THERE IS A sinister aspect of the attacks by the far right against President Barack Obama that does not sit well with me, and with a vast majority of African Americans and other ethnic minorities, no matter our political or ideological point of view.
To be sure, many people are routinely smeared and attacked by the right wing — name calling is common on Fox News and the rightist radio talk shows. What’s emerging today, however, is the virulent use of race and bigotry in a time which many believe to be a “post-racial” environment.
The objective of these reactionary forces is not simply to slander, but to shift public opinion toward efforts to roll back more gains of the civil rights era. For instance, it is expected that the Supreme Court will once again narrow the Voting Rights Act under the guise that the law is “no longer needed.”
During the election campaign, racists and rightists typically made fun of Obama’s name and Muslim origins (his father’s family) and charged that he wasn’t really born in the United States (some don’t consider Hawaii part of the country). While these attacks can be called “silly” as Obama likes to say, or can be dismissed as extreme, the Christmas CD that included a song entitled, “Barack the magic Negro,” is typical of the racism spit out daily by right wing pundits.
Of course, the true cynicism of the Republican Party today is seen in picking an African American, Michael Steele, as chair of the party and other Black faces. Yet as even Steele told GQ magazine in March, when asked, “Why do you think so few nonwhite Americans support the Republican Party right now?”
“’Cause we have offered them nothing! And the impression we have created is that we don’t give a damn about them or we just outright don’t like them.”
The spreading racist rhetoric serves as incitement to attack or worse by those who believe “Blacks” are taking over the country. Since Obama’s oath of office in January the racist violence and demagogy has gone over the top. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a significant uptick in racist chatter and threats against Obama, Blacks, Latinos and immigrants.
Not only African Americans are targeted. A report the Center released in April, “Under Siege: Life for Low Income Latinos in the South,” found “systemic discrimination against Latinos” that constituted “a civil rights crisis.” The report noted that “as a result of relentless vilification in the media, Latinos are targeted for harassment by racist extremist groups, some of which are directly descended from the old guardians of white supremacy.”
The growth of the Latino population — the fastest growing minority in the country — and the anti-immigrant attacks and racism directed at Sonia Sotomayor is no accident.
Sotomayor can point to more judicial experience than any person nominated to the court in 100 years! But the attack is not really about her qualifications, her writings or her judicial opinions, which in reality are as “moderate” and carefully nuanced as they come. Rather, it is the continuation of the blatant racism African Americans have suffered throughout history.
While some liberals may see this as the last gasps of a white male power structure that is in decline, the levers of economic and political domination remain mainly in the hands of white males. Power is never given up without a fight. The big mistake is to assume victory in the context of capitalist social relations, when the opposite is always possible.
The racist attacks on Obama, and now on Sotomayor, are rooted in an ideological driven hatred toward African Americans and Latinos rising to positions traditionally held by white males. This is one reason why a majority of Blacks, even those who may not like Obama’s “moderate” stance on most issues, continue to give him high support.
It is noteworthy that on most issues, including health care, Obama has shifted toward the center-right from his rhetorical campaign promises. On other civil rights issues such as affirmative action, Obama is silent.
On foreign policy the change is more style than substance, including his June speech to the Arab world in Cairo, Egypt, on Islam and the West. His criticism of Israel is in line with that of Clinton and previous administrations, including the first George Bush and Jimmy Carter.
And when Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, the first Puerto Rican and Latina, Sonia Sotomayor, was attacked he did defend her but with some mild criticism of his own. He said Sotomayor made a “poor choice of words” when she stated — truthfully! — that a Latina woman will likely be wiser than a white male when it comes to empathy to those who lived a life like hers. The fact that she grew up in a public housing project in the Bronx and was the top of her Ivy League class is irrelevant to the white men’s club opposing her and Obama.
The fact that the right thinks it can easily follow Rush Limbaugh in charging “reverse racism” — and get away with it because the president is Black — shows how emboldened these elements are becoming.
For African Americans who know their history, these verbal attacks if not answered can lead to real domestic terrorism — as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the 1960s, and the recent murder of pro-choice doctor George Tiller in Wichita, have shown, to say nothing of white mob actions and church burnings during the civil rights era and women’s health clinic bombings today.
While the current attack on justice Sotomayor is backfiring politically, the dangers persist. The failure of Obama to publically defend La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, only inspires the bigots to do more. The demagogues may begin as a small minority but their influence in religion, corporations and other institutions of the state can exert tremendous influence.
Legal setbacks to civil rights for minorities, and civil liberties for everyone, are a real danger. This is why today it is urgent for the left and progressives of all colors to push back to defend a president and other mainstream successful minorities who are under attack. It is in the interest of the discriminated minorities — African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans — especially to do so.
This doesn’t mean forgetting the differences we have with Obama on foreign policy and domestic issues like single payer health care, the need to prosecute the bankers who committed fraud and to nationalize industries like auto, insurance and banking.
But it would be a mistake to fall into a purely critical position which, simply because Obama is defending the interests of the military industrial complex and ruling elites — the Pentagon and Wall Street — fails to aggressively respond to the wave of bigotry and racism.
I for one, consider the racist attacks on Obama and Sotomayor — the mainstream elite of our communities — an attack on all ethnic minorities. It is time for progressives of all colors to join with broad coalitions to counter-mobilize now to push back the right. It can’t just be words. We know these communities can’t rely on the Democrats or government to do so.
“Respect,” like “Black and Brown Power” in the 1960s, is a powerful message. It can unite diverse points of view in an oppressed community. African Americans support Obama not because of complete agreement with his policies, but because it’s about time a Black was elected president.
The same is true for Latinos who support the first Latina on the Supreme Court A slapdown of the racism directed at Obama and Sotomayor is an important piece of a battle that is far from over. The clock can be turned back if it isn’t done.
ATC 141, July/August 2009