News & Politics

How White Racial Resentment Drives the Right

Many Tea Partiers and their fans in the GOP seem inspired by the fantasy that whiteness remain central to the American identity.

  Last week witnessed two seemingly unrelated controversies. Vanity Fair magazine was slammed for featuring a cover where the future of Hollywood was envisioned as a group of White actresses with “ivory soap girl features” and "patrician looks and celebrated pedigree," who were better suited to the virulently racist film Birth of a Nation and the politics of “separate but equal” than to an increasingly diverse 21st America. In the same week, the political website Daily Kos commissioned a survey of self-identified Republicans. The results of their poll found that a significant number of respondents were possessed by a collective madness where the most venomous lies and half-truths offered by the Right Wing echo chamber have found fertile ground: Barack Obama is not a lawful United States citizen and thus is ineligible to be President; Obama stole the election through voting fraud enabled by the community advocacy group ACORN; he hates White people, and Obama should be preemptively impeached for imagined high crimes and misdemeanors. Ironically, the Vanity Fair “Hollywood Issue” and the Daily Kos survey both speak to an identical phenomenon at work in The Age of Obama.

At present, the Tea Party possessed Republican Party remains dizzied and intoxicated by a toxic, White nostalgia for a bygone, “noble,” and “perfectly just” America that significant portions of their base believe has been destroyed by the “liberals” and “multiculturalists.” This rearward looking view is colored by a convenient, fuzzy glow for an America that the conservative soul imagines as being homogenous, comfortably White, imminently “moral,” divinely preordained to perfection, and always safe and secure. Not to be overlooked or forgotten in their importance, these are the base elements of a contradictory and internally inconsistent “traditional values,” “small government,” Culture War ethos that still lingering about like a zombie has motivated the Republican Party’s electoral strategy for at least the last five decades.

Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue offers an image to accompany this dream, a dream that is simultaneously a longing for the past, as well as a hope for the future. As suggested by the cover photo, White is always right--it is a norm and an idealized state of beauty for all people. Moreover, Vanity Fair’s cover offers a safe harbor in a time when “those people” are increasingly visible, if not occasionally central, in the public imagination. Ultimately, the whiteness of its Hollywood issue is both playground and canvas for the white racial resentment that fuels the false populism of the Republican Party and its Tea Bagger cadre.

To marshal a cliché, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. The Vanity Fair controversy is a powerful example of the politics at work in popular culture where something as seemingly benign as a magazine cover can provide insight into the spirit of the day. Not surprisingly, the editors of the magazine have denied any ill intent. Vanity Fair’s detractors are quick to point out the racially checkered past of the cover’s photographer Annie Leibovitz, who herself is no stranger to racially tinged controversy: she famously produced a cover of Vogue Magazine that featured an image of African American NBA star Lebron James as King Kong and Gisele Bundchen as the White heroine symbolically imperiled by a black rapist transformed into a great ape. I would suggest that it is relatively unimportant if the controversy surrounding the Hollywood issue is a function of a publicity stunt, hypersensitivity by those obsessed with playing “the race card,” or the result of a “harmless” oversight. Intentions aside, herein lies the central problem: in a moment when people of color are increasingly prominent in Hollywood, have been central to the biggest hits of 2009, and where the most powerful person in the world is a black man, a panoply of lily White actresses as the “future” of American cinema is both utterly unreflective and oddly anachronistic.

The key problem of this short sighted and (quite literally) colorblind worldview is summed up perfectly by cultural critic Richard Dyer as he famously observed that: “At the level of racial representation, in other words, Whites are not of a certain race, they're just the human race." This is the essence of whiteness as offered by the Vanity Fair Hollywood issue and the White nostalgia upon which the Tea Party, Republican politics of racial resentment are dependent. Here, whiteness is privilege and normality. It is visible, yet simultaneously invisible. Whiteness is the unstated assumption that goes unquestioned. In total, the whiteness of the Vanity Fair cover and the faux populism of the Right represent a type of omnipresent property that goes uncommented upon until its owners perceive that it is under threat. For example, the Republican Party’s appeals to “Real America” and “small town America” were awash in an unstated assumption that a “real” American is a White American.

During the 2008 campaign, the appeals to “Joe Six Pack” or “Joe the Plumber” were likewise a cue to folks imagined to be anything but red, black, brown, or yellow. The mainstream media’s discomfort with owning this language—notice how deftly they deploy the phrase “working class” or “middle class” as a homogenous label without any nod to the real diversity of interests and peoples in those respective groups—enables this almost pathological habit of racial erasure.

