Amid the endless oil spill, endless war, and endless unemployment crisis, the past summer brought us the more punctual and considerably more imaginary Shirley Sherrod affair, in which a black Department of Agriculture official was accused of discriminating against white farmers in Georgia. The accusation was made on the basis of a distorted edit of a speech Sherrod gave to the NAACP back in March. In her speech, Sherrod spoke of struggling to overcome her reluctance to help the same kind of people who had murdered her father during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. A classic piece of the Christian forgive-your-enemies rhetoric of the civil rights movement, Sherrod’s talk was misleadingly cut and pasted onto YouTube by the blogger Andrew Breitbart, in such a way as to imply unrepentant “reverse racism.” The clip received wide airplay on Fox News and was then picked up by less partisan news organizations, leading Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to order Sherrod’s resignation. Some days later, the record was set straight after left-wing bloggers circulated the full speech, and the same white farmer Sherrod had apparently discriminated against, if only in thought, came forward to say how much she’d done for him in deed.
In spite of Sherrod’s vindication, the affair was another political triumph for the right. The White House went no further than to blame the fake scandal on technology and the 24-hour news environment, probably because polls show that distrust of the media is bipartisan. The actual content of the fake scandal, unlike its form, could hardly be discussed by respectable parties. We all know that racism has been sufficiently anathematized in America that it can no longer present itself directly, perhaps no longer even to the minds of those who engage in it. A paradoxical consequence of this apparent progress is that only in extreme cases can racism be referred to publicly by people in a position to condemn it. One begins to think of race in Obama’s America like sex in some caricature of Freud’s Vienna: simultaneously the main theme of all conversation, and the one that can’t be mentioned. Instead of being “overcome,” historic American racism against nonwhite people has gone into deep cover and, with the irrefutable illogic of the unconscious, emerged as a newfangled American antiracism for the protection of white people.
In a polite New Yorker profile back in May, Breitbart had come across as a jovially savage, “just joshin’ you” provocateur, a Mexican-Jewish disciple of Camille Paglia. Calling himself “pro-miscegenation,” he compounded the confusion with some schizophrenic pronoun use: “There’s nothing in this country that is a worse accusation — in America, if you accuse somebody of racism, you have to disprove that.” He was sticking up for Rush Limbaugh, but now we know he was also articulating the right’s new strategy.
“This guy, is, I believe, racist,” said Glenn Beck of Obama back in 2009, probably because he believed, like Breitbart, that when you accuse somebody of racism, however baselessly, the burden of proof shifts to the accused. Crucially, too, these arbitrary, almost spasmodic cries of “racist” serve to devalue the word, paralyze public discourse, and make it easier for actual racist ideology to resurface under the guise of its opposite. Like Breitbart, Beck is a buffoon, but he’s not an idiot, and he’s certainly not harmless. The crowds thronging to join Beck’s march on Washington — conveniently coinciding with the 47th anniversary of King’s “I had a dream” speech — showed the rest of us that Obama’s “postracial” America looks a lot like racial America. Tens of thousands of white people gathered at the bidding of a man who’d claimed, with the easy demagogic facility of George Wallace, that our president has “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” No one bothered to ask Beck whether the Constitution is part of “white culture.” In fact there has been an authentic white culture in American history, or rather a way of life concerned above all with the protection and preservation of white ethnic domination, and playing up the white victim has always been a part of it.
The present blooming fantasy of white victimization has roots in the peculiar violent institutions of the 19th-century American South. In the distant mirror of history, it’s easy to spot the irony and the guilt: even before the Civil War began, whites worried that their slaves would rise up and repay their masters in kind — filch the fruit of their labor, rape them, and beat them, sometimes to death. As soon as the balance of power shifted and news of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse circulated throughout the former slave states, those fears ran amok. Mark Summers, a historian of the disastrous “Reconstruction” that condemned recently freed blacks to another century of oppression, has observed that the South, unlike the North, had no truly independent newspapers or magazines. What fair and balanced organs then existed reported rumors and falsehoods, like the arrival of a “liberating” French army sent by Napoleon III the same week of Lee’s surrender, or the forced seizure of former plantations by mobs of roving blacks. In Summers’s telling phrase, “the white south saw with dreadful clarity things that did not exist.”
