A Few Meandering Thoughts on Racial Anxiety and Obama’s Right-Wing Opposition.

(cross-posted from the League of Ordinary Gentlemen and U.S. of J)

As I’m sure most of you have noticed by now, I write (and think!) a fair amount about racial politics.  Indeed, it goes beyond my blogging – a good chunk of my undergraduate education focused on the intersection of race and politics, and my senior thesis expanded on some ideas I have regarding the nexus of race and religion in American politics.  That said, I try not to read racial motivations into every dust-up or controversy.  Nine times out of ten, race has nothing to do with a given incident, and if it does, it usually isn’t immediately obvious or even necessarily pertinent.

This is all by way of saying that I have struggled to give Obama’s more vocal critics something of the benefit of the doubt.  Even the most outlandish attacks are grounded in something approaching a legitimate fear, and dismissing those folks is as simply prejudiced is as unfair as it is incomplete (as far as explanatory value goes).  But, at the risk of sounding a little predictable, I can’t help but reconsider my reticence at using the “prejudiced” card, especially in light of this completely ridiculous “controversy” over President Obama’s address to the nation’s students.  It’s something of an understatement to say that this outrage, over a routine presidential address to children, is absolutely absurd, even granting the fact that the right-wing completely freaks outover the reality of a Democratic president.  And while there are certainly a few possibilities as to why conservatives have latched on to this particular address as a rallying point, I think the simplest explanation – and the one which goes further to explain a good deal of this irrational opposition – is that these folks are (still) terrified and bewildered at the fact that our presidentdoesn’t look like them.  Their sincere ideological opposition is mixed up with a unconscious – or conscious, for that matter – fear of blackness and what they perceive as its “contaminating” effects.

That is, the narrative of white supremacy in this country is a narrative of “purity.”  In this story, America was built white hands, and it’s the job of those hands to keep the country – and her virtues – free of contamination from “mongrel” races.  Hence Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation laws, and the “one-drop” rule*, as well as the fierce obsession with racial purity in Southern religious traditions.   Of course, this is something of an oversimplification (I’m setting aside a whole lot about economics and power relations), but it gets the basic outline right: an initial prejudice transformed, over the course of American history, into a distinctive narrative of white supremacy and racial purity.  And one that still holds quite a bit of currency; a recent study (and unfortunately, I can’t find the link) suggests that most Americans continue to associate “black” with dirtiness and “white” with cleanliness.  The study doesn’t draw any conclusions about the impact this might have on race relations, but you’d be delusional to think that it doesn’t influence the ways in which Americans –– of all races –– see each other.

This all said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that its children and health care which are sending the right-wing into a rabid froth.  After all, both are associated with purity; parents –– terrified of a fifteen-minute presidential address — are yanking their children out of school in an effort to protect their “innocent” children from contamination by the words of a “socialist” (which, historically, is a charge often thrown at prominent black leaders).  And retirees are denouncing health care reform as an attempt by socialists/communists to, essentially, taint their benefits by “giving them away” to illegal immigrants and other non-white “others.”

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, so I want to end it with this link to a LA Times article on President Obama’s rapidly declining support among white voters.  Read it, and the explanations by various analysts and strategists, and I think you’ll come away with a solid impression that underneath all of the controversy, there is a real and palatable racial anxiety on part of white voters, and that’s driving a good chunk of the opposition to Obama’s presidency.

4 thoughts on “A Few Meandering Thoughts on Racial Anxiety and Obama’s Right-Wing Opposition.

  1. storm September 9, 2009 at 10:25 am Reply

    This was very thought provoking. And, thanks for the link to the LA Times article.

    I too have been reluctant to cry “racism” to explain the venom of Obama’s oppenents. Still, the extreme level of animus and ugliness shown by conservatives towards our President has been troubling.

    While it is certainly true that past Presidents have had to battle with the opposition to get their agenda thru, something about this President’s struggle does seem DIFFERENT.

    The disrepect shown to President Obama is different, I think. It is almost as if they (his opponents) are not giving him the same level of respect that they’ve automatically given past Presidents. Thus, his having to prove that he is a US Citizen; his being given flack for giving a speech to the public schools when other Presidents (Bush and Reagan) have done the same thing.

    I was speaking to a friend about this yesterday and we surmised that race may be playing a role in a few ways. 1) We know that in America Blacks are usually held to a different standard; that in the classrooms and in the boardroom, we are expected to be 2 times better than our white counterparts. So Obama is being judged by Whites who have set a higher bar for him than previous Presidents. 2) The Whites who voted for Obama almost feel like he “owes” them something for having been “enlightened” enough to vote for a Black Men. It is almost like they feel betrayed that he isn’t fulfilling their wish list — on healthcare, the passage of gay rights, etc. — IMMEDIATELY.

    • -k- September 10, 2009 at 4:32 pm Reply

      Storm, exactly. I’ve been in disbelief over this whole thing. It’s THE PRESIDENT. THE LEADER OF THE COUNTRY. And this really happened.

      Disbelief.

  2. ladyfresh September 9, 2009 at 11:15 am Reply

    Something isn’t right. I’m on the same path of avoidance(it’s because he’s black!) but i keep finding myself with the same answer. There’s a huge pink elephant in the room I’m trying not to look at or point to.(look!look! can’t you see it?!)

    When do i get to look at it? When can i call a spade a spade? How many times do i need to self check and self examine? Each and every time i guess.

  3. Kiril September 11, 2009 at 9:16 pm Reply

    Let me point out that the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, was also called a socialist for trying to reform health care in America. And a Nazi for supporting minimal gun control laws. And a Communist for raising taxes on the rich. And a rapist. Pat Robertson sent out hundreds of thousands of direct mail videos claiming that he was the leader of a drug running cabal that flew cocaine from Colombia to Arkansas. Republicans claimed that he had his best friend, Vincent Foster, assassinated across the street from the White House. So-called “freemen,” anti-tax militia groups organized to resist the federal government with arms. And of course, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in OKC. Hillary Clinton was accused of wanting to take everyone’s babies and put them in socialist indoctrination centers when she wrote her book It Takes A Village. She was accused of being a lesbian and a crypto-fascist. And I don’t think there was a time during the nineties when the administration wasn’t being endlessly, fruitlessly investigated.

    Look, I’m not stupid. Obviously there is a racist component to right-wing derangement. But that’s not the salient factor here. It doesn’t matter who is President. All this insanity was going to happen no matter who won the election (assuming a Democratic victory). This is what they are.

    I’m not saying you aren’t seeing racism at work here. But I am saying that, except for the Islamic secretly born in Kenya thing, I’ve seen all of this before. The only thing that’s changed is the internet.

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