Required Reading on Racism and the Right Wing

First, Adam Serwer on another right-wing dogwhistle phrase: What Right Wingers Mean When They Call Obama Socialist. He explores the long history of American politicians using “socialist” as short-hand for “scary black person”:

Conservatives, now and in the past, have turned to “socialism” and “communism” as shorthand to criticize black activists and political figures since the civil-rights era. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X as written by Alex Haley, Malcolm recalls being confronting by a government agent tailing him in Africa, not long after his pilgrimage to Mecca. The agent was convinced that Malcolm was a communist. Malcolm spent years under surveillance because of such bizarre suspicions. Likewise, J. Edgar Hoover spent years attempting to link Martin Luther King Jr. to the communist cause. King, for his part, welcomed everyone who embraced the cause of black civil rights, regardless of their ideological ties. This included communists and socialists, but the idea that a devout man of God like King saw black rights as a mere step in a worldwide communist revolution was absurd. Malcolm was a conservative. King was a liberal. To their enemies, they were simply communists.

The feeling that black-rights activists were part of a front for communism and socialism was widespread. Jerry Falwell famously criticized “the sincerity and intentions of some civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, and others, who are known to have left-wing associations.” Falwell charged, “It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.” For the agents of intolerance, things haven’t changed much. On October 9, a McCain supporter told the candidate that he was angry about “socialists taking over our country.” McCain told him he was right to be angry.

The right wing continues to link the fight for black equality with socialism and communism. At the website of conservatism’s flagship publication, National Review, conservatives like Andy McCarthy argue whether Obama is “more Maoist than Stalinist,” and National Review writer Lisa Schiffren explicitly argued this summer that Obama must have communist links based on his interracial background. Schiffren mused, “for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics.”

This conclusion is one she shares with Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s, who declared that “amalgamation is ultimately the goal of the Communist element.”

And Megan at Jezebel — who, as a sidenote, has become one of my favorite bloggers, if you aren’t already reading her stuff — writes Just Say It: The Race-Baiting Tactics Of John McCain And Sarah Palin Are Reprehensible.

This is not purple Band-Aids and flip-flops, this is not “George Bush is a war criminal and should be prosecuted.” This is also not simple name calling: calling someone a traitor, or accusing him of treason, calling “off with his head” is a call for someone’s death, not an effort to mock or simply belittle him. This is hate speech, this is, in some cases, a series of threats against people’s lives and they should be stopped, immediately and directly by the candidates, who should say without equivocation that such speech and such threats are not welcome. But they won’t, because this is the new McCain strategy: portray Obama as the outsider, the threat to America, the guy cavorting with terrorists — who, in the minds’ eyes of many of these people, are not white college professors, let’s add —, the one who doesn’t understand the “real” America. This is code for “white” America. The McCain campaign is using some horrible, twisted fear that apparently lives in the hearts of too many Americans that there are two Americas (as John Edwards said) and that they are a white one and a black one, a good one and a bad one, an honorable one and a hooliganish one, a democratic one and a socialist one. And there is a time and a place to give people the benefit of the doubt, and there is a time and a place for the media to stand up and say: we know your faces, we know what you are and we reject you.

Read ’em both. Adam and Megan are right: This isn’t just about differences of political opinion or the usual “liberals-are-socialist-pussies” rhetoric. This is getting scary. John McCain and Sarah Palin may not be the ones yelling “Kill him!” at rallies, but they are instigating their supporters and playing the fear card as hard as they can. And that’s dangerous — when they continue to position Barack Obama as a threat to America and our very way of life, they send the message that something needs to be done. Some conservatives have already suggested “the fucking solution” — a noose.

This isn’t politics as usual — although I suppose it is a rehashing of segregationist-era tactics that never explicitly promoted violence, but made it clear enough. To quote Georgia Congressman John Lewis:

“During another period, in the not-too-distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights.

“Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.”

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7 comments for “Required Reading on Racism and the Right Wing

  1. October 14, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    i think adam is overlooking an alternative explanation; republicans frequently call strong democrats “socialists”, there isn’t anything racist with it. bill clinton, hillary, ted kennedy, etc all have been called socialists, it just goes back to playing up on the red fear.

    i haven’t read his entire article, just what you’ve posted here, but i think there’s other possibilities here.

