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 out over 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 president doesn’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.