Looking at the images on the news, I imagine it would be difficult for a black mother to teach her child to not fear or loathe white people. For, even a child witnessing the outpouring of hatred against this nation’s president could hardly help but come away with the idea that white people hate us. When the first shots are fired, they won’t be aimed at the president. They'll be aimed at some kid. Some black kid, some Latino kid, wandering through a park where these extremists are standing around hollering. It’ll be some black kid giving the racists among them the finger. Some homeless guy asking for a handout. The shot will ring out. And then we all lose.
Although the fuse had been lit long before, South Carolina
Congressman Addison Graves "Joe" Wilson’s outburst during a
presidential address to a joint session of Congress—the first
such outburst in history—confirmed to the world what many
African Americans already suspected: conservatives do not
consider the presidency of Barack Obama to be legitimate. We can
dance on the head of a pin for a few paragraphs articulating the
possible reasons and motives, but none of that will change a
simple fact: black America is outraged. Congressman Wilson’s
lack of respect, not for Barack Obama but for the office of the
president, will doubtless become the most notable mark of his
otherwise unremarkable Congressional record. He has, in his
ignorance, widened a racial divide in this country that so many,
black, white or other, have worked tirelessly for decades to
When the first shots are fired, they won’t be aimed at the president. Or Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. They won’t be aimed at House Minority Leader John Boehner or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It’ll be some kid. Some black kid, some Latino kid, wandering through a park where these nutwing Tea Baggers are standing around hollering, holding up signs comparing Obama to Adolph Hitler and threatening his life. It’ll be some teens just going to play basketball, or maybe some homeless guy panhandling in the crowd, a crowd spewing hatred under veil of political expression. An irrational and disproportionate hatred of Barack Obama, based not on what he has done or even on what he wants to do but on some nonsense they heard on Fox News Channel—which capriciously and deliberately spews right-wing propaganda and complete untruths about, well, everything. These are white people. Crowds of white people hurling racial epitaphs at the president of the United States. This is scary stuff. Imagine, if you will, angry mobs of blacks carrying racist banners and threatening violence. At the climax of the Million Man March on Washington, Minister Louis Farrakhan, speaking to a crowd that dwarfed that of Glen Beck's ridiculous 9/12 rally last weekend, showed enormous respect to U.S. President Bill Clinton. There were no Kill Whitey signs permitted. No personal attacks on the president.
And white America was terrified.
Fast forward a decade, and now it is black America who are terrified. And who are chastised like children when we object to the overtly racist behavior of the fringe right wing, while we suspect the only thing that makes these folk fringe is their bravery in expressing what we suspect a great many others feel. Much as we'd like to believe it, much as intellectuals want to rationalize it, racism is alive and well in this country. My ire over last week's anti-Obama rally, which was organized under the transparently disingenuous "9/12 Project"—supposedly designed to bring America back to the place of unity and tolerance this nation experienced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks—is not about the rally itself, but about white America's abject failure to respond to it. In fact, Beck's whole "9/12" concept is deeply flawed. As I pointed out at the time, that coalescing of America in the wake of the terrorist attacks coalesced white America. It wasn't our America being coalesced, but it was patriotism as defined by white folk. It was white folk driving around with these flags all over their cars. White folk running down to buy a car at zero percent financing—how many blacks do you think qualified for zero percent financing? It was America: Love It Or Leave It, patriotism expressed in an extremely megalomaniacal way. It wasn't Arab America or Chinese America. It was white America. And it was very scary.
On Tuesday, September 12, 2001, Air Force jets were screaming over my house, flying sorties between Colorado Springs and Denver. It was very scary. And as I saw this great outpouring of human emotion, the nation coming together, oddly enough, I did not see my place in that. I didn't feel welcome or invited. I was a spectator at the parade. The 9/12 Glen Beck is talking about was a time of great anxiety for me as all I saw were these darned flags blinding me while I was trying to drive down the road. And white folk with gun racks on their pickups, scowling at anybody they thought looked middle eastern. 9/12, for me, harkened back to the pre-civil rights days, with Jerry Falwell front and center insisting everybody get a haircut and fall in line. Why would I want to go back to that? Why would I want to be the person I was on that day?
Beck's 2009 9/12 march on Washington had almost nothing to do with the faux-10 Commandments of Beck's 9/12 Project. the nine principles the project claims to espouse:
1. America is good.
2. I Believe in God and He is the Center of my Life.
3. I must always try to be a more honest person than I was yesterday.
4. The family is sacred. My spouse and I are the ultimate authority, not the government.
5. If you break the law you pay the penalty. Justice is blind and no one is above it.
6. I have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results.
7. I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.
8. It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or share my personal opinion.
9. The government works for me. I do not answer to them, they answer to me.
How did comparing the president of the United States to Hitler or Joseph Stalin fit with those principles? How did the ethnic stereotype cartoons or the death threats or painting him up like the Joker illuminate those values? This was a hate rally, pure and simple. And black America was watching.
