Saturday, May 28, 2011

Obama, Progressives, and the White Nationalist Backlash

Bill Fletcher, Jr. 
Task for progressives in 2012:
Monkey-wrenching the white united front

It has been striking that many progressives have said so little about
 race, racism, and the discourse of right-wing populism in the context
 of the upcoming elections.

In the context of the criticisms that many of us have of the Obama
 administration for what it has not accomplished, for its advance of a 
corporate agenda, and for the unacceptable compromises it has made 
with the Republicans, there is something that I have seen few
 progressives address. 

To borrow from a comment offered by television commentator Tavis
 Smiley, the 2012 elections are likely to be the most racist that most
 of us have seen in our lifetimes. Given this, what are the

 It has been striking that many progressives, particularly those who 
have not only written off President Obama but also written off all
 those who offered critical support to the Obama campaign in 2008, have 
said so little about race, racism, and the discourse of right-wing
 populism in the context of the upcoming elections.

We have witnessed the first Black president of the United States
 questioned about his citizenship and birthplace, yet I have seen
 precious little from many friends on the left side of the aisle
(particularly those so critical of Obama) responding to this. If you 
put your ear to the ground, however, you hear the murmurings of Black 
Americans furious that Obama was put in a place where he had to file a 
petition in order to obtain his Hawaii birth certificate.

 The murmurings do not stop there. When Donald Trump and other
 opportunists started asking questions about how it was that Obama got 
into Columbia University and Harvard Law School (i.e., was he REALLY 
qualified to have gotten into those schools?), for most of us enough
 was enough. Because this was no longer about Obama and it had very
 little to do with criticisms of Obama and his policies.

The white nationalist backlash is using Obama as the target but they 
are attempting to create a white united front to, in their minds, take 
back the United States. Part of this agenda means delegitimizing the 
democratically elected President, but it also goes towards tampering
 with election laws and voting processes in state after state.

 In case you have not noticed, in many states where there is a
 Republican majority in control, efforts are underway to restrict
 voting, whether by further limiting ex-felons from voting, to 
eliminating same-day voter registration, to the demand for picture
 identifications at the time of voting, to the shortening of periods of 
early voting.
The objective is to reduce the potential anti-Republican electorate. 
This is being done by demagogically and inaccurately crowing about 
alleged voter fraud. But this happens through the Right racializing 
alleged voter fraud.
 In other words, as opposed to a discussion about
 real voter theft, e.g., the Republican theft of the 2000 election, the 
right wing uses black and brown characters as the way of convincing
 segments of the white populace that something needs to be done,
 otherwise these colored peoples will be taking over.
The racist attacks on Obama, then, fuse with the larger right-wing
 narrative: the United States of America is being lost to white people.
 This has been the core of the Birther message, but it has also been
 the core of the attacks that contributed to the collapse of ACORN, as
 well as the blitzkrieg effort of the Right to overturn voting rights.

In its more extreme version it is the core of the message that comes 
out of the fascist and semi-fascist movements among white nationalists 
such as the Sovereign Citizens (the subject of a segment of the May
15th episode of 60 Minutes).

What we are witnessing is disturbingly similar to the period of the
 overthrow of Reconstruction and the building of the Jim Crow
 segregationist system in the South. Appealing to fears among whites, 
and in a frantic effort to destabilize any efforts at unity between
 the black and white poor in the South at the end of the 19th century,
 white Southern elites moved an agenda of voter disenfranchisement,
 hiding behind various coded concerns such as the literacy of the
African Americans were completely disenfranchised, and quite 
ironically, so were many poor whites.

Despite our knowledge of history and awareness of the antics of white
 right-wing populism, few progressives are discussing the implications 
of any of this for the 2012 elections. The implications, it would seem
 to me, are quite profound, and range from what this means about HOW to
criticize the Obama administration, to how to ensure that the
 elections are not outright stolen by the white Right.
Just to be clear before some of my critics start yelling that
 "Fletcher is covering for Obama," this column is about racial politics 
in the USA. The particular flashpoint happens to be Obama but what is
 at stake, as I have attempted to elaborate, is far more than the 
political future of a corporate liberal president.
Silence on the part of progressives in the face of this situation,
 despite our own legitimate criticisms of Obama, misses the larger 
picture. Yes, we must criticize Obama; yes, we must push this 
administration; yes, we must protest any retrograde domestic or
foreign policies. But in the end, we need to be discussing how this is
 done in the context of fighting a white, right-wing populism that is
 arguing that Obama is an alien and that he (and the changing 
demographics of the USA) represents the end of the white "American
We should have no illusions that the Republican candidate for the 
presidency, irrespective of who gets it, will center their campaign on 
anything but this one, critical message. 

I think it is time to talk about strategy and tactics in the fight for 
power and against the Right, and not only about matters of policy.
 Politics is dirty, but it is also very complicated, that is, if one 
exists in the real world rather than in one's own playpen.

[ editorial board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a
Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate 
past president of TransAfricaForum and co-author of Solidarity
Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social
Justice (University of California Press), which examines the crisis of
 organized labor in the USA. This article was first posted at and was distributed by Progressive America

Post a Comment
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.