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Jul 25 2012

Scratch a racist statement, get a dose of ignorance

This morning I went on a bit of a tear of a Mitt Romney advisor who said this:

In remarks that may prompt accusations of racial insensitivity, one suggested that Mr Romney was better placed to understand the depth of ties between the two countries than Mr Obama, whose father was from Africa.

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.

And I paused from finding new and creative ways to call Mr. Romney ‘boring’ to point out how insanely and overtly racist it was to say that being white made you more qualified to be President (actually, technically speaking, how being non-white made you less qualified, if you’re willing to split hairs). Having had a bit of time to think the situation over, I’ve reconsidered my opinion a bit. Not about the racism of the statement, but the intent of the speaker.

Back in 2009, a newly-elected President Barack Obama nominated Sonya Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States. During her vetting process, she was taken to task (by idiots) for a comment she had made in a speech a few years earlier:

Sotomayor, 55, who is U.S. President Barack Obama’s pick to become the high court’s first Hispanic and third woman judge, was clarifying her controversial remark in a 2001 speech in which she suggested a “wise Latina” would usually reach better conclusions than a white man without similar experiences.

“Racism!” went up the cry from jubilant conservatives who thought they had finally caught evidence of some of that “reverse racism” that is apparently so rampant in the United States*. And then a flood of liberals had to sit their conservative cousins down and patiently explain…

What she meant:

People who are a member of a group that is at a systematic disadvantage have experienced the rough side of racial discrimination. A wise and judicious person with that in their background can call upon that part their lived experience when deciding what is ‘just’ when those experiences are relevant. A person without those experiences (i.e., white men, of whom the court is historically and currently almost entirely comprised of) does not have them to draw upon, and may miss judicially relevant (not to be confused with legally relevant) information as a result.

The comment was branded as ‘controversial’, because we live in a world in which saying that having experience makes you better qualified for something is something capable of baffling morons.

With that in mind, we can turn our attention to Mitt Romney’s advisor and…

What he (probably thinks he) meant:

Mitt Romney has a particular affinity for England and its history because he was raised in the same tradition. Because he has these experiences in his background, his decisions are going to be made from the same (or similar) basic cultural underpinnings that those of Brits are. This obviously means that his policies are more likely to benefit England than those of Obama, who does not have that in his background.

Now, if we grant this most gentle of interpretations, we can see that the advisor thought he was making a statement that parallels the ‘wise Latina’ comments made by Justice Sotomayor. This interpretation, by the way, makes a monstrous hypocrite of any Republican who was outraged by the “wise Latina” but now admonishes Romney’s critics to stop “race baiting” because he’s just “proud of his heritage”**. But if this is what he meant, then liberals are hypocrites too, right?

Ah, if only that were the case.

Political opinions aren’t hereditary

Mitt’s family hasn’t been “Anglo-Saxon” in generations. Mitt absolutely did not grow up with an English mindset. He grew up with a privileged, upper-class, American mindset. I cannot speak directly to the vagaries of the British upper class, but I sincerely doubt that even a posh Brit looks at Mitt Romney’s life and says “that man is my brother”.

England isn’t “Anglo-Saxon”

Even if it were true that Mitt Romney’s political positions were passed to him through his sacred bloodline, what it means to be “English” has changed abundantly since his family emigrated to “the colonies”. In fact, the sine qua non of English identity has shifted a lot since Romney’s birth. In the reconstruction following World War II and the decolonization of… well, the whole world, to be English has meant to be almost constantly confronted by ethnic diversity at various levels of socioeconomic status and facets of day-to-day life.

This shift, beyond engendering mere ‘tolerance’, has meant a much more cosmopolitan and outward-looking worldview than Mitt Romney’s childhood can boast. It has also meant that there are large swaths of Britons who are not Anglo-Saxon and do not look only to that historical narrative when comprising their self-image. Assuming that Brits universally do share that heritage is, if anything, a statement that Mr. Romney is less qualified to engage with England in a meaningful and contemporarily relevant way.

