What race has to do with it

2012-10-13 10:35

Colour still as great a factor as it has ever been in US politics.

Say what you like about Wally Hudson, he knows his audience.

For months, the chairperson of Virginia’s Mecklenburg County Republican Committee displayed pictures of Barack Obama as a drug dealer, witch doctor and caveman on his party’s Facebook page, resisting calls from higher-ups to remove them.

“We know our regular readers, who are good conservatives,” Hudson told The Washington Post.

The presence of a black president has posed a real challenge in self-control for many Republicans, who were raised on a diet of welfare queens and Willie Horton, a convicted felon who, while serving a life sentence for murder, was the beneficiary of a Massachusetts weekend “furlough program”, which he used to rape and rob.

And when their opponent is a black man with a surname that rhymes with “Osama”, the temptation is just too great.

During Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s ill-fated trip to the UK in July, his adviser claimed he appreciates the “special relationship” more than
Obama because he is “part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage”.

This while Newt Gingrich insists that Obama is “not a real president” and Donald Trump wants to see another birth certificate.

These statements violate the most important tenet of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy: plausible deniability.

In his diary, Nixon’s chief of staff Bob Haldeman described the operational blueprint for a new electoral landscape built on bigotry: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Nixon told him.

“The key is to devise a system that recognises that while not appearing to.”

For some time now, there has been precious little to be gained by attacking a candidate’s race in elections on a national level, and plenty to lose.

And that’s truer today than ever. Polls indicate people are far less likely to vote for a Mormon than an African-American.

Indeed, Americans feel more comfortable with a black man as commander in chief than with a black man having a relationship with a white woman.

But on every metric concerning how easy it is for voters to relate to candidates, Obama has always scored better than his white opponents.

This has led some to argue that race is not a factor in this election.

“Racists, real racists, are so insignificant now as to not matter,” claimed New York Daily News columnist Derek Hunter.

“The days of them mattering died sometime after Democrats lost the South.”

Too bad Trayvon Martin’s parents didn’t get that memo. (Martin was shot this year after being mistaken for a criminal).

There are two problems with this.

First, just because the election doesn’t centre on Obama’s race doesn’t mean race is not a factor.

Whether it’s Bill Clinton attacking Sister Souljah or George W Bush speaking at Bob Jones University, race has always been a central part of US politics.

And for good reason: race is about power, and it is through power resources are distributed.

Race will disappear as an issue when racism disappears as a material force.

In the meantime, it will also be a tool to leverage resentment.

For example, Republican ads pitting Medicare (which Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan wants to cut anyway) against healthcare reform claim the hard-earned benefits of working people will be frittered away on “a massive new government programme that is not for you”.

More than three-quarters of Medicare recipients are white, while more than half of those without health insurance are not.

Thus the spectre of racialised redistribution is invoked without being explicitly articulated.

This mind-set was illustrated brilliantly at a Tea Party rally in Arkansas in June, where a speaker told the following joke: “A black kid asks his mom: ‘Mama, what’s a democracy?’

“‘Well, son, that be when white folks work every day so us po’ folks can get all our benefits.’

“‘But mama, don’t the white folk get mad about that?’

“‘They sho’ do, son. They sho’ do. And that’s called racism.’”

The crowd loved it. The speaker resigned only after a recording was released.

Second, it is precisely because of racism’s material consequences that different racial groups have particular electoral allegiances on the basis of their real or perceived economic and social interests.

The trouble for Republicans is Nixon’s Southern strategy, which is based on courting an electorate far whiter than today’s. Since 1980, the proportion of white voters has declined in every consecutive election bar one.

Meanwhile, the combination of a black Democrat presidential candidate and the racist and nativist Republican rhetoric has reduced the Republicans’ appeal to blacks and Latinos to critical levels just as those two groups have grown in influence.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in August put African-American support for them at 0%.

The party’s support among Latinos hovers around 27%, far lower than what it needs or has enjoyed in the past.

At the time of this writing, 82 Electoral College votes appear to be up for grabs. Of those, 72 are in states where white people comprise less than 70% of the population. To win, Romney needs 61% of the white vote nationally from a white turnout of 74%.

In 2008, John McCain got 55% from the same turnout.

The Republicans’ only response to this so far has been to try to stop non-white people from voting altogether with punitive voter ID laws.

Far from playing less of a role in this election, race is as great a factor as it has ever been.

» Younge is the New York correspondent for the Guardian

» Copyright 2012 The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

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