A wave of new racism is flowing through America. On the far right of American politics, old, entrenched norms have found new life thanks to an African American president.
The N-word is used more and more to describe the president by Fox News commentators, and the sacred hero of the right Glenn Beck, who called Obama a racist and used Martin Luther King as a shield against racist accusations this past Saturday.
It looks like an absurd theater, where every normal term is turned upside down. Pure facts do not matter. Because the aggression is focused against Obama, and the lies against him keep building up. One of which is that he was not born in America, and therefore should never have become president. (Truth: Barack Obama was born in Hawaii on Aug. 4, 1961).
The image of him as something foreign in American society is enforced by the claims that he is a Muslim, or “Imam Hussein Obama” as conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh calls him. During the election in 2008, 13 percent of Americans believed Obama was a Muslim; today every fourth American believes he is a follower of Islam. (Truth: Obama had a Muslim father, who left the family when he was 2 years old. He was brought up in a (white) atheist home, but turned to Christianity in his 20s.)
The impression is enforced by the president's defense of the right to build a mosque on lower Manhattan, close to ground zero. That is, the president has defended the right to build an Islamic cultural center, containing a mosque, but has not specified where it should be. The silence thunders from the Bush part of the Republican party who, in the days after 9/11, warned against demonizing and making Muslims responsible for terror. Now it would pay off to let Obama take the brunt of the attacks from the hysterical right.
Most of this new racism is in code, a method that has been used for decades, especially after open racist language became frowned upon in the public sphere. President Ronald Reagan, for example, used the term “welfare queens,” and everyone knew he was referring to single black mothers on welfare; Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate in the last election, traveled around white rural America in 2008 speaking about “the real America.” Her meaning: Inner cities and the black rural south are not part of the “real” America.
New racism springs from old prejudices, and new phenomena like the tea party movement. One of the leaders of this movement wrote an imaginary letter from “the colored” to president Abraham Lincoln, where he claimed that they preferred slavery instead of having to work for a living. There are no limits to how racism is expressed.
The paradox is the strengthened sensitivity in the public sphere when it comes to nostalgia for the segregated America of the past, or open racism. The latter hit the Republican candidate for Senate from Virginia, George Allen. He was a former state governor and a popular politician. During his campaign, he was followed by a young Democrat who recorded his speeches and statements on video. The young man was black (of Indian origin), and in a rally an annoyed Allen pointed at him and called him a “macaca”: monkey. And so Allen's campaign derailed with one word. Apologies did not help.
An even worse fate awaited former Republican Senate majority leader Trent Lott. On Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday in 2002, Lott said that if Thurmond had been elected President in 1948, we wouldn't have “all these problems” with desegregation. Lott had to leave his post immediately, and gave up his push for re-election in 2007. Even in a Southern state he had problems celebrating the American version of apartheid.
The characteristic of this new racism is that it flourishes on the far right wing of the white population. For them, the election of Obama was a provocation threatening the future of America. While a majority of Americans, and the world around them, saw this as a historic landmark and a profound event, Obama’s entry into the White House meant something completely different to this segment of the population: Caucasians (whites) in America would be demographically on the defensive. In about four decades, Caucasians will be a minority in America, the largest minority by far, but other minorities will together form a majority.
From this perspective, parts of the white population are reacting with hysteria and rage especially focused on black citizens. The upside is that Obama was elected with a good margin, and with more white votes than any Democrat in recent times, including Carter and Clinton. That is also an American feature.