individual voter fears he most.

2) i'm not sure we're seeing the same old poor white anger at job-competing minorities, in part because we don't want the shitty burger-flipping jobs that many minorities are willing to take. people understand wall street bailouts and ceo golden parachutes across racial and economic lines i think, which may be in part why obama's campaign has excelled as the economy has soured.

3) lost jobs and opportunities are not exclusive to rural areas. obviously cities are hurting too. i think where the middle classes are thriving now if anywhere are, like, the exurbs or whatever. large swaths of urban cleveland and lorain ohio are quite empty, but it's between them in what used to be farmland that the jobs and new building are at. or, say, NW s carolina (spartansburg) where foreign auto companies have set up shops with good-paying jobs.

4) the old boom-bust cycles, i think, do not really obtain in an economy such as ours where manufacturing has given way almost entirely to finance. we don't make money out of material goods anymore, we make money off an array of increasingly arcane and rarified financial transactions, and largely virtual and future ones at that. and this is partly why our regulatory system does not work: a) it's nearly non-existent, and b) what does exist is completely outmoded and irrelevant to global finance as practiced today.

5) not only do we not make anything any more, we don't BUY anything either: we charge it and then pay off one credit card balance with another.

6) i think the closeting of racism, and racists' awareness of and response to it, is something that's been underway for decades. and that has meant, yes, the manifestations are more implicit, the codings more complex. and hence...

7) i disagree when you say "What’s not new is the degree of scapegoating and its perpetual illogic" -- i think it's precisely the degree of the scapegoating AND it's illogic that are new, unparalleled, and frankly jaw-dropping in some cases. they are fed in large part by the waning of "objectivity" in journalism and the balkanization of media products served up into ideologically pre-digested chunklets. the falsehoods libels and smears being issued from up and down the right-wing chain of command are commensurate with the fear of terrorism it has been this president's sustained policy to stoke. the intensity of the lies increases in direct proportion to the speed at which conservatives watch as their ideology self-immolates on its own fraudulence.

mark wallace said...

Hey Tom:

Re #7, if you think the degree of public racial scapegoating is worse now than ever before, try watching Birth of a Nation (1915), which helped in the Ku Klux Elan explosion of the late teens, or remembering the Willie Horton case (was that 19888, anyone? I think so). The history of racial scapegoating in the U.S. began quickly after the end of the Civil War and has never ceased. What's jaw-dropping, in a a good way, is that constant attacks on non-whites are now considered a problem sometimes in the U.S. instead of a constant and entirely acceptable feature of our political discourse. But here you do point to something that I hadn't thought of: this year's election has featured a renewal of that discourse, one that has played a larger role than it has in the last few elections anyway. But unparalleled, no. In relation to the parallels. this year's last grab for racist straws haven't yet gotten anywhere significant at all. But they might, I grant. They might.

tmorange said...

i don't think i meant "worse than ever in the nation's history" but "worse than i've ever personally witnessed." willie horton was blatant but also isolated. i'm talking about a systematic and sustained level of white noise (no pun intended).

i think this year's grab has made significant headway, but it's my hope that the electorate will soundly reject this nonsense. by a landslide. possible, but far from guaranteed...


mark wallace said...

Thanks, Tom. That helps me understand better what you're saying. Obviously we need to wait a few weeks, but yes, I agree, an optimistic (huh?) possibility here is that unlike the Willie Horton issue, which really did play a big role, along with that stupid tank photo, in sinking Dukakis (and what a bummer of a candidate he was, by the way), this year's race-baiting may actually cement the loss of the election. Obviously it's too early to say that though, so let's wait and see..

tmorange said...

a useful latimes column on the matter....t.

tmorange said...

also checkout this....t.