The rise of racism in the US

Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was an abolitionist who once said:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

This was abbreviated by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech of August 1967 where he said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

I share that sentiment. In general, I am optimistic about the future in the long term. But when it comes to the shorter term, I am much more optimistic when it comes to social issues and than I am on matters of economic justice and inequality. As for the latter, I see things getting a lot worse before they start to get better, and it could get quite violent because there is only so much exploitation and injustice and misery that people can put up with before they revolt. When it comes to the former, on issues such as equality for women and the LGBT community, the road has not been smooth, with one step back for every two steps forward, but there has been general forward progress and I expect it to continue.

But there is one social issue in the US in which I think that we have actually regressed in the past few years and that is with respect to race and ethnicity. We are now in a very ugly period in race relations. And oddly enough, it was the election of Barack Obama, the very event that had people speculating as to whether America had entered a post-racial phase, that seems to have made things worse. What is strange is that Obama is exactly the kind of person of color, urbane and well educated, that one would have expected to be acceptable to whites and was likely the key to his electoral success. One would never have expected Malcolm X to be elected president. Even Martin Luther King Jr. in his time was far too radical and outspoken for the general public, however much he is treated as an icon now. Obama is straight out of central casting of the kind of black person that white people, especially the elites, would find acceptable. He is Sydney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? He is similar to Tiger Woods (before his scandal phase) in that if you were forced to admit people of color into your country club, then someone like Woods be the person you would let in.

But even with that limitation, his election was progress. It was hoped that Obama would be the kind of non-threatening black person that would open the door of opportunity wider and allow for others to follow.

But things have gone utterly awry. Obama’s presidency coincided with a Republican strategy of completely paralyzing the government by opposing many of his appointments and policies. And not just opposing politically but using hyperbolic demonizing rhetoric and calling him a tyrant and dictator, charges that should be laughable. They adopted a scorched Earth policy that did not care if ordinary people were hurt as long as Obama was seen as a failure. Was their motivation racist? Who knows? But what is obvious is that their unrelentingly harsh public rhetoric against him seems to have provided an opening for all the racists to come out of the woodwork. Republican party opposition has provided them with the cover they needed to shield them from charges of racism though I have no doubt that much of the overt hostility that has been expressed against Obama is rooted in racism. Such people see Obama as not belonging in the White House just as I am sure that many country club members are not pleased to see people of color as members.

It has been quite astonishing and depressing to see the level of racism, both overt and coded, that I have witnessed in the media and by politicians and the general public over the past few years. It is being manifested in many ways, from the heightened tensions between blacks and whites, the hostility being displayed towards Latinos especially in the immigration debate, the way that Muslims have been demonized, and a vague generalized xenophobia that sees the rest of the world as somehow trying to take from Americans what is rightfully theirs.

Racism has always been an inescapable subtext in American life. I had not expected to see it getting so much worse the way it has the past few years and I am not optimistic that it will change for the better any time soon.


  1. chrisintx says

    President Obama’s had two things working against him since early in his presidency. First, I think any Democrat president was going to be the recipient of harsh payback for the Left’s treatment of President Bush. Then considering the enormity of the changes on the table, the legislative process through which the ACA passed was the death knell. Especially Senator Reid’s use of Reconciliation. That was game over.

  2. busterggi says

    The problem is that dog-whistles and code words were used so much by conservatives for decades to cover their racism that ultimately they lost their effectiveness. Reversion to the underlying ugliness was a natural result and, thanks to the open support by one of the two big parties, has become almost socially acceptable.

    It will get worse, I’m just not sure if it’ll get better again.

  3. says

    there is only so much exploitation and injustice and misery that people can put up with before they revolt

    In order to trigger a general revolt in France, it took the monarchy controlling 70% of the land and the church controlling 28% of the land, with the nobility taking more or less the rest, topped off with a complete lack of a social safety net and several devastatingly expensive wars. It takes a whole lotta lot to get people to run the barricades and one of the things that concerns me is that, it seems to me, the powerful have gotten a fairly fine handle on just how much they can get away with as long as they give the people access to enough to get by, some entertainment, and don’t beat them silly all the time. People’s democratic urges are pretty easily subverted, if you give them distractions instead.

