Published May 29, 2012 in ColorLines
“The secret of Republican political success since the rise of the right is not, as many liberals believe, that they play no-rules hardball. Instead, it’s their skill at projection—at accusing Democrats of doing what they are doing themselves, or are planning to do, or have done.”
—Michael Tomasky, Daily Beast
Nothing stirs up white racial anxiety in an election year like a black-against-white race war. Never mind the fact that there isn’t one. When has that ever stopped the inventive right wing?
Those of us living in the world of objective facts and reality might be mistaken for thinking that the United States remains an at best well-intentioned, but nonetheless deeply hostile nation toward its communities of color. In New York City, reports have shown that in 2011, police conducted 685,724 street stop and frisks (up from 97,000 in 2002). Young black and Latino men between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6 percent of those stopped—although they are only 4.7 percent of the city’s population. In Missouri, a black man named George Allen has been in prison for almost 30 years for allegedly murdering a white woman, a crime that mounting evidence suggests Allen did not commit. Last month, a black woman named Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a single warning shot into the kitchen ceiling of her home to warn off her abusive husband and protect her three children.
But according to conservative media, exactly the opposite is occurring. Conservatives allege there is a growing but underreported black-versus-white race war in America.
There’s no data, of course, just some strung together anecdotes—namely, one about two white newspaper reporters who, while driving through Norfolk, Va., were attacked by a group of young black kids. The media didn’t pounce on the story—even the reporters’ own newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, only mentioned the incident in an opinion piece two weeks later. Conservatives, who actually love to talk about race and racism when they can do so with their fingers pointing at people of color and liberals, pounced on the story as evidence of media bias. The lamestream media was all over the Travyon Martin story but ignored the beating of whites by black kids. That, conservatives screamed, is racial bias.
Mind you, the two reporters in the Virginia incident weren’t hospitalized for their injuries, let alone killed. Local police moved quickly to investigate and three days after the incident was first reported by the paper, police arrested one teen, charging him with throwing a rock at the reporters’ car (a felony) as well as related misdemeanors. By comparison, George Zimmerman wasn’t arrested until almost two months after he shot Trayvon Martin, and only then as a result of community pressure. Only those desperate to distract from productive conversations about racial bias and injustice and return American attention to reinforcing racial stereotypes and hierarchies could manage to find anything comparable between the Trayvon Martin case and the Virginia incident.
Even most white conservatives know better than to use the term “race war” to describe this concocted, black-against-white threat. Fortunately, conservatives have Thomas Sowell. In a widely circulated, syndicated column for the National Review entitled “The Censored Race War,” the black conservative wrote:
What the authorities and the media seem determined to suppress is that the hoodlum elements in many ghettoes launch coordinated attacks on whites in public places. If there is anything worse than a one-sided race war, it is a two-sided race war, especially when one of the races outnumbers the other several times over.
Sowell is either intentionally feeding the idea that blacks like himself are more dangerous and violent than whites or unwittingly providing cover for those who seek to do so.
The root of inequality is the simple but sinister idea that some people are inherently inferior to others. I’ll give Sowell and other conservative media figureheads the benefit of the doubt that they do not personally believe young black men are inherently more dangerous and violent, but that’s all the more reason not to play into such biases and fan the flames of white racial anxiety. Sowell and others should understand that, in America today, this is how racism operates—not primarily through explicit epithets and force but through subtle winks and nods to the prejudices on which our society remains built.
The Virginia case specifically and the manufactured race war in general conveniently feed a larger conservative narrative this election year—reminding white America of how dangerous and scary black men are and how white people, especially white men, are the victims. Despite the fact that, yes, a lot of white folks voted for President Obama in 2008, most didn’t and according to a post-election study by a researcher at Harvard, racial animus cost Obama anywhere from three to five percentage points in the 2008 popular vote. In what is shaping up to a be a tight re-election battle, a few percentage points can really matter.
In addition, the 2012 election will likely be less about independent voters (who polls indicate may split fairly evenly between Romney and Obama) than about voter turnout in each party’s base. Republicans know they have an enthusiasm gap—even now that the primaries are over, Republicans say the main reason they support Romney simply because he’s “not Obama.” Yet in 2008 exit polling, 24 percent of American voters said they were “scared” by the prospect of Barack Obama being elected president. Of those, 95 percent voted Republican. Gin up fear, win the election.
I’m not saying racial animus is the only way to stoke white conservative fear in an election. But it’s sure a popular choice, one we have already seen that Republican Super PACs are pursuing. And we can see this at play in other campaigns too, including the fact that Scott Brown has tried far harder to portray Elizabeth Warren as a person of color than she ever did herself, desperately hoping to increase his own margin of the racial animus vote.
Things really are bad for most white men in America today, just like they are for the rest of us. Jobs are disappearing and so are the public benefits that have traditionally supported them in times of need. And if the present seems bad, the future seems even worse, as public schools implode and college tuition gets further out of reach. Anger is a powerful motivator.
Republicans can’t risk white voters realizing that conservative policies have caused their suffering. And though President Obama’s own record isn’t strong, for the majority of voters middle class tax cuts, affordable health care and fairly centrist policies from education reform to the military aren’t exactly the stuff of fire and brimstone. But the president is black. I’m not arguing that conservatives are attacking the president only because of his race, but they are certainly guilty of tapping into and fanning racial resentment to ignite their critiques. In that sense, sadly, by inventing a fake black-versus-white race war, conservatives are reinforcing and exploiting the divisive white-versus-black racial dynamics in America that they should be instead helping to fix.