Populism Rarely Escapes Racism

September 19, 2009

Jimmy Carter says opposition to Obama is based in racial attitudes. New York Times columnists debate: David Brooks says no, it is based in populism. Bob Herbert says yes it is racism. Charles Blow responds that, if nothing else, it should be obvious to us all that race is still a problem in America. While Brooks's assessment about populism is probably accurate, he is clearly overlooking the consistent racial character of populist movements, and a number of obviously racist attacks on Obama (see Herbert; also pointed out by E.J. Dione on NPR Friday afternoon). Moving beyond the politics of it, what does all of this signify about American culture, and about the continuing struggle for people of color to be afforded an equal opportunity?

Brooks talks about coming across a respectful interleaving of the Black Family Reunion Celebration and a Tea Bag protest and concludes that the tea baggers aren't racist. Blow's article (and many before it) gives the statistics proving the amount of racism still in this country. For instance, only around 35% of people acknowledge that they have some racial prejudice (see Blow above), but as Blow pointed back in February, studies show that there is still a substantial "pro-white" bias in America, but it is implicit and largely unrecognized by those who show that bias (frankly, I suspect the 35% is a combination of the most and least racist -- those who are mostly strongly aware of their racial prejudices).

Except with the most virulently racist, who would actually expect these two group to be confrontational on the Mall? That the interaction was peaceful shows we might have made progress in face-to-face dignity and respect, but that's all it says.

Brooks calls this a populist movement in the vein of Jefferson, Jackson, Coughlin and Long. That's the same Jefferson whose populism led him to completely reject the prospect of racial integration:

"It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the State and thus save the expense of supplying by importation of white settlers the vacancies they will leave? Deep-rooted prejudices  entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of color. ... And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a grater or less [sic] share of beauty in the two races?" [quoted in Koch and Peden, Life and Selected Writings, p256]

In Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, Dr. Richard Thomas makes a compelling case for Jefferson being the intellectual racist-in-chief, paving the way for all of the justifications of racism we've seen through the long years. And then there's the populism of Andrew Jackson:

"Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. To follow to the tomb the last of his race and tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections. But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another." [Second Annual Message to Congress, 1830]

Father Coughlin and Huey Long were strongly associated with anti-semitism and pro-fascist views (google search). Its a bad sign when one of the first articles on "Father Coughlin anti semitism" is a defense from Klansman David Duke!

The Republican populism used by Richard Nixon is well-known to have stirred up and exploited racial feelings. Blow even quotes Carter as appealing to prejudice in his own populist call (though later repudiating his own comments). It seems these paragons of populism were also paragons of racism, shown in the words and deeds. So I'm sorry Mr. Brooks, but I don't think you can dismiss the claims of racism in light of this being a "populist" movement. If we're honest and open with ourselves, we'll see that populism is often intertwined with racism and a desire to reinforce white racial superiority. Now, what are we going to do about it?