Despite “40 acres and a mule” talk of land redistribution, most freed slaves signed contracts to sharecrop for their former masters within a few months of the war’s official end. Defeated only on the battlefield, the Confederate army rapidly reorganized into the rifle clubs and citizens’ watch councils that would come to be known as the Ku Klux Klan. President Andrew Johnson granted full amnesty to all but a handful of secessionist Southern representatives, because he was their President too, and one year after Lee’s surrender, a former slave-hunter turned gunman could openly plot race murder, writing in a local paper about the need to “thin the niggers out and drive them to their holes.” The Civil War continued by other means and the South did rise again.
Racist vigilante groups derived a sense of their legitimacy from the idea that they were defending themselves against lawless blacks and Northern “carpetbaggers.” Their tactics were the perennial tactics of terrorists everywhere: attacks on lines of communication, both railway and telegraph; attacks on schools and teachers who wanted to educate the minority population; night visits to prominent but poorly protected ideological opponents. Cross burning happened later. In those early days, the Klan was likely just to beat a man for twenty minutes with a horse stirrup before either hanging him or agreeing to let him go as a warning to others. More relevant for our more repressed era, they also scored a remarkable PR success with the aid of rehabilitated Southern congressmen, who dismissed reports of white Southern violence as mere “waving the bloody shirt”; that is, as fictions spread by northern “radicals” to incite more civil violence. In a 2008 case study of what he calls “terror after Appomattox” in Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, the historian Stephen Budiansky concludes that the Confederate vigilantes “made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency.”
It can be tempting to write about America the way our newspapers often write about foreign countries, where ancient resentments or archaic tribal structures still determine the course of modern politics. Even though we’ve mostly done away with outright racial violence, the memory of violence survives in the symbolism of the Shirley Sherrod affair, the signs at Tea Party protests that say “the zoo has an African Lion and the White House has a Lyin’ African,” and the “open carry” demonstrations sponsored by the NRA, descendant of the Confederate gun clubs, at the town hall meetings for national health care. Sure, race relations in America are no longer just black and white. The “Minutemen” patrol the Arizona desert looking not for newly freed slaves but for “illegals.” And yes, since 1968 we have witnessed a measure of individual African-American achievement, of which the “historic” election of 2008 is only the most recent instance and perhaps culmination. Even so we have not yet achieved a more intriguing benchmark of progress: the election to the presidency of the descendant of an actual slave.
The most enduring behaviors of nations, like the hardest-to-break habits of individuals, are those we are least aware of. The new racists — that is to say, “concerned citizens” of Caucasian descent — seem only dimly conscious of past American racism, an ignorance no doubt unconsciously maintained, but more potent for that. Journalists for supposedly liberal publications like the Times and the New Republic have sought “actual racists” in the Tea Party movement and, because no one would say the N-word on the record, duly exonerated the Tea Partiers of racist intent. In exchange, Tea Party spokespeople acknowledge that the odd unreconstructed crank might turn up at one of their rallies. It’s a free country. All the reporters could find was that self-identified Tea Partiers were more likely than most Americans to pick a poll option asserting that “too much attention has been paid to problems facing Black Americans.”
Ostensibly, then, all the Tea Partiers want are the same contradictory things that most real Americans want: Medicare benefits, disproportionate federal spending on rural districts, and no taxes. As a T-shirt puts it, “I’ll keep my guns, money, and freedom, you can keep the ‘Change.’” But the summer’s events show that the defense of unthreatened freedoms counts for less than an apparently widespread white wish to make more out of their difficulties than other people. This is no longer a culture war, a revolt of stoics against the “culture of complaint,” but something deeper and older that precedes the identity politics movements it aims to subvert. Forty-two years after the Civil Rights Act, white people who still think of themselves predominantly as “white people” want to air their grievances with the aid of a social movement. One half of what passes for American two-party discourse calls now for another rebirth of a nation: the Caucasian States of America, a postmodern ethno-nationalist republic.
