In the Arena

Yes, It’s Racism…but it’s Complicated

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Jimmy Carter’s intervention in the winguts v. Obama controversy has raised the expected amount of dust–and I suppose the standard reaction is that “it’s a good thing we’re having this conversation,” but I’m not so sure that it is. Since I was one of the early racism-shouters here on Swampland, and on the Chris Matthews show last Sunday, I probably should explain why “this conversation” is heading in the wrong direction.

First of all, I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t talking about classic white-black racism, though elements of that are present, to be sure. My sense of the teabaggers is more complicated: they are primarily working-class, largely rural and elderly white people. They are freaked by the economy. They are also freaked by the government spending–TARP, the stimulus package etc.–that was necessary to avoid a financial collapse. (I’m not sure Keynes is taught in very many American high schools.) But most of all, they are freaked by an amorphous feeling that they America they imagined they were living in–Sarah Palin’s fantasy America–is a different place now, changing for the worse, overrun by furriners of all sorts: Latinos, South Asians, East Asians, homosexuals…to say nothing of liberated, uppity blacks.

In that sense, Barack Obama is the apotheosis of all they fear. He is a child of what used to be called miscegenation–a mixed marriage. His father was a Muslim, his mother was sort of a hippy. She raised him in Hawaii, which is just barely American and in Indonesia (which is very suspicious). He is a liberal (even if a prohibitively moderate one). Worse, he’s a completely urban sort. There is nothing resembling a log cabin in his background. We’ve had elite Presidents–the Roosevelts, the Bushes–but we have never really had an urban one. (New York Governor Al Smith, Tammany Hall’s finest, was trounced in 1928–the last pure urban candidate.) This sort of populist paranoia is disgraceful, but as American as apple pie. The appropriately-named Know-Nothing Party of the 1840s was anti-immigrant. The Republican Party has pursued an implicitly racist “southern strategy” since the late 1960s.

But there is a reason why Barack Obama has tried to lowball the race issue since he arrived on the public scene: it is divisive, in a reprehensible way. If everything he does is seen through the prism of race, if he becomes a “black” President, he loses–the furriners may be overrunning the country, but we’re still majority white. He does not want to be perceived as a minority President either racially or numerically.  And he’s right: we have more important business to transact right now.

Finally, I should say that the things that scare the teabaggers–the renewed sense of public purpose and government activism, the burgeoning racial diversity, urbanity and cosmopolitanism–are among the things I find most precious and exhilarating about this country. And even though the teabaggers’ pinched , paranoid sensibilities are now being stoked by Boss Rush and the leaders of the Republican party, I take comfort in this: the racists and nativists have always been with us, and they have always lost. They will lose this time, too.

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