If I'm overreacting, if I'm being too sensitive, if these people are just a tiny fringe movement and not representative of white America as a whole, then where's the pushback? Where are the leaders of the religious right condemning the fringe elements of last week's protests? where is the record of these conservatives rebuking the extremists, the racist attacks and threats of violence? The lack of pushback from white America widens the racial divide in this nation, as black America needs to hear such rebuke not from Jesse Jackson but from Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reily. Both men missed a golden opportunity to gain credibility by slamming the racist and violent fringe among their conservative base. But, to my knowledge, no such rebuke was issued. And, so far as I can tell, white America and, even sadder, conservative Christianity, seems content to not speak to the issue at all. And their silence is deafening.
These folks, all stirred up and shouting, seem eerily reminiscent of the crowds who attacked and burned Freedom Rider busses and who brutally assaulted civil rights protestors at lunch counters. Whether they intend to or not, these God-fearing, America-love-it-or-leave-it-to-Beaver white folks come across as what they likely are: ignorant, intolerant racists. And the first acts of violence won’t have anything to do with politics or healthcare reform or the stimulus package or taxes. It’ll be some black kid giving these racists the finger. Some homeless guy asking for a handout. The shot will ring out from somewhere within the angry mob.
And then we all lose.
This ain't the sixties. White folk can't march around hollering "nigger" while we cower, shuffling through the streets with bent backs. Black America is full of lawyers who will sue you. Full of cops who will arrest you. Full of pastors who will rebuke you. Crips, Bloods, Gangster Disciples, Folk. Oprah Winfrey, arguably one of the most powerful African Americans in the world. Dissing the first black president is a seriously stupid strategy on the part of the right wing, most of whom know nothing about the streets and don't realize how fast violence can jump off. Black America is full of people just as overwhelmed by repressed emotion as the wingnuts. We have our own wingnuts, and these are scary people. Scary people who are watching, who are taking their cues from this president, but who really aren't going to just stand around and let white folk call them names. Those days are over. It amazes me how the right wing, including conservative Christians, don't get that. Don't get it that the days when they could just put their foot on our neck are long gone. These hollering, ignorant Obama-haters are playing with fire. The longer we do nothing, the more incendiary their rhetoric goes, seeing no reprisals for their behavior. But when that first shot is fired, that first blood is shed, it is likely the entire nation that will pay the price, as race relations lose decades of hard-won progress.
Looking at the images on the news these past weeks, I imagine it would be difficult for an African American mother to teach her child to not fear or loathe white people. For, even a child witnessing the outpouring of hatred against this nation’s president could hardly help but come away with the idea that white people hate us. A child’s first question might be why these white folk—and they are indeed white folk—treat our nation’s president, this nation’s first African American president, with such disrespect. Why, of 44 U.S. presidents, has he been singled out to be heckled from an audience of congressmen and senators? Why has he alone been chosen to be compared to Hitler? Why have death threats been publicly and proudly lobbed at the president, while no apparent law enforcement action has taken place?
Why is Barack Obama less of a president than George W. Bush? And why should the American people, of any race, believe this visceral hatred begins and ends with Obama? For many African Americans, these are extremely disturbing images. While these protest groups are relatively small and obviously extreme and fringe, the lack of pushback from, well, anybody, allows those images to linger in our collective memory. Where is James Dobson denouncing the more fringe conservatives openly threatening the president with violence? Where is Bill O'Reily venting his righteous furor over the fringe set who are making all conservatives look like racist jerks?
These are scary images, and our children are seeing them every day. And we just have to eat it. It is comical to me that those very same people become offended and defensive when someone suggests their motives are racist. Eyes roll as they go on the attack, “See? You can’t criticize a president if he’s black! This has nothing to do with his skin color!” Barack The Magic Negro is a song parody Rush Limbaugh has featured on his radio broadcast. We've Been Hijacked, Let's Roll. one placard reads, demeaning the sacrifice of the passengers who gave their lives on 9/11's doomed flight 93 while inferring the president is both a terrorist and a Muslim. What’s The Difference Between The Cleveland Zoo And The White House? another sign reads. One Has An African Lion, The Other Has A Lyin’ African.
