Paul Street on Race, Racism, and the “Red-Baiting of Obama”

Back in August 2009, Paul Street, frequent contributor to ZMag, wrote an article titled, “The Racist Red-Baiting of Obama is About More than Race Alone,” which provides a powerful context for what Americans witnessed and experienced last week after health reform was passed.

Paul Street, who will be speaking during the Thursday night event, “The Age of Obama: Fear and Anxiety Toward Race in a Post-Racial Society,” explains:

…it doesn’t take a lot of work to discover a deep undercurrent of toxic racial animosity behind the intense white “conservative” hostility to “socialist Obama” that is expressed on talk radio, on FOX News, at Republican “tea-bag parties,” and during some of the recent “health care town-halls.” As Wise correctly observes, the white right “now too often views Obama’s moves to more comprehensive health care as simply another way to take from those whites who have ‘played by the rules’ and give to those folks of color who haven’t. Even as millions of whites would stand to benefit from health care reform-and all whites,” Wise adds, “would enjoy greater choices with the very public option that has drawn the most fire- the imagery of the recipients has remained black and brown, as with all social programs; and the imagery of the persons who would be taxed for the effort has remained hard-working white folks.” The popular noxious Amerikanner television personality Glenn Beck, a leading voice in the right crusade against Obama’s mythical “socialism,” has “sought,” Wise notes, “to link health care reform, and virtually every single piece of Obama’s political agenda to some kind of backdoor reparations scheme.” Beck has even “claim[ed] to have discovered a communist/black nationalist conspiracy in the administration’s Green Jobs Initiative.”

Does Obama’s racial identity give a special edge and hook to the right’s predictable red-baiting of the nation’s first president? Do some, perhaps many, maybe most, right-wing whites connect the dots between (a) their reactionary fear/hatred of “socialism” and “redistribution” and (b) their related fear/hatred of black civil rights, affirmative action, and reparations for blacks (we might add their fear/hatred of predominantly Latina/o immigration and citizenship)? Do a considerable number of “conservative”/ Republican Caucasians accept and advance (what we on the actual left know to be the) bizarre claim that Obama is a “socialist” in order to stealthily attack a president they really fear and/or hate because he’s black (and intelligent and charismatic and widely supported by highly educated people) – this in a time when open racial prejudice is no longer considered publicly acceptable?

I’m quite certain that the answer to each of these questions is a resounding YES. As I have occasionally gone blue in the face trying to argue with race-/racism-denying denying white Americans, race and racism are ubiquitous in American society, culture, and politics. Racial oppression is ever-present in American life, shaping and lurking behind numerous interrelated inequality structures of wealth, class, geography, and gender. The red-baiting of Obama could not lack a sharp racial edge any more than could the refusal of employers to hire people with felony records or the skewed spatial distribution of full-service grocery-stores and livable wage jobs and campaign contributions and disease rates across segregated zip codes and city ward boundaries. Moreover, the red-baiting of Democrats and Democratic social programs by the American Right has long contained a significant racial/racist content even when the politicians targeted are and were white, from Franklin Roosevelt through John F. Kerry and Nancy Pelosi…

Street goes a step further and gives the racism greater context, an explanation that goes straight to the root of the racism/red-baiting being witnessed:

…there are other explanations than only racial backlash. An obvious part of the reason for the current intensification of preposterous red-baiting from the right is the simple fact that the Democrats now control the executive and legislative branches, the latter by a significant and nearly filibuster-proof margin. The abject failures of the Bush-Cheney administration and the related, ongoing crisis and remarkable unpopularity of the Republican Party are bound to send the right into new levels of paranoid hysteria, rife with fear and loathing about the perils to “freedom” and the “American way of life” – understood by them to revolve fundamentally around (a mythical notion of) “democratic” and “free-market” capitalism – posed by the “Democratic socialists.”

This is different from the mid-1990s, when Republicans still held two of the federal government’s three branches. The pathetic G.O.P. of the post-Bush II era has been reduced to pushing one of its timeworn, wolf-crying panic buttons (“socialism!”) with special new force and frequency.  The external threat button isn’t working too well in the wake of the Cold War’s end and the fiasco in Iraq and in light of the fact that Obama is actually escalating the U.S. war “on Al Qaeda” in South Asia. This would be the case if Hillary or (miraculously) Edwards (or for that matter Biden or Dodd or Richardson or Kucinich or Nader) had attained the presidency…

Street points out that Obama “rode into office on a real wave of popular progressive sentiment and massive voter rejection of the nakedly corporate and messianic-militarist Republican.”

Read more of Street’s work and come ready for a great discussion with Street, Salim Muwakkil, and Stan West on Thursday, April 9th. See here for more details.

We will spend much of the time introducing and exploring Paul Street’s opinions on race & Obama, which he spent an entire chapter on in his book Barack Obama & the Future of American Politics.


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