socialism and racism

mlk as a communist: from history is a weapon, not my image

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.

7 thoughts on “socialism and racism

  1. Great post. And whoa, Tim Wise certainly knows how to cut to the heart of the matter! As I was reading your take on this underlying message of the “socialism” label, I kept thinking about how white (and some blacks) responded to writers like Langston Hughes when he tried to use his art to bring attention to the “Scottsboro 9” in 1931. In that case the Communist party actually did try to help, but one of the side effects was that the term “communism” became associated with outsider, trouble-maker, etc.

  2. Yeah, Tim Wise just jumps right in, unapologetically.

    Wow. The Scottsboro 9. Yeah, that’s tricky isn’t it? When there really is a “communist” connection? That gives me food for thought, a little bit of history I’d not thought of in a while that may come in handy this semester. Thanks!

  3. Excellent post! A lot of people don’t know the meaning of socialism from a hole in the ground. And when you bring up issues like public schools, roads, police depts. etc, they have no idea how to respond – or they just get louder. Which points back to your argument, and wise’s argument, that race is driving the intensity of backlash here. I think you would see some protest and madness regardless of who was president (as we saw with Clinton). But it’s the level and intensity of the current protests that point to something more just fear of “a government take over.” Race is the fuel of that intensity.

  4. While I don’t doubt that some of the people involved in protesting Obamacare are racists, to tar the entire movement with that brush is the same kind of sweeping generalization of a particular group that is at the heart of racist thinking. Its also a great example of how a person’s pet obsessions (identity politics) cloud a person’s thinking. Frankly, I find it sloppy and intellectually lazy. Rather than actually address the concerns that these folks have and counter their arguments, you simply brand them as racists and dismiss them. They can’t possibly have any real reasons for being upset- its just a vast conspiracy to oppose whatever Obama wants to do because he is black. Ridiculous. I guarantee that you’d see the same kind of rage if Obama was white. Obama supports a wide range of policies besides national health care that enrage conservatives, such as the expansion of abortion rights, gun control, and so forth. Throw into the mix a terrible economy, democratic control of the house and senate, and the rush to pass health care reform as quickly as possible (if Obama had his way, he’d have signed something by now), and you have a recipe for right wing rage.

    The article you linked to pointed out how different opposition to national health care was during the Clinton presidency. During that time, our country had a decent economy, and Republicans had control of the house and senate. Opposition was widespread, including democrats who had their own versions of the bill. It was a doomed project. The current bill

    When I consider how loud and often destructive antiwar and antiglobalist protests have been, these townhall meetings are pretty civil. I think that for the past 40 years or so, civic protest has been the domain of the left, and now that they have their man in the Whitehouse, they don’t know how to deal with losing their hegemony of it. The right isn’t supposed to protest, shouldn’t they just line up like good little soldiers and support the president no matter what he says?

    By the way, that the fellow at the townhall in Phoenix with the AK-47 was black. I suppose he is just a self-loathing Uncle Tom or something, like all the other black conservative folks.

  5. Oh David! You got me in a good mood!

    First and foremost, never in this piece did I ever say that the people protesting against Pres. Obama’s policies are racists. If you read this piece carefully you’ll notice that what I said is that the rhetoric of the Tin Foil Hat Brigade is racist bull shit. Rhetoric, in case you don’t feel like pulling that dictionary off the shelf, has to do with larger cultural discourses that are enacted by society at large and while they may reflect certain individual values do not necessarily reflect all people’s values. For example, growing up in LA, my grandmother routinely took us to a restaurant called “Little Black Sambos,” a restaurant themed on a book that was based on early 20th century racist stereotypes of black folks. The restaurant employed racist rhetoric in order to turn a profit. It might be that everyone from company’s CEO down to the busboys were all a bunch of racist dimwits. But I doubt it. I’m sure they all had far more quotidian motives. Like feeding their families. Doesn’t change the fact that the rhetoric of Little Black Sambo is racist.

    Since we’re using Big Words, I went to the trouble of linking “hegemony” to a dictionary up in my post for a reason. That reason is to point out that I’m using hegemony correctly, à la, hegemony: [noun] leadership or dominance, esp. by one country or social group over others. Now, I may be splitting hairs here, but I don’t think one can have a hegemony over protest movements to the extent that protest movements are, by definition, enacted by people who are being dominated by other and therefore have no dominance, hence the reason they’re protesting in the firs place.

    But let’s be clear. I don’t give a damn if people on the right want to protest. Let them protest. Let them protest till they’re blue in the face. I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is what they’re protesting about (i.e., an trumped fear of an imagined socialism) and the rhetoric they’re using. Period.