Even a child will tell you, calling the president a liar is code for calling him a nigger. They can’t call him a nigger, so they accuse the president, this president, the smartest guy to hold that job since Bill Clinton, of being a liar. Which they know is disingenuous because the president has not been proven to be lying about anything. These folks don’t actually believe Obama is a liar, it’s just a neat word to throw at him since they can’t throw the word “nigger” without their friends running for cover, just as the Joker makeup (above) is merely a way to demean the president by putting him in whiteface. But, make no mistake about it, these folks want to call Barack Obama, the President of the United States, “nigger” so bad they can taste it. It is simply unacceptable to them to have a black man as president. From my chair, that seems to be what their angst is really about: not health care, but the insatiable outrage of wingnuts at this nation having a black president.
“It’s important to realize I was actually black before the election.” Barack Obama garnered huge laughs Monday on CBS' Late Show with David Letterman, releasing the tension from Letterman's awkward, rambling question about the truer nature of the angry protests against the president. Of the controversy, the president said, “This is not untypical. One of the things you sign up for in politics is folks yell at you. …the overwhelming majority of people, Republican and Democrat... just want to see some common sense, they want to see some honesty and integrity in Washington. I think they’re turned off by the shouting and the yelling…and they expect more from their public elected officials.”
This past weekend, the president launched a media blitz to push for his healthcare reform initiative. He clearly does not want the conversation co-opted by discussions of race. And, he’s right. For, every time this president launches any kind of bold initiative, Republican strategists find some way to interject race into the fight. Race is sexy. Race beats everything else to the top headline. Joe whatsisname, some Congressman we never heard of, is now big news because of his outburst on the Senate floor. And the president knows this, he knows the race thing will dog his entire tenure as U.S. president. So, he’s seeking to douse the flames and calm fears and lower the temperature. The problem is, black folk can see through that. We understand the president has work to do and can’t allow his agenda to keep getting hijacked. That was, ultimately, the purpose of those silly tea bag things: not to raise real issues but to incite fear and loathing and anger and get people shouting at one another and get the news to report that instead of talking about health care. These folks aren’t talking about healthcare. Aren’t talking about what’s in the bill. They are arguing about Obama. Was he born in Hawaii. Is he a Muslim. Searching for clever euphemisms for the N-word while working overtime trying to discredit and attack him. None of that has anything whatsoever to do with healthcare: healthcare is simply what the president is working on at the moment. If he were working on Gold Fish Preservation, that’s what they’d be screaming about.
I applaud the president’s monumental cool, but I worry about him walking the fine line between moderation and being obviously disingenuous. These were clearly racist attacks. Dismissing them as not racist may keep a fragile coalition of whites together, but it strains credulity. And now every black man, woman and child in America now has to eat it because that’s what the president is asking us to do. I’m unsure of the long-term impact of such a diet, but I am willing to continue trusting him because I also know giving into anger is what the conservatives want us to do.
As Christians, of course, we are tasked to forgive and turn the other cheek [Matthew 5:39]. However, turning the other cheek is not about being passive or even non-violent [Matthew 10:39]. It is about not seeking vengeance, not returning hate for hate. Which is, essentially, what the president is asking us to do. He can’t put it into those words without further escalating a discussion he is unwilling to have, if only for the sake of healthcare reform. Hating those who hate us is not what Jesus has asked us to do. It is not what He did. As for forgiveness: it is wrong to harbor resentment and hatred. But, on the other hand, know that God does not forgive us until we ask Him to [I John 1:9; 2 Chronicles 7:14]. Forgiveness is both a Christian’s strength and his vulnerability for, once someone asks us to forgive them, we have no other option. It is mandatory. We must forgive. We must show love.
So, we probably should not suit up with JoJo and the Critters when those guys inevitably get fed up with the hollerin’ white folk. These are folk who are pretty brave with the racist rhetoric when they’re surrounded by riot cops on the Washington Mall. Try that down in Compton. In Little Rock. Give that a shot in East St. Louis. Oh, you’ll get on TV, trust me.
For eight long, very long, years, I just had to eat it. George Bush was the president. Like it or not, he was my president. As deeply ashamed as I was of the Christian right, most especially, for electing and re-electing what history will aptly demonstrate was the worst president in U.S. history, I had to accept the fact that there he was—the prez. Far too many people, mostly if not exclusively white people, refuse to accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s election. Many of these same people voted for George Bush, which was like handing Porsche keys to a 13-year old middle school slacker. He did what any kid would do: wreck the car and blame anyone he possibly could. These same people who told me to eat it for eight years, now cannot practice what they preach. At their very core, they are enraged. A rage that can, and I fear someday will, express itself in violence and split this nation apart.
Luckily, I believe Barack Obama understands that as well. So he walks the tightrope, knowing the political and very real-world risks. But he keeps his cool, perhaps knowing that every smile just burns the wingnuts more and more. Pray, beloved, for the day to come when the Silly Season will finally be over.
Christopher J. Priest
20 September 2009
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