Imagine then, how an increasingly diverse America, one predicted to be majority minority by 2050, looks to the conservative imagination. It is a scary and frightening place where White Americans may not be at the center of all things. For them, the election of Barack Obama is a harbinger of doom and dread. Not merely because of his policy prescriptions, but because of what it means to have a person of color as the symbolic representative of the United States, as its Head of State, and where the first family is a multicultural version of Kennedy’s Camelot redux. The Vanity Fair cover and the politics of White nostalgia offered by the Republican Party and the Tea Baggers are overlapping examples of a White fantasy where a very narrow type of White identity (both politically and socially) is forever central to American society and is interchangeable with what it means to be American.

The political worldview revealed by the Daily Kos survey is a testimony to White nostalgia’s enduring hold on the conservative imagination. On the surface, the poll reveals a highly polarized electorate where the divisions of Red and Blue are as much about policy orientation as they are a function of stridently different views of reality. While this division is largely enabled by the disinformation which is spread by the echo chamber that is Fox News, conservative talk radio, and the Right wing blogosphere, it is also a function of the knotted mix of race and politics that seem to be forever operative in this country. When looked at in total, the Daily Kos survey depicts a Republican electorate that does not see Barack Obama as legitimate. His birth is suspect, his policies “Socialist,” his election invalid, and his term should be ended without cause. The connective tissue between these beliefs is a sentiment that somehow Barack Obama is an “alien,” an “Other.” For the Republicans in the Daily Kos survey, Obama’s personhood, and by extension his citizenship, are outside of the American polity. In a country with a long legacy of white supremacy where Black Americans were quite literally marked as being “anti-citizens”--as not worthy of full inclusion because of their race--Obama’s blackness is central (as opposed to coincidental) to the animosity and anger among Republicans towards him.

This is not to suggest that all Republicans are racist. To do so would be impossible to determine, and even if true, would be largely coincidental to my point. Tactically, it would be an error because this assertion would create a straw man that the Republican Party and the Right can easily use to shake off and sidestep critical observations about the racial politics at work among its members. However, when taken in the aggregate, the Daily Kos survey reveals an ideology that is rife with the politics of white racial resentment where these feelings reveal a deep hostility towards an America where a person of color is president. In turn, this rage then colors and amplifies the negative feelings of the respondents towards Obama’s policy positions. While troubling, the power of white racial resentment as evidenced by the Daily Kos Survey and the rise of the Tea Party movement in The Age of Obama is not at all surprising. Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and Rush Limbaugh have all given voice to a belief that while all Americans are equal, White Americans are in fact the first among equals.

Perhaps, these attitudes would be shocking if they were not on display in plain sight. If almost on cue, former congressman Tom Tancredo, the opening speaker for the national Tea Party convention, gave a highly charged speech where he railed against “multiculturalists,” and endorsed a return to literacy tests in order to protect democracy from people “stupid” enough to support Barack Obama. Not content with pandering to nativism and xenophobia, Tancredo extolled an almost exclusively White and enthusiastically supportive audience to take back “their America.” In that moment, as an inevitable crescendo in its descent towards White Nationalism, the Right wing, neo-populism of the Tea Party movement embraced a variant of the John Birch inspired politics some thought long resigned to the dustbin of history.

Gore Vidal humorously observed that Americans “don’t have a public memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday.” Thus, Tancredo’s speech signals two possibilities. One, Tancredo is willfully ignorant of the white supremacy and racism of Jim Crow where significant numbers of Americans were denied their voting rights through violence, law, and intimidation by the very means he advocates. Two, Tancredo knows of this history and simply does not care because he wants “his America” back by any means necessary. In seeking to understand the White nostalgia that is the beating conservative heart, either of these two answers would appear sufficient.

The “real” America yearned for by the Tea Party, Sarah Palin populism that is en vogue among the Republican Party at present is dependent upon a willful ignorance and know-nothing approach towards the past (and the present). Many of the Tea Baggers and Republicans of the Daily Kos survey seem to dream of White world. The Hollywood cover of Vanity Fair is their wish fulfillment and psychic projection. The ideology highlighted by the Daily Kos survey is a testimony to their hostility and fear. And in completing the triangle, the antics on display at the Tea Party convention, while couched in the language of “freedom” and “democracy” are stained by a politics of White hostility that desires anything but full equality of citizenship and opportunity for all citizens.