There are far more important qualifications than “Anglo-Saxon heritage”

As commenter ashleymoore points out:

I also love the idea that Obama is too ‘left-wing’ to understand the UK. Only Romney is right-wing enough to understand a country that has universal health care, gun controls so strict that most police don’t even carry them, forced subscription to public television and one of the largest public transport systems in the world.

Forced to choose between the political leanings of Barack Obama and Mitt “Corporations Are People” Romney, I’d imagine that most Brits would find more in common with the person who ended the Iraq war than with the one who wants to start a new one in Iran.

So no, Republicans, this was not Mitt Romney’s “wise Latina” moment, even if that’s what you thought his advisor was going for. This was either yet another baffling example of Republicans either being completely clueless about racial issues (and how racist their take on those issues is), or of trying to ninja their way into a resurrection of the Southern Strategy. I am still not sure which is the case. Either is too depressing to contemplate.

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*Faith is the hope in things unseen

**As of the time of posting, it has been less than 24 hours since this story broke. I have already heard both of these statements.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Also, what happened to Obama’s mother? Or the grandparents who raised him? Weren’t they sufficiently Certified Anglo-Saxony enough to allow Obama to gain access to the Magical Secret Racial Knowledge & Psychic Cultural WonderBond that all of us AS British Empire diaspora apparently possess?

    Oh, silly me, I guess the one drop rule applies, and you know that no Mormon could possibly be so tainted, so the Mitt is certainly safe.

  2. 2
    slc1

    By the way, just for ducks, it should be pointed out that Obama’s father was a British citizen who carried a British passport because Kenya, at the time, was a British colony.

  3. 3
    keithb

    One could make a case that, via his grandfather, Romney would be better suited to deal with *Mexico*!

  4. 4
    Tony Lloyd

    They’re not just ignorant racial issues they’re utterly ignorant about Britain and the British.

    We only ever use the term “Anglo-Saxon” when talking about history. Anglo-Saxon is way too specific to be used in modern day Britain where even the “aboriginal” population are a mix of Anglo-Saxon, Scots (ancient), Picts, Celts, Norsc, French etc. etc. So it’s fairly useless: If you want racial categories you’ll have to make do with “white”.

    It’s also rather problematical. The Anglo-Saxon migration is popularly thought to have limited itself to England. The Welsh and the Scots (modern) don’t think they have any Anglo-Saxon blood in them and, so, loathe the term. Only call a Scot or a Welshman an “Anglo-Saxon” if you want a fight.

    The Romney camp’s use of the term betrays an ignorance of Britain and our “shared history”. He’s saying “hey we’re the same” whilst at the same time proving that we are not at all the same. It’s rather like a middle-aged man trying to ingratiate himself with youth by trying to “fit in”.

    It’s cringeworthy.

    Nor do we share White America’s history of lynchings, disenfranchisement and segregation. Nor, though we’re nowhere near “post-racial” or whatever, do we have quite the same level ongoing racism that the States still seems to “enjoy”. To be compared to that lot, especially those of them who belong to a racist church, makes my flesh crawl.

    Even controlling for that there are huge cultural differences between us. We cannot comprehend why anyone would have a pledge of allegiance, “under God” or no. (It sounds like the Soviet school system). We don’t take “patriotism” to be a moral obligation. It’s not shocking if someone doesn’t think that Britain is the best country in the world. Michelle Obama’s “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country” is totally understandable, utterly unremarkable to British ears. Romney’s (people’s) comment seems to treat us as an adjunct to America, that we’re the same but just over the water. But we’re not, we are different and want to be seen that way. Perversely this puts Obama, in a sense the “outsider”, much more like us than Romney”: “he’s different too! He’s nothing like us and doesn’t care! We can relate to him!”

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    This is a comment worth spreading around.

  6. 6
    Neil Rickert

    It comes across to me as a not very subtle attempt by Romney to appeal to the racism in the GOP base.

  7. 7
    Lurker111

    Isn’t one of them thar “Anglo-Saxon heritages” the slave trade?

