I suppose that we can never have the perfect timing for this issue to be discussed or the perfect circumstances. But now that the discussion is happening, I'm trying to keep in mind some distinctions. One benefit I see of the current discussion on white racism and politics is that liberals are recognizing that that the power of the Radical Right today, with its deep roots in the Republican Party, can't be dismissed as ineffective and crazy, though "crazy" is very obviously there.
Some people actually know what they're talking about on the topic, e.g., Jimmy Carter.
Others are completely clueless about the subject, e.g., Maureen Dowd and David Brooks. (In that link, Bobo Brooks also shows himself to be fairly clueless about Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, too - no surprise there.)
Our Pod Pundits on TV love to talk about race. They generally talk about it in the silliest and most superficial ways possible. And, as always, they follow the very narrow and often ditzy Beltway Village scripts in doing so. But at least it spares them the painful boredom of having to talk about health care policy or research comparisons between spending and results on health care in the US versus other wealthy countries.
Bob Somerby is doing his part to try to keep the discussion of race fact-based, though he doesn't seem to have great expectations about the prospects for that having great success. In his Daily Howler post of 09/17/09, he takes another pass at the perils of a superficial and ahistorical approach to the problem of white racism in politics. As he puts it:
Liberals ran off and hid in the woods during the wars against Clinton and Gore. Perhaps for that reason, it’s hard to get our “liberal leaders” to discuss what happened back then. That leaves liberals thinking that the vitriol aimed at Obama is without known human precedent. It must be the racists, we declare.
Yes, there’s race in the vitriol aimed at Obama. (There was race in the vitriol aimed at Clinton! Remember how hard slimy little Drudge worked to pimp that “black love child?”) But the similarities between these Democratic eras vastly outweigh the differences - except in the “career liberal” world.
And except on cable, of course.
Remember: If you form the wrong diagnosis for a problem, you will soon be forming the wrong solution. And good lord! How we love doing that!
Can we share a little secret? Some of us liberals are in love with racism. We wouldn’t know what to do without it. [my emphasis in bold]
This is why I put so much greater value on what Jimmy Carter had to say. Because he not only knows the problem of white racism in politics in his historical context, in its complexity and in its specifics. But that doesn't mean he has to talk about it as though he were delivering an academic treatise. On the contrary, he's actually good about capturing that kind of complexity in brief and clear statements. Given his awareness of his own moral authority, he surely had thought carefully about the statements he made on the subject this week. And he sounded as though he were choosing his words very carefully.
Gene Lyons in Obama gets the Clinton treatmentSalon 09/17/09 is focusing on the same risk: that our celebrity pundits' fondness for talking about race can wind up distracting us from the important historical continuities in the Republicans' behavior.
The journalists that I see doing the best actual reporting and analysis on this aren't from the Establishment press, which doesn't surprise me: Dave Neiwert of Crooks and Liars, Sara Robinson of the Campaign for America's Future (CAP), Max Blumenthal, Michelle Goldberg, Frederick Clarkson, and Bruce Wilson, the latter few of whom write in various forums including The American Prospect, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, Talk2Action.org and Religion Dispatches.
One distinction is between the role white racism plays among movement conservatives, among violence-oriented far-right groups, among grassroots Republican voters, among independent white voters (and there don't seem to be that many independents right now), and among Democrats. The differences are important enough to render generalizations about racism among "white voters" largely meaningless unless those distinctions are kept in mind.
There are quite a lot of studies and polling data out there that are relevant to the discussion. But because racism is a more general attitude than a specific issue, polling data have to be interpreted especially carefully. Just summarizing white voting versus minority voting, like Tom Edsall likes to do, doesn't really tell us much by itself. It's more likely to just be a template on which the writer can spin his or her own favorite assumptions.
But it is possible to use polling data sensibly and with reasonable caution, as Joan Walsh did in a recent post, for instance, in which she observes, "[Obama's] current 43 percent white approval rating could be cited as proof that Obama has simply come back down to earth after more than seven months in office, since that's the exact share of white support he got on Election Day.)" In that column, she looked at overall trends in declining approval for Obama, which is a larger set of trends that the passions of the teaparty activists.
She adds an additional worthwhile polling observation in this excerpt from Salon 09/17/09:
But if you read the 800 letters on my "Blackening of the President" piece, you'll mostly hear that race doesn't play a role in Obama's problems. What I found astonishing was the extent to which so many on the left and right seemed to agree that Obama's troubles with white voters are entirely policy, and have nothing to do with race. From the right, his white numbers are declining sharply because he really is a socialist; from the left, it's because he's a crypto-Republican and betrayed us on FISA, torture and maybe now the public option. Had they clicked through to the Pew poll I linked to, my racism-denying friends on the left would have been sadly disappointed. Obama's support has fallen much more among conservative Democrats than liberal Democrats, 12 points to 6 points. Pew didn't break that down by race, but it's an interesting data point.
Finally, I also said multiple times that I don't think Obama's drop in white approval is mainly about racism. It very likely reflects a predictable coming back down to earth for a black president who got 43 percent of the white vote. But to deny the role race is playing in stirring up the Birthers and Deathers and the Limbaugh and Glenn Beck fans is silly. [my emphasis]
Michele Goldberg has a good new piece, The Return of the RepressedThe American Prospect Online 09/15/09, which gives a glimpse of how racism can intertwine intimately with economic concerns:
To some extent, a newfound suspicion of government was probably inevitable as soon as Democrats took power. At the same time, with the implosion of the Christian right's leadership and the last year's cornucopia of GOP sex scandals, the party needed to take a break from incessant moralizing, and required a new ideology to take the place of family values cant. The belief system analysts sometimes call "producerism" served nicely. Producerism sees society as divided between productive workers -- laborers, small businessmen and the like -- and the parasites who live off them. Those parasites exist at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy -- they are both financiers and welfare bums -- and their larceny is enabled by the government they control.
Producerism has often been a trope of right-wing movements, especially during times of economic distress, when many people sense they're getting screwed. Its racist (and often anti-Semitic) potential is obvious, so it gels well with the climate of Dixiecrat racial angst occasioned by the election of our first black president. The result is the return of the repressed.