Look, the sooner we admit that the same group of people who resisted desegregation didn’t just up and become enlightened in 1970 all at once, the better off we’ll be. I’m particularly annoyed that Gene Lyons leaned on Rick Perlstein’s descriptions of the fear of the hard right nuts showing up at town halls to somehow disprove that the people who are showing up are motivated by racism.
Video of a town hall meeting with Democratic House members at Arkansas Children’s Hospital showed protesters trembling with emotion. Writing in the Washington Post, historian Rick Perlstein (“Nixonland”) noticed the same thing: “The quiver on the lips of the man pushing the wheelchair, the crazed risk of carrying a pistol around a president – too heartfelt to be an act.”
Why? Because Rick did an amazing job in Nixonland of spelling out how racism informed the right wing paranoia at the time, detailing the urban legends that erupted in the wake of the Freedom Ride, with the one that really stuck out at me (for being so bizarre) being the widely held belief amongst Southern whites that dogs strongly reacted to the smell of “sex” on Freedom Riders. No, I’m not joking.
Lyons is right that fear can erupt into violence, and that’s we should be afraid of the fear that we’re seeing in the right. But I fail to see how the genuineness of people’s fear negates the racism that births it. At least since the Civil War, racism has always been justified by whipping up people into a fearful frenzy. Remember, lynch mobs used to justify their actions by bringing up the specter of black men raping white women. (That there was no evidence was conveniently ignored.) These people felt a “genuine” fear, too, but I doubt that Lyons would say that negates their racism or that we’re being unfair to call them racist.
Clenched jaws, trembling lips, the complete freakout. It’s all present. Needless to say, Richard Nixon was able to run on a race-baiting “law and order” campaign, which is basically taking racist fears about black criminality and using that as a campaign platform. Again, the fears being stoked felt real. Doesn’t make them one iota less racist.
In my experience, racial prejudice is transmitted through two main forms: jokes and fear. There are, in some upper class circles, books and articles trying to “prove” the inferiority of some races, books like The Bell Curve, but for most people, jokes and fear are the main forms of communication of racial prejudice. Jokes are trotted out as a form of social dominance. Someone will own the room by making a racist joke, and if you protest, you get slapped with the “no sense of humor” card. Jokes are an incredibly effective way of setting social norms, because it’s not like someone is going to walk into a room and announce, “I find racial bigotry disgusting, don’t you agree?” unprompted. So the racist with his jokes sets the tone first.
But fear’s the other big one. Fear is rarely that explicit, because it can be transmitted by implication. (Though not always. I heard a story from a man recently looking to buy a house in east Austin, and a co-worker said, “It gets a little dark out there at night, doesn’t it?” It took him a few seconds to realize what the guy was getting at, and didn’t know what to do.) Well, we’re not talking fear exactly. What we’re talking about is paranoia. And what’s great about paranoia as a propaganda tool is that it doesn’t need reality to generate fear. All you need is to whip people into a frenzy. Paranoia can exist without any attachment to the real world. And it is genuinely felt. More from Lyons:
Conservatives determined to prevent Obama from succeeding understand that their best chance is to frighten poorly informed voters historically susceptible to conspiracy theories – particularly in rural states far from centers of power.
Listening to the idiots go on about Nazis and socialism, I’ve pieced together roughly what the conspiracy theory is. It doesn’t have to be spelled out—at this point, the racists are so good at communicating by implication, that’s all they need to do. They see a black President and assume that he’s going to do what they elect conservative white politicians to do, which is to reinforce their racial dominance. Or, to be more blunt, they think the black President is using health care reform as a cover to steal from white people and give to black people. That’s why the “death panels” crap has taken off. The nutty white people grasp that non-white Americans are more likely to be uninsured than white Americans. Put this information into a paranoid brain that believes in a zero sum game and what you get is this conclusion: In order to pay for more non-white people to get health care, some white people are going to have to die to save money. And that’s why they’re scared. But if they weren’t so fucking racist, they wouldn’t be scared.
And this, to him, means that we need to set out to persuade these idiots, and to stop calling them stupid racists, even though that’s exactly what they are. Do you see the problem here? The reason the rural states, etc. are easy to whip up into a paranoid, often racist frenzy is because they are faced daily with the choice of abandoning their racism and their paranoia or abandoning the ego service their racism gives them. The notion that we can tackle this problem and beat it during the health care reform debate is laughable. People have been trying to roll back racist paranoia for more than a century now. What we’ve found is that you’re not going to get these assholes to give an inch unless they have to.
The only thing to do when faced with paranoid racists is to get in power and do what has to be done over their squawking. And trust that they’ll get over it. At least, they will eventually, and those who don’t will die off and their kids will be a little less racist, or in many cases, they may even turn into people who abhor racism. If liberals had decided that consensus was important on other racially charged issues before we move—issues like, oh, desegregation—we’d still be waiting. They aren’t going to change their minds. Their fear is entrenched. The only thing that will change their minds is immersion therapy, putting them in a situation where they have to face their fears and realize that it wasn’t at all what they thought it would be like.
To suggest that the opinions of screaming racists must be changed before we can take action is to concede the McCain/Palin argument that crazy racist white people are the only Real Americans®. No other group gets the privilege of being flattered that our opinion matters no matter what. Liberals get shut out all the time. Let’s get past the idea that the most important Americans are the paranoid right wingers. The sooner we get to marginalizing them, the better off we’ll be.