The Dangers of Racebaiting for Votes

I still can’t get over how chilling it was to Newt Gingrich dress down Juan Williams on live television. It brought me back to Invisible Man. It brought me back to Chester Himes. In fact, this is one of the oldest and most familiar refrains in American race relations. Gingrich didn’t actually say it, the you could hear the disdainful “Boy”  lurking just below the surface.

I’ve heard stories from my mother of the things that used to be perfectly acceptable to do and say to black people in Texas during the 1960s and 1970s. Suburban New Jersey in the 1990s and 200s was no racial paradise, but I can gladly say that I rarely if ever faced outright hostility because of my skin color (and, when I did, it was often from other black folks). That said, Daily Kos writer chaunceydevega hits all the important points in his post. Here is his description of Newt’s South Carolina racebaiting:

On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, under the Confederate flag, in the state of South Carolina, Gingrich defended his racist contempt for African Americans by putting Juan Williams, “that boy,” in his place. During the debate, Juan Williams had gotten uppity and was insufficiently deferential to Newt.

This dynamic was not lost on the almost exclusively white audience in attendance (nor on the white woman who congratulated Gingrich the following day for his “brave” deed). They howled with glee at the sight of a black man, one who dared to sass, being reminded of his rightful place at Newt’s knee. In another time, not too long ago, Juan Williams would have been driven out of town for such an offense, if he was lucky — the lynching tree awaited many black folks who did not submit to white authority.

The symbolism of Newt Gingrich’s hostility to black folks, on King’s birthday, and the personal contempt he demonstrated for Juan Williams, was a classic moment in contemporary Republican politics. This was the “scene of instruction,” when a black man was a proxy for a whole community, a stand-in for the country’s first black president, as Newt Gingrich showed just what he thinks about Barack Obama, specifically and about people of color, in general. In that moment, white conservatism’s contempt was palatable, undeniable and unapologetic.

This is reprehensible on so many levels, but for someone who was momentarily a serious candidate for President of the United States to so brazenly turn back the clock and publicly disrespect a black man to widespread cheers of the audience is creepy. In the late Octavia Butler’s Parable series (sadly never completed due to her untimely death), the President of the post-Apocalyptic United States is portrayed as a Texan who exploits ethnic anxieties and racial animosity to gain election to the Presidency of a rapidly disintegrating United States of America.

This rise of thinly-veiled racism as a legitimate tactic to gain votes in the GOP primary is something we all ought to be concerned about. The ongoing erosion of belief in the social-contract that makes American representative Democracy viable holds ill-portents for the future of the American state. If the Republican nominee for president should lose to President Obama, there will be a significant minority of newly radicalized activists from the right flank of the Republican Party whose sense of grievance and anger will be heightened at what they perceive to be an insufficiently representative government. While conservatives often cast events such as the assassination of Dr. George Tillman or the attack at the Holocaust museum as being perpetrated by “troubled individuals” with no connection to right-wing politics, who is to say what will happen if, despite all attempts to work “within” the political system, their hard work amounts to four more years of President Obama. All it takes a handful of pissed off and alienated individuals to perpetuate massive and terrible crimes. When people like Newt Gingrich legitimize those feelings on live television and the Republican establishment does little to prevent him from doing so and refuses to castigate him and others, it only stokes the flames of anger and resentment that are already boiling at a near fever pitch.

As Americans of all stripes have legitimate gripes with how our government and elites have run the country for the past several decades, convincing them to blame one another is a counterproductive and divisive strategy that fails to come to grips with the actual, deep problems that have infected our country and retarded any possibility for authentic reform and positive change. Instead, it continues the self-defeating and circular pattern of real and perceived social-cleavages making actual coalition building across communities impossible. It undermines the inherent trust that is a fundamental aspect of any successful democracy and opens the barn doors to more destructive boogeymen to pop up down the road. Boogeymen whose implications we cannot not even begin to predict, though perhaps Octavia Butler’s apocalyptic novels are as good a place as any to start looking.