You might think the election of the country’s first black President means racism is dead in America. Or at least on the decline. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The Obama family’s occupation of the White House has fueled a resurgence of racist sentiment in the U.S., and emboldened “white power” advocates – some of whom have obviously found a home in the leadership of the Republican Party.
Most Americans frown on racial slurs, and deplore ethnic “jokes.” You won’t hear those stories about “an Irishman, a German and a Jew” much any more. These jokes are considered in poor taste – or worse. And black-face Vaudeville acts disappeared from the national stage long ago. But tribalism is alive and well in America, as evidenced by broadcaster Brian Kilmeade’s recent complaint on Fox News, about Americans marrying “other species.”
“The problem is the Swedes have pure genes,” Kilmeade said. “They marry other Swedes; that’s the rule. Finns marry other Finns; they have a pure society. In America we marry everybody. We will marry Italians and Irish…”
Then there are those “jokes” based on President Obama’s racial background. You may remember the song on Rush Limbaugh’s radio program about “Barack the Magic Negro,” and the monkey doll at a Sarah Palin rally with an Obama sticker across its forehead, and so on. And recently, Sherri Goforth, an administrative assistant to Texas Senator Diane Black, circulated a collage of U.S. presidents in which Obama was represented by a pair of big white eyes against a black background (photo at right).
You and I know “jokes” are often used to convey sentiments that are unfit for serious expression. It’s the coward’s way of assaulting someone. A generation or so ago, it was called “needling.” The practice of race-baiting under the guise of banter is not new, but it seems to be enjoying a renaissance in American politics.
One of the politicians known for making such “jokes” is Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. He was such a riot that a couple of decades ago the U.S. Senate rejected his appointment as a federal judge. Sessions “joked” that:
He didn’t think the Ku Klux Klan was so bad until he found out some members smoked marijuana.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union are “un-American” and “Communist-inspired” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.”
Sessions also (jokingly?) referred to Thomas Figures, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama, who happens to be African-American, as “boy,” and warned him to “be careful what you say to white folks.”
But his antipathy to civil rights is no joke. As a U.S. Attorney in Alabama, his most notable effort was prosecuting three civil rights workers, including a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr., on trumped up charges of voter fraud.
Shockingly, this is the man chosen by the Republican Party to spearhead their assault on Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (photo of Sessions and Sotomayor at left). Her confirmation hearings get under way Monday on Capitol Hill, and Sessions has signaled he will attack her as a civil rights activist.
Sotomayor’s judicial record appears unassailable, but the Alabama senator is dredging up her work for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of discriminatory policies. He told Fox News that might have “infected” Sotomayor’s subsequent decision in the famous reverse-discrimination case involving a group of white firefighters who were denied promotions.
Republicans also accuse the first Latin American nominee to the U.S. high court of expressing “racist” sentiments in some of her speeches. For example, they cite her remark that as a Hispanic woman, she has a special perspective to offer the court.
I am not surprised that the Republican Party harbors racist elements (despite Michael Steele’s token appointment as party chairman). The sea of white faces at their rallies testifies to that. But I am surprised they think racism is so strong in America that it presents a fertile area for political exploitation. I sincerely hope they are wrong.