  2. October 14, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    There’s racist themes like these in the presidential race, many local races, and some key policy debates. To find out more about them, visit

  3. Angela
    October 14, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    What many on this blog are witnessing from the “majority” is not some new phenomena. I say “majority” because prejudice is no respecter of any party affiliation, religion, ideology or the like. I am neither a democrat nor republican, and, as a woman of color, I knew from the beginning that racial prejudice would rear its ugly head, not because of McCain/Palin/Obama, but in spite of them. In a sense, we colored folk aren’t disillusioned by it in any way. I have no hateful words for anyone and I am not confounded by the prejudice because I and my family have lived it all of lives. So, if I had a choice between racists being out in the open and exercising their first amendment rights as opposed to them plotting my demise in secret, I’d rather let them chant until they get tired or go hoarse.

    Because, the way to cure any prejudice is to introduce yourself to someone who is very different from you.

  4. brainiac9
    October 14, 2008 at 3:24 pm

    GAH. The whole “He’s a socialist!” thing has been driving me nuts for ages now. As it happens, “eek socialism!” is not a super-valid argument. Neither is “eek communism!” or “eek marxism!” – unless, much as is necessary for any other argument, it’s backed up with a certain amount of logic and/or evidence. So much for that.

    Unfortunately, using “eek socialism!” (or any variant thereof) as the ultimate trump card is not a phenomenon limited to the US, and nor is it limited in its use as a racist dog-whistle to the US. I’m still bitter that my previous member of parliament (thank God I moved) decided to block Canada’s attempts to give Nelson Mandela honourary citizenship based on his belief that Nelson Mandela “is a communist and a terrorist.” Considering his history of barely-concealed racism (like believing that Canada’s foreign aid should be used to “make them more like us”), I’m pretty convinced his comments make him part of a larger, wingnuttier picture.

  5. Brian
    October 14, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    I think “socialist”, “Marxist” and “communist” are misused as much as the terms “free market” or “capitalism”. All of those words have very particular meanings, but both sides of the political equation are guilty of not using the terms correctly.

    The Left has greatly erred when it discusses the “free market” ideology of the current Administration, or blames the current credit crisis on “capitalism” run amok. The Bush Administration has interfered more into the economy than the Clinton Administration.

    The Right greatly errs when it labels any government program generally as “socialist” or “communist”. As these items really go to the ownership of the means of production. In that regard, the current bailout under the Bush Administration is partly socialist in that the government will own shares of financial institutions.

    As a hated libertarian, I think Hayek gets it right when he dedicated The Road to Serfdom “[t]o the Socialists of All Parties”.

  6. October 14, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    One thing I think a lot of commentators have missed in jumping all over John Lewis: There’s an apt comparison there, not because McCain is sending the exact same message as Wallace, but that because he’s using the same tactics. As boldly racist as George Wallace was, the literal words of his speeches were never as inflammatory as their full meaning. Both men have been content to use coded rhetoric to whip up a crowd of supporters, then step back form the consequences when their supporters (who they may well view as ignorant yahoos) take things a few steps further.

    I think part of the reason it took McCain so long to start feebly arguing back with his more vicious crowds is that he simply didn’t see himself as responsible for their actions or beliefs. Obviously he can’t be held responsible for every one of his supporters, but I think he may have been surprised to find the media holding him accountable for tacitly supporting the terrorist/communist nonsense by letting it pass unchallenged.

  7. Steve
    October 14, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    Personally I do not see the Racism in this. I also think socialism can be a slippery term as all terms can be. What do you mean by socialism. George Bush may not be a leftist but he has as another poster put it ” fiddled with the economy”. Pure capatilism is good for raising capital just as the name implies but it also is an indiscriminate bulldozer of those unable to get out of the way for whatever reason. Any regulation is not economically sound in the large picture from a purely cold economic perspective. We regulate not for economic reasons but social ones. Any regulation is a small (albeit infintesimal) step towards socialistic thinking. We regulate to spare people who cant get out of the way, and we pay a price for doing so. This is well accepted by almost all economists. The sticking point is this….what will we accept and pay gladly and what is too high a price to pay. What it comes down to is how much do you care and what price is too high for that caring.

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