One of my favorite moments from last year’s presidential campaign was when Former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama. Not because I particularly cared who Mr. Powell thought we should vote for, and not because I agree with the man or thought his endorsement, that late in the game, was really going to change anything. What I liked about that moment was what he had to say about the Tin-Foil Hat Brigade’s claims that Mr. Obama was a Muslim. To which Mr. Powell said, “So what?” “Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
And I’ve been having the same reaction lately in this health care debate as the Tin-Foil Hat Brigade marches to town halls to scream about Pres. Obama being a socialist. I had that same reaction, thinking to myself, if Pres. Obama’s “socialism” is little more than the type of health care enjoyed by most of Northern Europe and Canada, who cares?
So I was going to write a blog piece about what’s wrong with socialism, or, rather, what isn’t wrong with socialism. But then I got to thinking. White folks have been trotting out the socialism label for a long time. In the broader context of American history, any attempt to give people of color their fair share of liberty and economic security is often branded as socialism or communism. Coupled with the fact that Pres. Obama’s health care plan (and let’s be clear; it’s not really his health care plan as much as it’s a plan worked out between his vague policy directives and three different committees in the House and Senate) isn’t really socialism at all, there must be something else going on here. The health care debate, and charges that Pres. Obama is a socialist or a Nazi, have nothing to do with socialism: it’s about Pres. Obama being a black man.
The rhetoric of socialism has often been trotted out throughout our nation’s history in a blatant attempt to derail any challenges to white hegemony. Clearly, the Tin-Foil Hat Brigade can’t simply say “veto this health plan because a black man is behind it.” That sort of overt racism doesn’t work. (Not even the more ignorant form of racism exemplified by Glenn Beck really seems to be working, as evidenced by the lack of advertising support.) When white racists want to be express themselves while simultaneously shielding themselves from criticism, employing code works works pretty. And socialism has been a good code word for a long time.
Tim Wise makes a compelling argument here, one I’ve seen hints of elsewhere over the last couple of months, and one that will come as no surprise to many of you. The argument is simple. Government programs that seek to help people, particularly people of color, are routinely rebranded as “redistribution” by folks on the right; and this line of reasoning and fear bares a striking similarity to the fear white folks have that black men are going to come and steal their stuff. Only this time, that scary black man is the man in the White House. Moreover, Mr. Wise points out that the last, true socialist governments in this world are countries of color; so the rhetoric of Pres. Obama-as-socialist is part of a larger rhetoric that seeks to equate him with those regimes and turn him into “the other” not difficult due to the fact that he’s already a person of color. This rhetoric is not as effective when talking about our previous, forty-three white presidents, despite the fact that many of them had enacted similar and sometimes more far-reaching government spending and entitlement programs.
Here’s the kicker:
By allowing the right to throw around terms like socialist to describe the President and socialism to describe his incredibly watered-down, generally big business friendly approach to health care, while not recognizing the memetic purpose of such arguments is to ensure that the right will succeed in their demonization campaign. To respond by pointing out how the plan really isn’t socialist, or how Obama really isn’t a socialist misses the point, which was never, in the end, about economic systems or philosophies: none of which the folks on the right raising the most hell show any signs of understanding anyway. This noise is about race. It is about “othering” a President who is seen as a symbol of white dispossession: dispossession of white hegemony, white entitlement, white expectation, and white power, unquestioned and unchallenged from the darker skinned other. This is what animates the every move of the angry masses, individual exceptions notwithstanding. Unless the left begins pushing back, and insisting that yes, the old days are gone, white hegemony is dead, and deserved its demise, and that we will all be better off for it, the chorus of white backlash will only grow louder. So too will it grow more effective at dividing and conquering the working people who would benefit all of them from a new direction.
By claiming that “white hegemony is dead,” Mr. Wise is merely pointing out an obvious fact for nearly two hundred years, the folks who have had the most access to and actual political power in this country were white men. Over the last fifty years, this hegemony has slowly eroded. And while that can be a scary scary thing for some, it’s not the harbinger of the end of American values; it’s a natural consequence of progressive cultural change. Moreover, it’s a good thing that everyone has access to and actual political power regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation because the United States, at the end of the day, is supposed to be a democracy, and the only way to achieve that lofty ideal is to invite everyone everyone to the table.
But there’s an additional problem here, and a call to action. By “dividing and conquering the working people who would benefit” from a new health care system, Mr. Wise reminds us that this is something the right has become quite good at preying on white people’s fears to make them vote for “values” rather than vote for their own common good. The fact of the matter is that working and middle-class people, regardless of color, stand to gain the most from a government run entitlement and spending program like health care. But by fueling the fires of racial fear, the folks who stand to benefit from this program may actually cause it’s demise to their own detriment in addition to the detriment of people of color.
Some of you may be sick of hearing about race from me. Others may be of the impression that once you bring up the “race card,” conversation stops. I firmly disagree. The conversation is always about race. And the only hope we have at pushing for a truly democratic ideal is to ensure that the racist bull shit being spewed by the Tin-Foil Hat Brigade is labeled as such. It’s only then that their underlying fears can be exposed for what they are and effectively neutralized. And it’s only when their racist vitriol is neutralized that we can get some actual work done.