Saturday, November 26, 2011

the racial paranoia in the "socialism" claim

In Black Boy, Richard Wright noted that there was a large range of topics that were off-limits for conversation between southern whites and blacks in the 1920s. The North, the Civil War, socialism, Communism, France, French women, and how black soldiers had fared with them in World War 1, and so on. The favored topics of discussion, Wright claimed, were sex and religion. Whites tended to be quite curious about the supposed sexual prowess of black men. Anyway, that's a rabbit trail; the point is that white southerners really hated socialism and communism, in part because it was associated with blackness.

If you're familiar with the language of resistance to the civil rights movement, you know that much of it depended on branding the movement with the taint of socialism and communism. And in fact there was a certain amount of sense to this, because for much of the 20th century socialists and communists were some of the few people seriously opposed to racial prejudice. In any case, it seems clear that black political action became firmly associated with socialism, to some extent in reality, but even more so in perception.

Even as late as the 1980s, Reagan and other white conservatives were expressing opposition to a Martin Luther King holiday on the grounds that the movement was supposedly driven by communists. With the conservative white vote consolidating around the Republican Party and blacks moving to the Democrats, this association rubbed off, in some respects, on the whole Democratic Party.

But it is difficult to watch the reaction to Barack Obama and not see the parallels to the longstanding white conservative belief of black political action being tied to dangerous left-wing radicalism. I poked around online for about 20 minutes trying to find conservatives calling Bill Clinton a socialist during his presidency. Other than an obscure op-ed on, I couldn't locate anything. It certainly doesn't seem to have been a mainstream charge.

Contrast that with the current opposition to Barack Obama, in which everyone from mainstream conservative writers to talk radio personalities to presidential candidates have lobbed the socialism charge at Barack Obama. The clincher, for me, is that the charge bears such little relation to reality. Obama's health care plan is to the right of Nixon's, Carter's, and Clinton's. Many wanted him to nationalize the banks, but he refused. He rescued the car companies but has scrupulously avoided governmental interference in their subsequent operations and is liquidating the government's stake. There are hundreds of thousands fewer government employees now than when he took office. He has cut taxes to their lowest levels since the 1950s.

Whether any of this is good policy is beside the point for the purposes of this discussion. At issue is whether or not Barack Obama is a socialist. And when I hear people claim, in defiance of all evidence, that he is, I go searching for a way to make sense of it. I think the subconscious association of blackness with radicalism explains much of it; the other explanation I would note is the anxiety produced by our unprecedented economic troubles.

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