Monday, June 18, 2012

Real Americans taking their country back: the Tea Party, heckling, and our black President

In a CNN article headlined "Obama interrupted: Disrespectful or latest in 'era of incivility'?" Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, is paraphrased near the text's conclusion: "But as the nation's first black president, the nature of Obama's heckling often feels as if there is something else lurking beneath the surface."

Ya think?

In an op-ed on the same site, Dean Obeidallah comes closer to calling it out: "But this is all not about Munro -- he is just a small cog in the right's campaign to diminish the legitimacy of Obama's presidency. I'm not talking about people disagreeing with policies. I mean specifically the campaign to paint Barack Obama as less than American -- as an "other"--as someone whose presidency is not entitled to the same respect as that of the presidents who came before him."

But Obeidallah doesn't actually explicitly say it's because President Obama is black.

Well, I'm going to: All of the heckling, all of the "take our country back" and "real American" rhetoric spouted at Tea Party rallies, all of the disregard for traditional decorum, all of the blatant disrespect we see aimed at the President of the United States these days is at least somewhat attributable to the fact that he is black. Give him a different name and white skin and change nothing else - I'm talking the same policies, the same ideas, the same resume, the same oratory skills -- and we wouldn't be talking about a reporter interrupting a statement on policy, a Representative interrupting a State of the Union address, a President of the United States being asked to produce a birth certificate to prove his citizenship like an enslaved person being asked to produce his note of permission to travel by a random white person to prove he wasn't a runaway fugitive, or people who go to rallies with signs like these:  
From before he even took office, Obama has been attacked by racist rhetoric deeply embedded into the culture of the United States. I remember a campaign stop by Senator McCain in 2008 when a woman grabbed the microphone and voiced her concerns about Obama being a Muslim. McCain, being the class act he is, took the microphone away and immediately corrected the woman's ignorance, refusing to bring it into his campaign (something Mitt Romney won't do re: Donald Trump  and his birther craziness, by the way). But despite his best intentions, the language he used to rebuke her statement is troubling. McCain's counter to the woman was to tell her that Obama is " a good family man." WHAT?! How the hell is that diametrically opposed to being a Muslim?

Because the language of racism, like the language of oppression and privilege in general in this country, is coded. Kind of like how "family values" actually means "we oppose same-sex marriage," "Muslim" apparently signifies something un-American, while being "a good family man" brings you back into that category of "real Americans" so central to so many of Sarah Palin's comments on the campaign trail back in 08 and subsequently so central to Tea Party rallies around the country in the coming years.

As the Tea Party grew, all those (very white -- though not exclusively white. I'm not in the business of denying facts: there are non-white folks who identify with the Tea Party movement) "real Americans" in the movement embraced the rhetoric of "Take our country back!" Well, from whom? Who stole the country? Oh, the black man sitting in the POTUS seat.

And before you scream at me for simply playing the race card and tell me that they want to take the country back from a President who is driving up the deficit and spending at historic rates and that his left-leaning policies make him un-American, tell me: Where were all these folks when President Bush was in office? You know, the guy who increased spending at a rate much higher than Obama has done, started the endless War on Terror, and enacted many of the very policies which contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession? I know, I know. The left did a very good job of attacking Bush for basically anything and everything he did while in office. But nobody asked him to prove he was a citizen. And while an Iraqi journalist did in fact throw a shoe at him, nobody ever interrupted his press statements, let alone his State of the Union addresses. And while people called him an idiot, nobody questioned that he was an American idiot, as opposed to a village idiot from Kenya.

Also, let's consider that these two strands of rhetoric -- "real Americans" and "taking our country back" -- were perhaps at their strongest at one particularly racially-charged moment in our history: the American Civil War and Reconstruction. In Race and Reunion, Yale history professor David Blight writes about southerners who called on "the real Americans" to take their homes/local governments [or country, sometimes] back from emancipated black people and northern agitators. It is no coincidence that in the moment when the country elects a black president, these strands of rhetoric have suddenly become so powerful again.

It might seem kind of crazy how without skipping a beat I moved from heckling to the Tea Party, but I don't think the two are really disconnected. We are anything but a post-racial society, and we're seeing that now as the country copes with a President who happens to be black. There is something in our cultural scripts which allows us to read black people as less than legitimate, as having to prove their value/efficacy/agency/citizenship/sincerity with some kind of outside sources before we view them as true brothers and sisters. Like how a slave narrative in the nineteenth century needed a preface by an outside source to legitimize the story within before readers would believe it, we are still not at a place in history where we can all see black Americans as full citizens in their own right without a bit of skepticism. And while it is true that racism has been so entrenched in the history of the United States -- essential to its founding, even -- and while it is true that we have never actually had a national discussion of race that was totally honest and open (not that I know of, at least), and while it is true that racism knows no single political party, I have to point out that these strands of rhetoric and disrespectful behaviors are coming overwhelmingly from the right. And that's not just because there's a D after Obama's name.

So what's my point? I don't want to be misconstrued, because I know in my anger (it is impossible for me to write dispassionately about stuff like this) I have probably stated a couple of things in more absolute terms than I should have. As a quick summation, then:

I truly believe that the blatant disrespect we see for the current President in the form of heckling and breaches of decorum is parallel to the rise in the "real Americans" and "take our country back" strands of rhetoric central to the Tea Party, and that both of these dimensions are so strongly a part of our national conversation at least partially because President Obama happens to be black. And I think that is unacceptable. And so I want to say that we have to nullify any and all attempts to construe Obama's presidency as a signification of a post-racial stage in our history, and continue to educate ourselves and each other of these kinds of cultural scripts and the historical precedents for them so that perhaps we can get past them one day. We have to keep talking, honestly talking. We have to recognize that where we are is not the Ideal set as the goal of our country to be a more perfect Union, and we have to do what is necessary to reach that ideal.   

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