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Slipping on the Third Rail of American Politics—and Recovering

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I made a mistake in a piece posted to the Root today about the role of racial bias in congressional Republicans’ opposition to President Obama. I attributed a quote to John McCain that actually came from candidate Obama: “He doesn’t look like the other presidents on the currency.”

I apologize to my readers and to the senator.

Here’s a fuller (corrected) version of the story.

IF ONE CAN LOOK regal and profoundly uncomfortable at the same time, that was Leta Watlington the other night before she spoke at the Hampton History Museum about Virginia’s Bay Shore Beach. Ms. Watlington, an 81-year-old registered nurse (still working), relaxed slowly as she described the motel and the rich family life that her grandmother Susie King built around Hampton’s beach for black folks.

After decades of shunning African American bathers like Mrs. King’s family—next-door Buckroe Beach was whites-only—city fathers began to covet the waterfront property blacks controlled.

“The powers that be, when they want to take something from you, they will. And they have,” Ms. Watlington told the small, largely African American audience.

Ms. Watlington said a lot of things about how her family’s property and Bay Shore were land-grabbed into oblivion by developers in the early 1970s. The one thing she didn’t say was the word white. “No I didn’t,” she told me later. “I tried not to get into the color situation.”

It’s impolite for many in her generation to talk race in explicit terms. But her omission was more than a matter of etiquette—Ms. Watlington pronounced the word nigger very clearly when describing the verbal abuse she endured. Experience informs how folks of that generation approach public discussions of matters black and white. As Russell Hopson, a Virginia historian and Jim Crow survivor, reminded me, “the shock waves are gonna come back heavy” when you name the proverbial elephant in the room.

They know we can’t prove it. We can deduce and infer from their actions, statements, and policies. But we can’t confirm that congressional Republicans—a bloc of nearly unbroken white maleness—and their media hatchetpeople are stealthily deploying race, blackness, to obstruct President Barack Obama at every turn.

Obstructionists seldom give us concrete, irrefutable proof of gutbucket prejudice. When we think we have them cold, they’ll use the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue strategy. You’re playing the race card, they’ll say. In fact, you’re the racists for bringing it up. It’s the nyah, nyah, nyah of savvy—or at least well-trained—political machinists. These are men and women who have studied the Republican race-baiting playbook drafted by party strategist and consigliere Lee Atwater.

“By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires,” said Atwater in 1981, quoted years later by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. “So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

Rightwing pols continually update the Atwater script. During the president’s first term and the campaign that preceded it, we may recall that Barack Obama was cast as a Kenyan, Muslim, socialist, Nazi witch doctor. Tea Partiers, Birthers, and Republican backbenchers were the nasty tip of the spear of a full-on assault, but the big boys pitched in, too, usually in ways that kept them from getting hit by shrapnel from the vilest attacks.

Chris Matthews called out congressional Republicans on-air, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2012, for what he deemed thinly veiled racism. Specifically, he cited Oklahoma congressman Tom Coburn’s accusation that “unlawful acts” and “incompetence” by the administration came “perilously close” to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which would warrant the impeachment of the president.

“They never say their problem with Obama is that he is black, but look at the pattern,” Matthews said to an incredulous anchor. “The pattern is rejection of his legitimacy at the first point saying he is not really here legally.”

This wasn’t a one-off. In a different segment, Matthews hammered RNC chair Reince Priebus for Mitt Romney’s campaign quip, “No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate.” But he also took him to task for the candidate’s substantive statements, like saying that Obama had “a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.” Which wasn’t true.

“You are playing that little ethnic card there,” said Matthews to a momentarily abashed Priebus. “You can play your games and giggle about it, but the fact is, your side is playing that card. When you start talking about work requirements, we know what game you’re playing.” Powerful stuff, which hit a wall of denials, deflections, and pooh-poohing from the other members of the all-white MSNBC panel. Google this event to see the national ^%$@storm of denial that enveloped Matthews’s comments.

Moments like these offer black folks a dash of vindication. But in a society that doesn’t want to acknowledge the obvious—the persistence of racism—and that’s wedded to its own myths of egalitarianism, they don’t really change much.

On specific issues, congressional Republican obstructers will say, We have policy differences with the president. These are matters of principle. That’s why we fight the president on damn-near everything—health care, nominations, Libya, income assistance programs, gun control, the debt limit and budget; that’s why we’re on the brink of shutting down the federal government.

And yet John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, et al. will pretzelize themselves into the oddest, most contradictory, and self-denying positions just to be anti-Obama. They loved corporate tax cuts until the president, previously a socialist income redistributor, agreed to them. Instantly, such cuts were the work of Wall Street’s lapdog-in-chief.

House Republicans pulled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps) out of its customary place in the farm bill so they could kill it. A simple policy difference?

Killing SNAP—rather, replacing it with a plan from Majority Leader Cantor that would increase work requirements irrespective of local unemployment levels—isn’t sound economic policy, if one believes the Department of Agriculture. SNAP, says the USDA, “provides assistance to more low-income households during an economic downturn or recession and to fewer households during an economic expansion. The rise in SNAP participation during an economic downturn results in greater SNAP expenditures which, in turn, stimulate the economy.” Isn’t that what Republicans say they’re all about, economic growth?

Interestingly, 15 Republicans broke ranks. “I just felt the cuts were a little too steep, especially because right now, I have a lot of Sandy victims who have never been on assistance ever in their life,” New York Congressman Michael Grimm told The Hill. “And a lot of these hardworking families have lost everything, and for the first time, they’re needing food stamps. So I didn’t want to affect those Sandy victims.”

Before Sandy, Grimm didn’t think income assistance was such a great idea. He supported Paul Ryan’s budget plan that would have slashed Medicare benefits, welfare, and food stamps. A whole lot of hardworking people would have been hobbled by Ryan’s plan.

But here again is our helpful guide: history. Republicans have successfully linked income assistance programs to the duskier “special interests,” folks Ronald Reagan called “welfare queens.” More recently, Newt Gingrich labeled Obama “the food stamp president.”

History also tells us that this is much more than reflexive or even ideological opposition. From Capitol Hill obstruction to public finger-wagging (see Arizona governor Jan Brewer), the campaign to diminish, neuter, humiliate, and defeat the nation’s first African American president is but one battle in the larger war to preserve the last vestiges of white power and privilege in the face of a browning America. In other words, this is existential, strategic opposition with a profound racial component.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Attorney General Eric Holder remarked with rather surprising candor at an African American history event in 2009. His prescription for change: more candid talk about race.

I take issue with Holder’s national sweep, but I agree with the spirit of his comment.

For us to get beyond race, we—and by we, I mean people who are consistently targeted by this white power bloc—need to name race. And not just ours, but theirs, too.

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