    I don’t think it’s going to get better, either. I guess my view above is that it can get a whole lot more totalitarian before people even begin to have second thoughts. (Consider Rome in its heyday: you can have very long-running dictatorships as long as the people get their bread and circuses) Right now the US has done a good job of centralizing the reins of power; expect that process to continue. We won’t see a full-fledged imperial dictatorship unless/until there is a breakdown in the power-sharing arrangement between the military/industrial complex, wall street, and the police state. At this time that arrangement appears to be satisfying all the players, but if there’s a tip far enough in one direction or another, one of those entities may step up its ownership of the power structure and then that’s the end of the detente. If Wall Street’s greed causes another massive economic stumble, the corporateist state and police state might repress big money, which would entail shredding what’s left of the constitution. If the military/industrial complex keeps bleeding the economy white and causing pointless wars, it might trigger an economic collapse that would result in the administration basically getting bought out by corporate interests. If either of those happens and there’s general mayhem and violence, the police state might “feel obligated to step in and bring about order” which is the usual excuse for a general crackdown/housecleaning. It’s possible that the economic collapse will not come from mismanaged greed; it could simply be global warming and oceans rising – in either case, economic collapse and mayhem point to the police state evolving into a fascistic protectorate like China.

    In any of those cases, you can’t really mourn the death of the American Republic, because it was pretty much a lie from the beginning. Things can get a lot worse, though.

  4. says

    Addendum to my previous: in either case, popular revolts almost always result in dictatorships. Either overt ones, like the US sponsors all around the world, or dictatorships masquerading as democracies like the US (ironically, the US pseudodemocracy is the model on which Putin’s Russia and China’s whatever-you-call-it are built)

  5. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    Obama was selected for this role to put a liberal-friendly coat of blackface on the dying neocon franchise. In that he has been a magnificent success. The “liberal” wing of the ministry of propaganda has demonized white males for so long that blacks actually have more credibility among middle class white voters. Being black is an effective camouflage for being Bush IV.

    Anyone who criticizes Obama from a leftist perspective will be denounced as a “racist” as if there can be no reason for anyone, including Republicans, to oppose this guy than his race. With 95 percent of Americans being wiling to vote for a black president it is kind of hard to make the case hostility towards Obama is based on race.

    If you want to see a real example of a racist, sexist hatchet job being directed against a genuine leftist black candidate, just do a google for “Cynthia McKinney crazy.” Many of the hits will be for “liberal” sites, which repeat the same slanders against her as the worst wingnut trolls.

  6. Dunc says

    People’s democratic urges are pretty easily subverted, if you give them distractions instead.

    People don’t generally have democratic urges, especially if they’re under stress. They have survival urges, and it’s only when you start triggering those that you run the risk of serious civil upset. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re pretty few and far between, and almost always involve major schisms within the ruling elite.

  7. jws1 says

    “With 95% of Americans being willing to vote for a black president it is kind of hard to make the case of hostility towards Obama is based on race.”
    This is the same quote as “I can’t be racist, I have black friends.” Thanks for whitesplaining it to us.

  8. sumdum says

    I just wonder, when the final straw breaks the back of the American people, will they lash out against the ones responsible or against the ones that the right has told them are responsible? I fear it’s the latter.

  9. smrnda says

    Obama seems to be hated most by rural, uneducated white voters. These people tend to want to believe in America as a land of opportunity and as a meritocracy. They also desperately need to view Black people as criminals or welfare queens so they can feel superior to someone. Obama as a generic educated Black guy who worked hard to get ahead makes these people feel ashamed of their own lack of achievement and declining prospects. When Obama accurately described how they would cling to religion and guns, they did just that and then seemed to hate Obama for pointing out the obvious.

    I think the answer is that rural, uneducated white people care more about tribalism than whether or not their teeth are falling out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *