By Richard B. Muhammad
Democracy in America has been linked to the demand for respect of the rights of the “people”—even when the people were defined only as White male landowners—and a wariness of government.
Writer James Ellis, in a recent Los Angeles Times commentary, noted, “From the very beginning of our national history, Americans have been arguing about the proper role of government. Put succinctly, the dispute is between those who regard government as ‘them’ and those who see it as ‘us.’ ”
He describes U.S. political history as a clash between “competing perspectives,” “sovereignty in the individual citizen” versus “ ‘the people’ as the sovereign agent” and “a collective interest.”
“All the major problems now befuddling us—the destructive excesses of finance capitalism, a profit-based health-care system, an increasingly contaminated atmosphere—are only soluble if we regard government as the chosen representative of our collective interests as a people and a nation,” he warns.
“No less an American hero than George Washington put it rather defiantly in 1785: ‘We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation. ... If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it.’ ”
Ironically government sponsored or sanctioned efforts that have benefited the White majority have been embraced and fully utilized, whether chattel slavery, the Homestead Acts of the 1800s, the New Deal put forward after the Great Depression, the G.I. Bill enacted at WWII, Medicaid and Medicare, and housing programs designed to increase ownership in the country.
But with America’s economic decline, loss of her manufacturing base, the housing debacle, ballooning federal debt, expanding Black and Brown populations, in particular, and fear for the future, there is growing anger inside the country.
Though partly manufactured, the anger has appeared in town hall meetings, is spewed over the radio and TV airwaves, circulated via blogs, Websites and repeated rumor after rumor.
Having a Black man in the White House has made it easier for those with a disdain for government and those who espouse racial hatred to cry tyranny and loss of liberty though America has always been ruled by an elite class and the crises faced by Barack Obama were largely the fault of the Bush administration alongside the greed and excesses of corporate opportunists, whose allegiance lies with dollars and profits.
Since Mr. Obama’s inauguration, there have been growing subtle and overt signs of a significant racial and political divide in this country—whether measured by lies and misconceptions about the president, threats on his life or a substantial amount of White skepticism about his political, religious and racial loyalties. It can also be measured by the rise of armed militias and increased recruiting efforts among White supremacists, who say Mr. Obama is the clearest sign of the loss of White rights and status in America.
Rumors are not just the purview of “right wing” nut jobs and hacks, but are repeated and alluded to by Republican lawmakers—fanning the flames of distrust and hysteria—and echoed by venerable journalists, like CNN host Lou Dobbs, and popular talkers, like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck on Fox News Channel.
Clarence Page, writing Aug. 16 in the Chicago Tribune, pointed out that Mr. Beck, who has also called the president racist, argues “President Barack Obama’s proposed health-care overhaul is really ‘stealth reparations,’ a form of racial payback in Beck’s words.”
Mr. Page says the Beck charge was made in July and can also be found on the Web. Mr. Page points out that Mr. Obama took race-based remedies off the table during the campaign. The president has repeated his belief that education reforms, economic prosperity and expanded government programs for everyone are the best ways to bridge racial gaps and curb racial disparity.
Mr. Beck, the Tribune columnist says, turns the argument on its head to equate it with an underhanded move by the president to slide a little more to his Black brothers and sisters. The claim would be laughable except many Whites believe exactly what Mr. Beck said and repeat his words—and such sentiments voiced by others. The claim also flies in the face of the truth: “In fact, since low-income whites outnumber low-income blacks overall, even though a higher percentage of blacks are in poverty, more whites would receive help than would other Americans,” said Mr. Page.
Though Mr. Obama has tried to lift the country’s sights to a common purpose and skillfully tried to avoid race, the potent mix of government distrust and racial fear mongering is a heavy load to bear and high bar to overcome.
While he may see the country as the United States of America, not divided by vicious politics or racial animus, it is clear many in the country don’t share his high-minded view. To those who would like to benefit from White disaffection and those who wish to derail the president’s success, it appears that no blow is too low and no rumor too distasteful to spread.
Mr. Obama’s election inspired hope around the world that America might be changing for the better and moving a bit closer to the ideal of a society free of racism. To those who want to make the election of Mr. Obama a sign of a new “post-racial” era, White discontent, his opponents and their tactics show the folly of such thinking.
The attacks on the president, the innuendo and the outright lies herald back to one of America’s favorite tactics: When in trouble, blame a Black man.
(This originally appeared as an editorial in The Final Call Newspaper, V. 28, No. 46, dated Aug. 25, 2009.)