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Angry Voters, Right-Wing Populism, & Racial Violence

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Eric Ward is nervous. He’s seen it before—the angry right-wing populist crowds, the strident calls to “Restore America” and “Take it Back.” In the mid 1990s Ward was a community organizer for a human rights group in the Pacific Northwest. As a burly young Black man with a loud voice and strange hair, Ward stood out when he addressed the predominantly White audiences of folks concerned about rising prejudice and bigotry. After April 19, 1995, people began to take Ward more seriously, as bodies were removed from the Oklahoma City Federal Building, collapsed by a truck bomb delivered by a domestic terrorist seeking to shift the right-wing populists into an armed insurrection. Timothy McVeigh failed to achieve his goal, but 168 people died in the process.

On January 19th the people of Massachusetts elected a conservative Republican backed by the Tea Party movement, Scott Brown, to the Senate seat held by the late Ted Kennedy. Scott will try to shift the right-wing populists back into an alliance with the Republican Party, which itself is already moving to the Political Right.

After Scott was elected, President Obama began using populist rhetoric to try to regain support for Democratic Party reforms. Progressive activists urged a campaign to win back the populists from right-wing ideology. Conservative icon Pat Buchanan, wrote the Scott victory meant that Republicans should target the white vote by vowing an “end to affirmative action and ethnic preferences, an end to bailouts of Wall Street bankers, a moratorium on immigration until unemployment falls to 6 percent, an industrial policy that creates jobs here and stops shipping them to China.”

The mainstream media suddenly began to take the angry right-wing populist fervor more seriously; but while the coverage was intense, it has been overwhelmingly superficial, for the most part failing to consult historians, social scientists, and human rights groups about what happens to a society when it is buffeted by the gusts of populist anger. Is it fair to mention Republican Scott Brown, the right-wing populists, and the Oklahoma City bombing in one article? Can there be a role for people of faith and their allies in ensuring that no such linkage develops and that history does not repeat itself?

To find out I turned to the Center for New Community (CNC), a national non-profit which helps build local alliances among congregations from different faith traditions and other institutions seeking to resist bigotry and build “a democratic future based on human rights, justice and equality.”

[Eric Ward of the Center for New Community]
Eric Ward now works at the CNC. From his office outside Chicago, Ward asks people to consider to whom is America supposed to be “restored?” When Ward hears a white protest leader tell a predominantly white crowd to “take it back,” he has no doubt that some in the audience want America “taken back” from people of color and “restored” to white people. And he heard this rhetoric increase after Obama was elected. Eric Ward

“[When people who] oppose the Obama reform of health care claim we are losing our country they are using racialized, coded rhetoric,” says Ward, whether they are aware of it or not. Some pundits who backed the Tea Bag protestors and Town Hall criers were well aware of the racialized content of their rhetoric. Ward complains that “we see Pat Buchanan on television claiming that our country was built by white people… Really?” He wonders, “Why is this acceptable commentary on any television station?”

Ward believes “folks need to be held accountable for their racism. Too many people are hearing this coded rhetoric and deciding that the real problem with the economy must be folks of color, immigrants, and the Jews.” During the last period of  Patriot and militia growth in the mid 1990s, Ward witnessed this coded racist rhetoric being tested in the margins of the right-wing media, though it has since moved into the mainstream. In the past year I’ve interviewed dozens of activists and scholars who see the same dynamics. All of us are worried.

[Chicago's Southwest Side in the 1980s]
"What I find surprising is the lack of an appropriate or effective response. Decent people need to stand up," says Ward. "The Democratic Party pundits seem to think this is some sort of game; they act as if there are no legitimate grievances at all out here. They have to realize that the other side is not playing a game--they are playing with the lives and livelihoods of real people," Ward points out. "Meanwhile, across the country, people are being pulled into right-wing populist movements, and from there, some of them are being recruited into White Supremacist movements."... Chicago

Read the entire essay at Religion Dispatches