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    Not really. Virtually all European ethnicities participated in the Atlantic slave trade. Depending on how recently you focus the lens of your history, the Brits were “the good guys” compared to the Americans when it came to slavery abolition.

  9. 9
    Ysanne

    Great comment, just one tiny remark:

    We cannot comprehend why anyone would have a pledge of allegiance, “under God” or no. (It sounds like the Soviet school system).

    There wasn’t anything like a daily pledge to whatever in the socialist Hungarian school system, not even back in the 60s. I doubt the Soviets had anything similar. Collective prayer-like murmuring and pledging in school was considered too much of a totalitarian propaganda brainwash thing even in a “Dictatorship of the proletariat” system.

  10. 10
    InfraredEyes

    Furthermore, the GOP’s insistence that Obama is a socialist is simply incomprehensible to the British. Obama would fit quite well into the UK Conservative party, and not even the left wing of that.

  11. 11
    roland72

    I know this is probably a losing battle, but it would be so nice if people stopped referring to Britain/the UK as “England”. They are NOT the same thing. The wrongness is broadly at the “Vancouver, USA” level.

    It is quite true that English identity is not “Anglo-Saxon”. It is also true that British identity is not “Anglo-Saxon”. But the two statements are quite different and with knowledgeable people will promote quite different discussions.

    None of this stops Romney and his entourage being, at the most charitable, incredibly ignorant, or, at the most likely, trying to motivate the white racist vote.

  12. 12
    Dunc

    The Welsh and the Scots (modern) don’t think they have any Anglo-Saxon blood in them and, so, loathe the term. Only call a Scot or a Welshman an “Anglo-Saxon” if you want a fight.

    Actually, most of us with some clue realise that there’s plenty of “Anglo-Saxon blood” pretty much everywhere you go in these isles. We loathe the term not because of some imagined racial purity, but because it’s normally used (in contexts other than history or archaeology) to mean “English” – and a particular insular form of cultural “Englishness” at that, one which tends to coincide with loathing and contempt for the rest of us Britons. It’s exclusionary and chauvinistic.

    On which point, is there any danger we could stop with the lazy conflation of “England”, “Britain”, and “the United Kingdom”, please? The island of Great Britain contains 3 nations, namely England, Wales, and Scotland (4 if you listen to the Cornish nationalists), and the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to use its full title) also includes Northern Ireland. Referring to England when you mean the United Kingdom is like referring to Ontario when you mean Canada and there are Quebec nationalists in the room, only worse. In addition to thriving independence movements and national sports teams, we have our own languages, and in the case of Scotland, we have entirely separate legal, education, and health systems. We are not mere provinces.

  13. 13
    andrewkiener

    Sometimes it’s not laziness, just frustration with the need to parse it all out. Is it acceptable to use “Britons” in a sense than includes the Northern Irish, as shorthand for “everyone in the UK”? Seems like there should be something more formal that “Brits” but less formal than Her Majesty’s Subjects.

    It’s interesting to see the comment about “we don’t understand American patriotism” followed by an explanation of why the UK’s divisive history makes it important to be careful who you call what. The psychological impact of starting a country from scratch, abused as the concept may have been over the past couple centuries, hasn’t waned.

    Finally, while I’m closely reading Tony’s otherwise dead-on post above, I’ll note that the fact that the British (et al?)contained their “lynchings, disenfranchisement, and segregation” to their colonies, keeping all that dirty stuff off their island(s?), doesn’t exactly absolve them from “sharing that history”.

  14. 14
    mynameischeese

    “Nor do we share White America’s history of lynchings, disenfranchisement and segregation. Nor, though we’re nowhere near “post-racial” or whatever, do we have quite the same level ongoing racism that the States still seems to “enjoy”

    I disagree on this. On the first three things, the UK certainly benefited from slavery and so shared all of those things. The difference is that, because slavery was neatly contained in the empire’s colonies, those things were kept mostly out-of-sight, out-of-mind. It’s important when considering the USA’s relationship with slavery and genocide to remember the UK’s role in those problems.