To say that the Republican Party these days stands for white ethno-nationalism is not an op-ed exaggeration or Washington parlor-game witticism on par with Jonah Goldberg’s deliberately thought-annihilating oxymoron “Liberal Fascism.” The Confederacy provided us with our own native opposition to classical 19th-century Liberalism, both economic and political, and it shouldn’t really be that surprising that contemporary antiliberalism with strong support in the former slave and border states borrows its language and gestures.
The revolt of the Southern states in 1861 was a failed second American Revolution to create an ethnocracy, rather than a democracy — that is, rule by a particular kind of person, rather than “the people” as a deliberately vague and open-ended group. Whatever its faults, the original Constitution did not contain this clause that the Confederates put in: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed” (Article 1.9.4). In the Southern ethnocracy, the “We the people,” became restrictive rather than inclusive, and so solved all sorts of troublesome questions about universal rights. The freedom most enjoyed by the citizens of the Confederacy was the freedom to deprive other people of their freedom.
The robust case for dominating other people sounds awful to most American ears today. So the contemporary idea of ethnocracy relies instead on an opposite rhetoric of victimization. The simple-minded mantra we’re taught in grade school goes like this: blacks good because oppressed, whites bad because oppressors. So if whites suddenly became oppressed, even while remaining the majority, they would magically become good again. Many Americans are now being taught to think this way.
The manufactured controversy over lower Manhattan’s Cordoba House Islamic center offers one more example of how the contemporary right seizes on a trivial event to create a false choice between ethnic minority and majority, in which the majority emerges — an increasingly familiar surprise — as terrorized victim. There is no dispute that both American common-law traditions of liberty of conscience and the First Amendment protect the construction of the center, regardless of its popularity. It shouldn’t be a big deal. And yet: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate,” tweeted Sarah Palin, white goddess of the victimization movement. This opening salvo was later amended, with little more grammatical success, to “Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan if you believe catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real.” The idea that 9/11 somehow taints all of Islam, so that all Muslims should be honor-bound not to practice their religion within an unspecified radius of Ground Zero for fear of hurting other people’s feelings — this is like the blood libel meets Oprah.
In defending themselves, right-wingers are quick to make an analogy to symbolic politics on the left, as when South Carolina was lobbied not to fly the Confederate battle flag. The parallel, however, is only negatively instructive. The Confederate flag is a political symbol, not a religious one. The United States grants freedom of religion and individual expression, but it does not grant the freedom for states, or individuals, to enter and leave the Union at will. When a state makes treason part of its coat of arms, it sends a signal that it may not be bound by the same laws binding other states, including those that protect against racial or religious discrimination.
But it’s futile to insist on nuances of history and law when we’re speaking the language of “offense.” The mythical heartland Sarah Palin speaks from, or for, is full of these voiceless, downtrodden plain folk who are constantly being offended, for whom there is no end to the offenses, real or imagined, perpetrated against them: the Mexican immigrant speaking his native tongue, the Muslim at his prayers, the black man drinking from a public water fountain (oh wait, that one’s not offensive anymore . . .). One of the more charming stories in Budiansky’s history of Reconstruction concerns a Southern gentleman who wanted a freed slave whipped because he had the temerity to wish him “good morning” without being spoken to first. These offended people see with such dreadful clarity things that don’t exist, and so remake reality to suit their grievances.
Of course, the majority of white Americans, like the majority of all other kinds of Americans, have good reason to feel aggrieved. They are the victims of bad economic and foreign policies; their state budgets are crippled by debts, their federal legislature is paralyzed, environmental catastrophe stalks their shores, oceans, and atmosphere. But when they go to the polls in November, if they go at all, a fair number of them will cast their vote on the basis of who stood up for them against imaginary Muslim hordes invading lower Manhattan to pray to their terrorist God.
