Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why Race Matters

Paul Krugman writes that, somewhat to his surprise, voters often turn to the right during economic hard times. The Nobel Prize winning economist admits to naivete in thinking that the financial meltdown, a direct consequence of deregulation, would turn people against the free market ideologues of the Republican party. He cites a recent study indicating that economic downturns do in fact push many voters to the right, regardless of the cause of the downturn.

But why? Krugman minimizes President Obama's race, agreeing that it is a factor but probably not the main factor. If he means that Obama's individual blackness is not the sole trigger for the right's vitriol and for the electorate as a whole to consider voting for the very party that most rigidly espouses the ideology that ruined the economy, he's probably correct. Nonetheless, race plays a key role in polarizing an electorate that all reason says should unite against the plutocrats who drive the economy's ups and downs. As president, Obama serves as a highly visible reminder that the United States has reached an unprecedented place when it comes to race.

The Great Depression, the worst economic crisis faced by the United States, forced a decisive political turn to the left. Franklin Roosevelt's policies -- like Social Security, the Wagner Act, and the Glass-Steagall Act -- stabilized the American economy for decades until Reaganism poisoned the body politic and turned loose the ideologues who pushed the economy to the brink. So it's not the case that economic crisis automatically means a right turn.

But the country was much whiter when Roosevelt took office in 1933. Absorption of the 20,000,000 immigrants who arrived between 1870-1915 was underway, and the Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas that seemed to assure that most future immigrants would be from Northern Europe. As with today's migrants, those immigrants served as imported cheap labor, but their presence was officially sanctioned and then limited by law. And the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans ensured the relative effectiveness of the new law. Bigotry remained, but there was no ongoing crisis.

Moreover, African-Americans were second-class citizens in every sense of the word. Far from designing New Deal programs to raise black economic circumstances, New Dealers found that support from powerful southern Congressmen depended on restricting programs to white males. Thus, it was easy for the white electorate to support legislation aimed at benefiting themselves. Massive unemployment had reached deeply into white communities; as people have done for time immemorial, whites not only expected the government to help, they reflexively knew that they would be first in line.

And they still want that. But what conservative whites perceive is a government that takes their money and gives it to investment banks and undeserving blacks and browns. (Regarding the former, they've got a point.) They believe that when Hispanics reach 30% of the population (as is expected), it will be because of illegal immigration rather than a high birth rate. They see an establishment more concerned with the rights of illegal immigrants than the disappearance of the verities of American life, which seem to have no more steadiness than the sands of sinkhole. Which makes right-wing politicians prey on these people, stoking their anger and convincing them that they can turn back the clock by repealing health care reform, building a border fence, and keeping the government out of business.

But why oppose business regulation when deregulation produced the current crisis? Because supporting regulation means allying with the liberal Obama-loving tree huggers who make common cause with minority groups and who want to take away guns, ban big cars, murder babies, and trash the Constitution. It means admitting that progressives -- people that their hero Glenn Beck wants to eradicate -- were right and that Glenn and Rush and Bill and Ann and Sean were wrong.

And that's out of the question in the political world of the right, a world of Us v. Not Us.

In this world, anyone Not Us are liberal Democrat Nazi socialist fascist communists led by a president who wasn't even born here. The puzzling contradiction of melding completely disparate political philosophies into one incoherent lump makes perfect sense once we realize that to the extreme right, all are equally antithetical to the American values personified by Us and represented by gun ownership, states' rights, and the purity of free enterprise. When the Not Us oppose Us, they oppose America; therefore anything they support must not only be un-American, it must be an attack on Us. And it must be motivated by hate, for why else would anyone oppose the real America?

When the Us resort to extremes, it's to fight back against the Not Us who run the country and who hate America. In other words, it's the Not Us who are the haters; the Us simply speak the truth and carry on the tradition of the American Revolution. (Somehow, the Civil War never enters the discussion.) Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, after all, and self-defense is what the Us are all about.

When the Us say they want their country back, that's exactly what they mean: Liberty and justice for them. The Not Us aren't real Americans anyway...

Empty New Orleans room...

The Treme scene at McAlary Manor was like something out of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer...

Rastamick hopes that Democrats are better than the likes of Richard Blumenthal...

Kentucky Republican senate nominee Rand Paul opposes the Americans with Disabilities Act as being unfair to business...

The myth of trickle-down economics...

The scenic route...

Confidential to CK readers: Any time anyone approaches you with a free Bible or a tract or wants to talk about your relationship with God, tell them that you're an atheist. So far, it's stopped them in their tracks every time. Saying that you're a Catholic works well, too, but doesn't draw the same stunned expression of disbelief...

9 comments:

Roy said...

It's amazing how many people refuse to see that President Obama's race is a factor in the vitriol being aimed at him and his admnistration. But then, as Malcolm X once said: "No bigot ever called himself that."

Ah! I love Greg Brown. He's another of the musicians I discovered listening to A Prairie Home Companion. I think Garrison Keillor deserves some serious recognition for the job he's done promoting American music. Brown, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, Peter Ostroushko, Andy Stein, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, BR 549, The Wailing Jennies, Chet Atkins... these are all people who have been regular performers at one point or another in the show's history, and except for Chet and Emmylou who already had a national following, were relatively obscure musicians who were introduced to a national audience via the show. That's an amazing accomplishment for a radio show in the TV era.

nursemyra said...

Why would saying you're an atheist elicit an expression of stunned belief? Are there so few in your neck of the woods?

K. said...

Roy: Swingin' Andy Stein! I saw him with Commander Cody and Lost Planet Airmen way back when. Another time, I saw him and Johnny Gimble sit in with Asleep at the Wheel. Living in Austin had its advantages, musically.

NM: The United States government does not ask people to provide their religious affiliation on census forms, so there's no way of knowing the exact number of American atheists. A privately commissioned 2008 poll said that 1.6% of Americans identify themselves as atheist or agnostic.

My experience with evangelists is that their aim is to convert you from your religion to theirs or to perform alchemy on someone's vague belief in God. They have trouble getting their arms around the notion that someone has chucked the whole idea altogether.

tnlib said...

Krugman has never called it what it is: Racism, period.

Sabine said...

I heart Paul Krugman, but applaud you for going deeper into the historic context for our behavior during tough economic times. I think you should email your post to Paul or as I like to call him, "The Krug" : )

Renegade Eye said...

When reformists promise reform and don't deliver, people go elsewhere. The masses through trial and error, try several directions. They were through the School of George Bush, and now through the School of Obama.

Except in certain regions, there is no right turn. Today there are more progressives than in the 1960s.

K. said...

Thanks, Sabine -- I will do just that. And I do think that PK is fantastic -- right up there with E J Dionne (known as "the great E J Dionne" in these parts).

Anonymous said...

I do that all the time, but then, I am an atheist. Of course, here in Australia that occurs far less often than in your country. I can't remember when it last happened to me here.
Peter Tibbles

tnlib said...

btw, I like Krugman as well, but he's always dismisssed the racism factor - which should be obvious to anyone with a grain of sense, especially if you've grown up in the South and recognize all the subtleties.