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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.

From the BXP photo archive: David Duke, white supremacist/GOP office holder, July 4, 1991

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Man holding Nazi-era sign at rally for David Duke. Translation is "The Jew: War Agitator. War Perpetuater." New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

Man holding Nazi-era sign at rally for David Duke. Translation is “The Jew: War Agitator. War Perpetuater.” New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

I’d already been thinking a lot about the Ku Klux Klan when the publication of Anthony Karen’s new photo book, White Pride, was announced. When slavery and the Civil War ended, the Klan swept in to preserve the South’s social, political, and economic order by terrorizing the newly freed, who might have been tempted to exercise their new rights. Karen’s gentle comments to an interviewer about the “pro-America” folks who flock to the group and its white supremacist brother/sister organizations struck—actually hammered—a nerve.

I remember photographing “Dukefest” in 1991, on the Fourth of July no less, in New Orleans. Louisiana state legislator David Duke—also founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for White People—was firing up a campaign for governor. The shape-shifting Duke was as slick as goose excrement, playing up his equal-rights-for-downtrodden-whites rhetoric and downplaying his Nazi uniform-wearing and Klan-klothed days. Some of Duke’s adherents, however, didn’t get the play-nice-for-the-camera memo. They did what they could to jostle the out-of-town reporters, spill beer on us. Thankfully, the cops knew the drill and prevented anything untoward from happening. They made it safe enough for Danny Schecter, me, and other non-Aryans to document the scene: a crowd of white folks barbecuing and gamboling at the center of City Park in one of the blackest (as in African Americanest) cities in the U.S.

David Duke at a campaign event during his run for Louisiana governor. New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

David Duke at a campaign event during his run for Louisiana governor. New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

Duke was a manipulator, if not the most masterful one. He wasn’t urbane (or smart) enough to sanitize himself so he could slide into the mainstream of the Republican party. (There’s only so much scrubbing you can do to get rid of the stink of fascism.)

Duke appealed to a swath of disaffected, poor white folks who believed that affirmative action and other programs designed (sometimes poorly) to mitigate discriminatory practices and policies were the stake in the heart of their dreams.

But it would be condescending, one might say racist, to assume that Duke’s stalwart supporters didn’t know of his fascist roots. There were (and still are) plenty of conservative groups that don’t wave the flag of racism and anti-semitism. So one might assume that a fair portion of Duke’s followers were attracted to these very things in his barely concealed past.

I’m looking forward to seeing Karen’s book. I want to know if the photographer sees and works both compassionately and critically. I have no doubt that his subjects’ individuality and the circumstances of their lives may be interesting, even compelling. But a book focused on members of America’s oldest terrorist organization must also explore its subjects’ relationship to the Klan’s legacy of hate, brutality, and murder—a legacy they have chosen to embrace. Otherwise, it’s simply environmental portraiture—or propaganda.

From the BXP photo archives: Harlem, 2004; Taiwan, 1987

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Development and Finishing Institute students learn dining etiquette at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2004

Development and Finishing Institute students learn dining etiquette at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2004

Rose Murdock started Harlem’s Development and Finishing Institute in 2002 to teach African American girls and Latinas (and later boys) etiquette and comportment. Bourgeois? Bien sûr! But Ms. Rose had no time or patience to indulge in debate. Her philosophy: Girls of color need every arrow in their quiver to succeed professionally and financially, from working a salad fork to speaking on the phone with a college recruiter or potential employer. Period. I respected that, though I did find the focus on the salad-fork side of things a bit much. Of course, Emily Post would have cringed watching me tuck into lunch.

The school is still up and running.

School boy in an alley, Taipei, Taiwan, 1987

School boy in an alley, Taipei, Taiwan, 1987

As I did years later in China—and everywhere else I have visited—I strayed from the main streets to learn and photograph. The boy had been tossing a rubber ball in the air but stopped when I approached. He faced me and posed. I made an exposure. I waved. He waved, and scooted off.

My ability to walk backward and speak passable Mandarin landed me a job as a legal proofreader in Taiwan, fresh our of college, in 1986. I had spent the summer of my junior year giving campus tours. My only takers on one dreary day in Providence, RI, were a family of three. Dad was a senior partner in a Taipei law firm; I was graduating with a degree in East Asian Studies. We chatted. He gave me his business card, told me to get in touch. I began pushing a pencil for him just a few months later.

The job entailed sitting in a cubicle at the back of the sprawling offices of Lee & Li Attorneys at Law, Monday through Friday and half of Saturday. My neighbor there was an elderly and flatulent translator.

I knew little of international law—Lee & Li’s core practice—and during the first couple of months managed to excise perfectly fine legalese from documents written by L&L’s U.S.-educated Taiwanese lawyers.

I had time on my hands, but I was duct taped to my admittedly comfortable chair. My workload had lightened after they hired another American proofreader. Plus, most of L&L’s attorneys spoke English fluently, so I wasn’t able to work on my Mandarin very much. I got quite good at the NY Times crossword puzzle in the International Herald Tribune. I also managed to work my way through an armload of novels. (Web surfing was far in the future.) And I lived for lunchtime at the cafeteria in the basement of the Formosa Plastics Building, L&L ‘s headquarters. Every day the steam table sagged under trays of scrambled eggs and tomatoes, various seaweeds, chicken and pork chunks, crunchy stir-fried veggies.

I had committed to a two-year term, but I had realized I was not lawyer material. I left after six months for the grand tour of Asia I had mapped out between puzzling and reading—China, Mongolia, the Soviet Far East, and beyond—only to get laid low by giardia in Nepal. That’s another story.