In a late interview by turns confessional and triumphant, Lee Atwater, author of the strategy that turned the solidly Democratic, racist South into the solidly Republican, racist South, described the Southern Strategy’s metamorphosis over the years, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.” Partly through Atwater, Republicans developed a kind of reverse means test, an economic version of the old “one-drop rule.” Policies that were likely to help blacks, even if they were also likely to help poor whites, because they were policies largely designed to help the poor, regardless of color, became issues to campaign against: welfare, health care, federal education funding, progressive taxation, clean air regulations, funding for public transportation, just about any “progressive policy” you can think of. Some whites would be hurt, but blacks would be hurt worse. This has proved true. African Americans as a group are still poorer than whites as a group, regardless of the achievements of this generation’s talented tenth and of the growing army of the unemployed of all colors.
Atwater’s explanation, delivered with the bland amorality of the pure strategist, accidentally illuminates what has really changed in American racial history since the Civil Rights Act and MLK’s assassination. After 1968, it became embarrassing to be perceived as a racist, and ultimately more beneficial to the former racists to transform the struggle for greater equality into a simple denial that racial inequality was ever a problem. Thus the postmodern approach most articulately espoused by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who has argued that Atwater’s strategy did, in fact, successfully emancipate itself from its referents and intentions; that people are now drawn to the Republican Party or the Tea Party not because a part of them wants to yell racist epithets but because they really believe in states’ rights and an end to progressive taxation. Libertarianism, Douthat claims, is not just esoteric language for old racism, but the actual substance of the party’s aims. No doubt there are people for whom The Road to Serfdom is more important than black Americans’ road out of serfdom, just as there are also people more likely to worry about whether affirmative action is keeping them out of law school than whether their top-choice program was built with the profits of slave labor.
It’s ancient history, after all — 1787, 1857, 1865, or 1968. Yet the Tea Partiers, by their name alone, have chosen to steep themselves in that history. This too is bad conscience, pomo evasiveness, an assault on national memory, and yet another ploy to claim victimhood by playing dress-up. Good ol’ Americana from our “good” revolution covers, like a creeping vine, the more relevant foundations of today’s American right. The ideology of states’ rights against federal enforcement, the metastasized right to bear arms, the fear of “big government” intervention — these were the pillars on which the Confederate and later segregationist South sought to erect a white plantation nation. The use to which these ideas were put in the American past forever taints their invocation, as it rightly should.
While not even Sarah Palin would suggest that we bring back slavery, the ferocity of the right-wing opposition to the disappointingly moderate technocratic policies of this Democratic administration cannot be explained in merely strategic legislative or electoral terms. It’s about more than winning elections for people like Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who, as part of a plan to intimidate undocumented immigrants, recently called for the repeal of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves; it’s about rewriting American history as the travails of a trod-upon Caucasian nation.
As of right now, there exists no serious strategy to combat this new bigotry. The Democratic leadership appears content to hope that once these radical Republican race-baiters take control of Congress after the midterm elections, the ordinary responsibilities and realities of power will force them to abandon the strategies they used to obtain power. That is, after all, what the Democrats do. The activist left, marginalized by the centrist Democratic party yet always hoping to be led by it, never imagined that they’d have to refight political racism, and so failed to try to force Republican bigots to defend their unacceptable rhetoric and even more unacceptable policies in the few neutral media venues that still exist. And it did seem improbable that we’d have to refight the old civil rights battles so soon after an election that so many wished was the “historic” culmination of African Americans’ struggle for equal rights. If we lived in better times, it might have sufficed to let the Tea Party’s reactionaries dig their own graves. The trouble now appears to be that a new white ethno-nationalism of imaginary victimization — something that can only be racism, but can’t publicly be called “racism” — will infect American politics for years to come.