Fear of a Black Planet

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One of my favorite episodes of Frontline ever was a piece on the 10 year anniversary of the OJ Simpson verdict; it was smarter about the actual trial than the culture has allowed us to be and contextualized it in the context of race relations.  Near the end, there was a segment in a South Central Los Angeles barbershop (the general consensus of the patrons, that the LAPD "framed a guilty man" was earlier offered in the documentary by a criminal procedure class at Georgetown Law) which ended with two of the African-American men doing a run about Simpson finding out he wasn't really accepted in the white community just like Michael Jackson found out he wasn't really accepted in the white community because at the end of the day, "white people call rich black people niggers."

In one of my previous health care pieces I got the jump on Jimmy Carter in suggesting the hyperbolic reaction to Obama bears a relationship to his race.  That doesn't mean that if you oppose Obama you're a racist - it doesn't even mean that Joe Wilson, Congressman from South Carolina who had previously opposed the removal of the Confederate flag from the state's capitol, had Obama's race consciously in his mind when he shouted out "you lie" during his address to Congress.  We've seen the same combination of dumbness, demogoguery, and corporate dollars in action mobilize in opposition to health care reform before.

What Obama's race does do is makes it easier for his opponents to get to that fevered level, makes it easier to cross that bridge to move him from "politician whose policies I disagree with" to "terrorist, Nazi, death panels, Muslim, Kenya, Manchurian Candidate, socialist, Arab."

There is a level of opposition to this health care bill that genuinely believes Obama is looking to destroy the United States - that his secret goal is to kill Americans.  They have filled talk radio with it, sent countless forwarded emails across cyberspace with it, that language existed at McCain-Palin campaign rallies, at the tea parties, the town hall meetings, the 9-12 March on Washington.  And some of it is clearly stoked - stoked by Simple Jack saying Obama has a "deep seated hatred for white people" or Rush Limbaugh saying "in Obama's America" black kids cheer as white kids get beaten up on a school bus (and the solution to that should be "segregation"), or by the National Republican Senatorial Committee who issued a poll which included the following question:

Rationing and Restricting Health Care - Are you concerned that health care rationing could lead to:
A "quota" system which would determine who would get treatment on the basis of race or age.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about another poll, a RNC poll that asked if people were concerned that political party affiliation might be a basis for determining who received treatment under a government run health care plan.  There is a feeder relationship in play here, Fox News and right wing talk have positioned themselves as the "real news" - where you won't get lied to by liberal facts like global warming or evolution.  Exponentially, the number of Americans who can live hermetically sealed in propaganda bubbles, uncluttered with thoughts other than those spewed at them by those married to the Christian and/or plutocratic right, has increased.  When you add the official imprint of the Republican Party, whether it's Sarah Palin connecting Obama to terrorists, calling his health care plan "evil", or Texas governor Perry using the word "secession", or that poll question - using the racially loaded word "quota" in the context of Obama's health care plan to imply that white people would lose access to doctors - it is just enough gas to set those predisposed to those sorts of thoughts aflame with anger.

You don't need to be racist to oppose Obama, but there haven't been guns at town hall meetings of the President before, there haven't been school district boycotts of Presidential speeches before, there haven't been Congressmen shouting out "you lie" at the President before, phrases like "terrorist fist jab" and "pals around with terrorists" weren't used to attack a President before. 

White Presidents, as Bill Clinton has pointed out, get attacked and attacked hard.  But less in a way which has as its premise the idea that they aren't really the President.  That they shouldn't be treated as the President.  There are lots of ways, to wrap this health care debate back to the first Obama speech, to think about what happened to Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, but there aren't white Harvard professors arrested under similar circumstances.  If we see a South Carolina congressman shout something at first African-American President that hasn't been shouted by a Congressman at a white President - or a Boston cop arrest a black Harvard professor for something a white Harvard professor has never been arrested for - it doesn't stretch the boundaries of fair play to fit that in a racial frame. 

Last week, a Republican congressman from Missouri used an anecdote about monkeys stealing golf balls to explain the condition in which conservatives find themselves in today's Washington.  Simple Jack and Rush Limbaugh have used the word "reparations" to explain Obama's motivating purpose behind social policy.  Limbaugh called Obama "an angry black guy". 

When some of his opponents see Obama, they don't see the President of the United States - they see "just another n***** in America."

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