Media

Whiny Conservatives: How Dare Rich White Guys Cry About Oppression?

The right-wing media have crafted an absurd -- and dangerous -- political narrative of white male oppression, exclusion and victimization.

In a June 12 column titled "Miss Affirmative Action 2009," Patrick Buchanan observed, regarding Judge Sonia Sotomayor's stellar academic career, "To salve their consciences for past societal sins, the Ivy League is deep into discrimination again, this time with white males as victims rather than as beneficiaries. One prefers the old bigotry. At least it was honest ..."

Here then is a common lament among white conservative men; from listening to Buchanan and other rich, old conservative pundits, one would think that they were the most oppressed minority in America today. Often, they go so far as to imply their "suffering" is far worse than that experienced by African Americans during the darkest twilight before the successes of the civil rights movement.

In the maelstrom that has followed President Barack Obama's nomination of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the right-wing media have crafted a political narrative of white male oppression, exclusion and victimization.

Their solution? Crying about Jim Crow 2.0 -- the idea that the white man is treated unfairly -- and absurdly claiming for themselves a 21st century "civil rights movement" to "free" white men from so-called oppression. They see this as a moment when America's moral conscience should be aroused in the defense of white men as victims of racism and prejudice.

One could reasonably suggest that this agenda is laughable, clumsy and necessarily hamstrung by the hypocrisy of the agents involved.

As a matter of practical politics, the shrill labeling of Sotomayor as a "racist" and "intellectual lightweight" has threatened to further stigmatize the Republican Party as out of step with the political mainstream. Moreover, the very idea that the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Buchanan, a veritable rogue's gallery of the intolerant and bigoted, would have the moral weight or ethical authority to speak on issues of social justice (in any context) is itself absurd.

The deployment of the politics of grievance and reverse racism by the right proceeds from a well-worn script that is decades, if not centuries, old. Consequently, there exists a very real temptation to ignore the narrative of white victimhood that is generated by Jim Crow 2.0, precisely because its foundations appear to be so weak and illegitimate.

Thus, the relative silence by black public intellectuals and others on Jim Crow 2.0. Herein lays the greatest danger: This reimagining of history reveals a lack of critical language with which to discuss racism in the Age of Obama, as well as the ostensibly "post-racial" future which his election symbolizes.

Moreover, Jim Crow 2.0 is the logical result of a conservative, colorblind politics that has triumphantly succeeded in fashioning a political reality where the very discussion of race or racial inequality by progressives is itself smeared as illegitimate and racist.

With Jim Crow 2.0, the politics of race in America have witnessed a perverse inversion wherein "playing the race card" is now the exclusive province of white men -- the most economically, socially and politically privileged class in the United States.

Unpacking Jim Crow 2.0

The right's positioning of white men as victims of racism involves an appropriation of the justice claims made by the civil rights movement. In Jim Crow 2.0, oppressed white men are the newest victims of racism, discrimination and inequality. Within this fictional world, the racial order has been so upset by the election of Obama that reverse racism against white Americans (an oxymoron that itself demands engagement and rebuttal) is now the rule of the land.

The assertion that white men are oppressed is a tactically sound move that accomplishes two goals. First, it positions conservatives and the Republican Party as the true defenders of equality, justice and freedom in America. Second, it mocks the centuries-long efforts by African Americans for freedom, equality and the fruits of full citizenship.

The sum result of these maneuvers is that the "struggle" to "liberate" white men from "reverse racism" and "oppression" is made the primary civil rights issue of our time. To accomplish this goal, the right-wing media ape and parrot the symbolism and language of the civil rights movement.

For example, Buchanan, in his discussions of the Frank Ricci case in Connecticut, repeatedly references the evils of Jim Crow and the unfair hiring practices that were used to deny black Americans equal access to jobs and promotions. Likewise, in Buchanan's discussions of Sotomayor and her oft-cited comment that a "wise Latina" judge could potentially make better legal decisions than a White male judge, he suggests that her confirmation will serve to revive the evils of "separate but equal" as embodied by the infamous United States Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson.

The assertion that white men are an oppressed class in America is a given and working assumption for Buchanan -- an assumption and premise that goes largely unchallenged by the mainstream media.

Limbaugh also works diligently and steadily to advance the narrative of Jim Crow 2.0. On an almost-daily basis he conflates political partisanship with the systematic racism historically experienced by black Americans. For him, Obama is a reverse racist, who like "the other minorities" has learned "how to use anger" against white people as a weapon to advance his political career.

In opposition to the Democratic Party, Limbaugh refuses "to sit in the back of the bus" like the other Republicans. Limbaugh is not "oppressed" because he continues to resist, while the other Republicans are afraid of "fire hoses" and "police dogs."

Limbaugh refuses to drink from the "colored" water fountain. Undeterred, he references the political thuggery of such racial terrorists as Bull Connor and asserts that the Democrats are "standing in the schoolhouse door." As one of the prime architects of Jim Crow 2.0, Limbaugh depicts himself as a freedom fighter who against all odds will push these bullies aside as he works to advance the conservative agenda. In effect, Limbaugh reduces the black freedom struggle to a petty politics of partisan maneuvering within a narrative of white male grievance and victimhood.

As they work to legitimate a narrative in which white men are victims of oppression and racism, the architects of Jim Crow 2.0 have revealed a deep understanding of the symbolic power afforded to "heroic" figures. To that end, the right needs its freedom riders, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings in order to communicate the righteousness of their cause.

In keeping with this strategy, Sean Hannity has rechristened the firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who were denied promotions because of a questionable exam as "the New Haven 20." It is a clear allusion to the Little Rock Nine, a group of schoolchildren who in 1957, under protection of the United States military, braved threats of violence and death in order to integrate their local school in Little Rock, Ark.

Frank Ricci, the "leader" of the New Haven 20 has been valorized. In the version of events offered by Hannity, Ricci, a dyslexic, studied day and night with the assistance of tutors in order to pass the exam for promotion only to see his hard-earned opportunity denied him by a lawsuit filed by the city of New Haven on behalf of a group of "unqualified" African American firefighters. For Jim Crow 2.0, Ricci is Rosa Parks, and the upcoming Supreme Court hearing of his case will be the equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education.

Who Bears Responsibility?

The ability of the right to mine white racial resentment as the fuel for Jim Crow 2.0 is not surprising given the long relationship between white racial resentment and identity politics in American society. In keeping with this precedent, the ability and willingness of the right to quite literally play with history as it rewrites the civil rights movement, an event of radical energy and liberal aspirations, for the purposes of racially conservative and reactionary politics is also to be expected.

However, what is surprising is the preponderance of silence by African American pundits, critics and public intellectuals in combating Jim Crow 2.0. While it embodies a set of political values that are seen as increasingly marginal in American politics, the ability of Jim Crow 2.0 to gain traction, and to persist for as long as it has, signals a divide of experience, memory and values that may be deeper than previously imagined.

Could a failure to critically engage Jim Crow 2.0 be a result of an inability and unwillingness on the part of Americans to think critically about the relationship between racism, history and inequality? Likewise, does Jim Crow 2.0 resonate with its audience because Americans (white, black and brown alike) are afraid to ask if white privilege is in any way unsettled or challenged by the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States? Most importantly, how does this narrative of white male oppression and victimhood complicate the continued struggle for full racial equality and justice in the Age of Obama?

Ultimately, Jim Crow 2.0 will continue to have life to the degree that these questions remain unasked and unanswered.

Christopher Deis is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in the Chicago Defender, the Washington Post's Web site the Root, Culture Kitchen and Popmatters. He is a 2009-2010 visiting faculty member in the Department of Political Science at DePaul University.