Many of us have been there. We're having a political debate over rising national debt or the merits of "Obamacare," and suddenly we hurl over a bizarre cliff: We hear that President Obama used ACORN to steal the election, that he's making it easier for freeloaders to get welfare or the zinger: "He is not a Christian. He was born in Kenya."
Before we know it, we are whiplashed into the middle of an alternative birther universe, where easily verifiable facts are ignored. For me, these moments blind me with memories of growing up in Mississippi, listening to racial slurs and innuendo about "them" that made no moral or Christian sense from extended family and their friends (not my immediate family, thank God).
I would always get up and leave. I walked out of my Mississippi State boyfriend's family living room in North Jackson because his uncle greeted the news that I'm from Neshoba County with approval: "Well, y'all know what to do with your n*ggers that act up, don't ya? You just bury them under a dam!" Blinded with shock, I got up and left. His mother never forgave me.
That slur, of course, was arguably more obvious than today's birther myth. Or is it? I mean, who gets to spread rumors that a long-time Christian church-goer (who cares a ton about the needy) isn't actually a Christian--as if they could possibly know?
But now we seem to be going backward, not forward, on race and other bigotry issues. Ten years ago, maybe even four years ago, I thought the nation was farther along than we are on the road to racial understanding and acceptance. I remember going to a so-called Klan rally over in Neshoba County, my home county known for our violent race past, not long after moving back here. It was absurd, with a handful of KKKers in a muscle truck with a woman in a rebel flag tank top as their spokeswoman.
They marched around the court square and about everyone there had shown up to shout them down: "Go home!" "Idiots!" I was really proud of my hometown that day.
Now we have reports--such as a recent one by ABC News--of angry Klansmen growing in popularity in Mississippi and around the nation. I get disgusting emails from the John Birch Society, still yammering about the U.N. And there is so much open racism on conservative blogs right here in Jackson that it makes my toes curl (by, inevitably, men too cowardly to use their real names, but racists often hide under hoods, masks and pseudonyms, after all.) Then last week, the co-chairman of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, John Sununu, made a horribly bigoted statement about Colin Powell, and he wasn't fired the next day.
It's worse than it was when we started the paper 10 years ago.
The reason is obvious if we pay attention. Many people spreading baseless rumors they see on nasty blogs aren't trying to be mean or hateful; they think they're right because people they agree with on other issues or go to church with believe it, too. There's no need to check it out; besides, any source that says something else is obviously "biased."
People are passing along hateful lies and bigotry because they are very purposely being lied to. I've written often about the Republican "southern strategy" that Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan and even the first George Bush adopted to get people they perceived to be white racists to go along with policies that helped the rich, if not most of the presumed racists.
Their strategists--including the late Lee Atwater and his sidekick, our own Haley Barbour--convinced them to court the old Dixiecrat voters who fled the Democratic Party in the 1960s after it supported civil-rights legislation to end legal segregation and Jim Crow policies. In essence, the GOP made a deal with the racist devil to get support for government shrinkage--meaning of the kinds of laws and regulations that could have kept more manufacturing and jobs in the U.S. and Americans working--as well as tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthy.
They also went after these voters with wedge issues like being against abortion and gay rights--at least in public.
To get it done, the new not-Lincoln-esque GOP rejected the more blatant racism of the Dixiecrats in favor of wink-wink racism--such as attacking "welfare queens" (falsely presumed to be overwhelmingly black and single); food stamps (same wrong assumption); "entitlements" (ditto); and crime hysteria (the "super-predator" myth spread by Reagan drug czar Bill Bennett and the first George Bush's "Willie Horton" ad).
(These days, politicos refer to wink-wink racism as "dog whistling.")
The Republican Party, which used to be the preferred party of black Americans before the 1960s, has nearly cracked under the weight of this burden. It has become an exclusive club with a weird mix of corporate barons (and those who'd love to be), abject racists and "values voters." It has seen a sad descent with its potential membership shrinking as younger voters and just about every non-white rejects the party. South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham said it well at this year's Republican National Convention when he warned that there just aren't that many more "angry white guys" to lure into the party, so they'd better change their ways.
Former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman even apologized to the NAACP in 2005 for using the southern race strategy, saying, "it's not healthy for our country."
If anything, now it's worse--and the kinds of false ideas about the "other" are empowering fringe groups like the new Klan in Mississippi to believe they can attract enough membership to raise real hell again against non-whites. (Remember: The Klan always emerged out of more mainstream bigotry; not the other way around.) And dangerous agitators like neo-con Dinesh D'Souza write books like "The End of Racism" (1996) to convince us that talking about racism is actually racist. Then he does a film in 2012 ("2016: Obama's America") to convince the gullible that Barack Obama is actually acting on behalf of the Muslim father he met once.
Then there are men like Mitt Romney and John Sununu. Are they racist? Clearly. Racism is always about what you do and the "system" you support and whether it systemically hurts an ethnic group that already lacks real equality and equal access to opportunity. The legacy of our nation's racism has not yet been reversed--precisely because white men like these do not want to risk losing some of their own power and wealth, regardless of how they got it or who suffered as a result.
This campaign has pulled out the race stops and turned the U.S. backward in a way that even George W. Bush wouldn't do.
Both Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan lied repeatedly, for instance, about Obama changing the work rules for welfare (he didn't), and Sununu has gone out repeatedly and made race-charged statements. The latest--that Gen. Powell endorsed Obama because he's black--appeals to the worst instincts of some white Americans, whom these men assume are majority racist. Why else would Powell have endorsed Obama!?! Sigh.
Sununu could not know what is in Powell's mind any more than our own family or friends (or D'Souza) could know if Obama secretly pines to be Muslim. But leaders from a shrinking lily-white party do know that some people want to believe that black people are as race-obsessed as they are.
It is up to white Americans to end this ugly ruse right here. Please stop voting against your best interests because some Republicans assume you're racist. Prove them wrong.