    As far as racism, the UK is very segregated (with POC concentrated in urban areas), there is plenty of racism, race riots, etc. I don’t even know where to start linking you to examples of this, so I’ll just say have a read of Ali’s Brick Lane if you get a chance and maybe google “BNP.”

    Lastly, you seem to imply that the UK is more secular than the USA because the USA has that silly “under god” bit in the pledge. However, the UK is not a secular state and won’t be until it gets rid of the idea of a PM who is head of the Anglican Church: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Secularmap.PNG

    But yes to everything else you said about how ridiculous Mittens is for thinking he gets the UK.

  15. 15
    Dunc

    Is it acceptable to use “Britons” in a sense than includes the Northern Irish, as shorthand for “everyone in the UK”?

    Good question. You’d need to ask the Northern Irish, but I suspect you’d get a pretty serious split between Republicans and Unionists… It’s a difficult area, and one I have to admit I’m not very clued-up on.

    In this particular case I was using it to refer to the “Welsh and the Scots” in the comment I was quoting, but thanks for pulling me up about it anyway.

  16. 16
    roland72

    The theory is that God is the head of the Anglican Church, while the Queen is the Supreme Governor – though she’s supposed to act on the advice of the PM in that capacity. I think having established churches has actually made the UK more rather than less secular in practice, but the process by which that came about has been incredibly long and bloody.

    There certainly seems to have been a racial component to the riots we had last summer; just like everywhere, I’m prepared to bet that there’s a much worse problem with racism here than white Britons are likely to want to admit.

    Romney can sod off. As President he’d be a horror story.

  17. 17
    andrewkiener

    Ok, now I’m really curious. Is there a commonly accepted name that encompasses all citizens of the UK, similar to “French” or “German”? I’ve listened to a lot of BBC World and I can’t recall hearing one (not that that is an exhaustive sample).

    So, any help from folks in the UK? How do the newspapers and such handle it?

  18. 18
    John Horstman

    The comment was branded as ‘controversial’, because we live in a world in which saying that having experience makes you better qualified for something is something capable of baffling morons.

    Lines like this are why I love Ian’s writing style.

  19. 19
    shargash

    It is not unreasonable to speak of an “Anglo-Saxon heritage.” We use a veriant of the Anglo-Saxon legal system. The alternative name for Old English is Anglo-Saxon. It is part of what makes the US what it is. (BTW, I am not of Anglo-Saxon anscestry, but I still participate in that heritage; anscestry != heritage).

    On the other hand, saying that an American who was born and raised in America can’t appreciate Anglo-Saxon heritage because he is black is racist as all hell.

  20. 20
    Pierce R. Butler

    “… he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said …

    Obvious panderer is obvious. Also verbally unimaginative.

    Her Majesty would never forgive me should I fail to point out that, although the former colonies’ Supreme Court has indeed been historically comprised of white men, large swaths of Britons do not “comprise” their self-images by looking to historical narratives, those of Germanic immigrants or any others now in her green and pleasant land.

  21. 21
    leebrimmicombe-wood

    I will aver that the American brand of overt patriotism is unseemly to this Briton’s eyes. Not just pledges of allegiance but hand-over-heart stuff while the anthem is being sung. I have American acquaintances who are particularly prone to this.

    A mature patriot, secure in his identity, need not indulge this kind of thing. At the risk of bringing religion into the conversation, this reminds me of Jesus’s exhortation to the Godly that their faith should be quietly held, and not be like those who worship loudly and publicly. A wise sentiment, I always thought, and one not always heeded by the faithful.

    So it goes with patriotism. The Septics, it seems, have much to learn from Britain when it comes to expressing their love of and bond with their country.

  22. 22
    leebrimmicombe-wood

    One thing to remember about the British is that we really don’t have much of a national identity. Rather, we have many.

    We are a squabbling family, with a whole Ozark’s-worth of rivalries and feuds between the nations and regions and towns and countryside. However, should an outsider poke us we will round upon them in unison and deliver them a savage beating.

    This is what you saw with Romney. It takes some talent for an American conservative to piss off not just the British left but a Tory PM and the conservative press.

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