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Romney Pushed Boundaries of 'Acceptable Racism' to Extremes

The Republican Party is treading back into the racism of Reconstruction.

Photo Credit: A.M. Stan


A decade from now, if I'm asked to name the most memorable thing about the 2012 presidential campaign, it will probably be the sheer mendacity of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s rhetoric, lie piled upon lie.

But if asked what one thing about the 2012 campaign most impacted everyday American life, one answer stands out above all others: racism. The wink-wink racial coding Romney uses, combined with the unabashed racism of such surrogates as former Bush administration chief of staff John Sununu, adds up to quite a wash of race-baited waters over the campaign. Then add to that the steady stream of racist rhetoric that characterized the Republican presidential primary campaign, and the wash looks more like a stew set on simmer for the better part of a year.

Since the early months of 2011, our politics have been marinating in the language of racial hatred, whether in former U.S. senator Rick Santorum’s “ blah people” moment, or former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s tarring of Barack Obama as “the food stamp president.”

Whether Obama wins or loses, new territory has been broken for the 21st century with the rhetoric of the Republican presidential campaign. Sure, it may seem like we’ve been here before, but the difference is that this time, it’s happening after we thought we had gotten past this level of racial hatred. But if Romney claims victory, having run on such a strategy, a new level of legitimacy will be conferred on the politics of race-baiting.

As Mark Thompson, host of the SiriusXM radio program, Make it Plain, said to me, “If they’re allowed to win this way, I shudder to think what happens next.”

The numbers don’t lie

A poll released last week by the Associated Press reveals an uptick since 2008 in the percentage of Americans who express negative attitudes towards blacks and Latinos. The poll measured both explicit expressions of racial prejudice and implicit attitudes.

On the explicit measure -- prejudiced attitudes people were willing to express outright -- the anti-black prejudice ticked up 3 points, from 47 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2012. But when one looks at the implicit attitudes the poll measured, the jump is more pronounced at 7 points. In 2008, the measure of implicit anti-black attitudes was 49 percent; in 2012 that number grew to 56 percent. Meanwhile, write the AP’s Sonya Ross and Jennifer Agiesta, “In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.”

Latinos fared just as poorly in the backlash. Ross and Agiesta explain:

Most Americans expressed anti-Hispanic sentiments, too. In an AP survey done in 2011, 52 percent of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Hispanic attitudes. That figure rose to 57 percent in the implicit test. The survey on Hispanics had no past data for comparison.

No surprise

None of this is particularly surprising, given the season of scapegoating immigrants and black people the Republican right has fomented since the election of the nation’s first African-American president. I don’t pretend that these attitudes didn’t exist before 2008, nor do they exist only on the Republican side, as shown in the AP poll. But their expression was far less permissible.

What right-wing leaders saw in the election of President Barack Obama -- a black man with an exotic name, a foreign father and a white mother -- was a touchstone for rallying the resentment of the most fearful sectors of white society, places where people feel threatened by the changing shape of American culture. And so they did what the greediest fat-cats have always done: sought to pit the regular, non-rich people against each other, all in the service of preserving their own power.

It’s what the former slaveholders did in the South during reconstruction. It’s what the Romans did in their conquest of the world. It’s an oppressor’s game that America, having never come to terms with the deeper truths of slavery, is particularly susceptible to.

The backlash began before the president was even inaugurated, and reached a crescendo during the debate on healthcare reform, when right-wingers took to the streets of the nation’s capital, some carrying signs depicting the president as a monkey or a pimp.

Others sought to exoticize him, characterizing him as a communist or a Kenyan usurper of the presidential seal.

And for all the diversionary lies about death-panels and government takeovers, the metamessage, the fear-mongering whisper in the ear, was this: a black man is going to be in charge of your health care, and he’s gonna use it to get even.

November 4, 2008

As we approach Election 2012, the memory of the euphoria that ensued just four years ago, when Barack Obama won the presidency, is almost painful to summon. But it’s important that we do so, just so we might bear in mind what’s at stake.

I was never one who foresaw the post-racial society some said was at hand. But nonetheless, to be in Washington, D.C., on November 4, 2008, was a thing of beauty.

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