    But let’s be clear about something else. To imply, as you do, that the only people who have protested over the last 40 years are folks on the left is to blatantly disregard history. The image I’ve included with this post has a purpose. It is to demonstrate that members of that hegemonic group (i.e., white folks in power) since the end of Reconstruction have always protested any attempt by progressives in this country to change the status quo. Maybe erecting billboards of MLK at a communist training school isn’t violent. But, oh, I don’t know, lynch mobs sure as hell are.

    I don’t know anything about “that fellow” in Phoenix or his interior state of mind. I do know he wasn’t the only armed person there that day. I also know that I never said anything about militia groups or people with guns in my post.

    That plus your use of the word “Obamacare” makes me wonder whether or not you really want to have a conversation here or if you’re not just interested in asserting your own point of view. I appreciate that you’ve expressed yourself in a, generally, respectful manner, but I don’t see how an armed black man or people disagreeing with the Clintons changes the fact that by letting health care fail, we all lose, which is the real problem. By upholding the status quo we ensure that big business and capitalism are still able to make a buck. Libertarian principles of small government will not serve us when we want to send our kids to school or need to call the fire department or hope that the U.S. Armed Services will keep us safe from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.

  6. My little rant was a bit heated and snarky, and I apologize. Its just that as someone who sympathizes with much, but not all, of what the “tin foil hat brigade” believes, I bristle when these views are summarily dismissed as being racist in origin. I may be dense, but I simply fail to see how Obama’s race has much if anything to do with the attitudes or rhetoric that the right uses against his health care plan and other policies. While socialism may not be an entirely accurate portrayal of what Obama’s various policies represent, I can’t see that it’s code talk about his race, or the race of those who will benefit from these policies. There are actual principles involved, and to just say that it’s a bunch of racist bullshit does not help the conversation or promote any understanding of what folks on the right are upset about.

    Obviously, conservatives have opposed progressives from the beginning. Conservatives hold traditional values while progressives seek to add new values or change existing ones. Conservatives, however, do not have a lock on racist policies. The eugenics movement was in fact a progressive movement. Margaret Sanger was no mere supporter of women’s rights, she was also a staunch eugenicist that saw abortion and birth control as a means of lowering the population of “less desirable” races. Her speeches at KKK rallies are well documented. Does that make Planned Parenthood a racist organization? Is the rhetoric of “population control” racist, because most of the population control efforts are in places like Africa, India, and South America, and domestically in the inner city? I just think that it is better to debate the issues at hand, rather than trying to suss out a sinister ulterior motive for why people believe what they do.

  7. Well, I was certainly snarky in my rebuttal; snarkiness on the Internet is always fun, if dangerous.

    I would certainly agree that conservatives don’t have the racism market cornered. I can’t speak directly to the (historical) eugenics movement because it’s not something I’ve spent any time researching or reading about. But I would be willing to bet that the rhetoric of “population control” — if that rhetoric was employed to “control” a “population” of non-whites — may indeed be a racist rhetoric. Planned Parenthood? I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are folks out there who think PP is racist. I don’t, but I’m not closed to hearing someone’s argument on the matter.

    But more to the point, I’ve said time and again in this blog that when I use the terms racism and racist, I am very very rarely talking about individual people. I have met very few racists in my life; and public racists are usually pretty easy to spot (i.e., the David Dukes of the world). When I talk about racism I am almost always talking about it from the perspective of cultural criticism or sociology. From this point of view, racism has more to do with how we, unfortunately, live in a racialized society that treats people differently based on their ethnic or racial identity, a society that highlights race and differences between people, and one whose larger rhetoric and discourse — as evidenced most strikingly in our media — normalizes the white experience and casts non-white experiences as “other.” As a consequence, we are all conditioned to “see” race. All of us. Myself included. Because of this social conditioning, people enact different social behaviors, often unconsciously; at times, the way we enact our conditioning comes across as racist or sexist or homophobic regardless of whether or not we, as individuals, consider ourselves to be racist or sexist or homophobic.

    So, having said all of that, it seems to me that many people in this country enact a racist discourse without intending to do so and without consciously being aware it. Since they themselves don’t think of themselves as racists (and might not be), they don’t use overtly racist language but instead replace that language with the aforementioned code words. Those code words we put in place decades ago (probably by actual racists) and have become part of the larger cultural discourse. (Think about how until recently people used masculine pronouns when referring to someone whose gender was unclear. This is arguably a sexist use of language to the extent that it normalizes the male perspective; but someone who uses language this way may not be him or herself a sexist.) So here we are in a place in time when people who are afraid of change often cry “socialist,” a word that was appropriated by actual racists to scare people away from progressive change.

    By contextualizing the rhetoric of “Obama is a socialist” in the larger history of race and racism in this country, I hope that we could easily dismiss not the people themselves nor their concerns but their rhetoric which would allow us to talk about the real, substantive issues which sure as hell aren’t “death panels” or socialism.

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