In the British original of The Office the main protagonist, David Brent (US reincarnation: Michael Scott), wistfully recalls a tender moment during his favorite war film, The Dam Busters, involving the hero pilot, Wing Commander Guy Gibson. “Before he goes into battle, he’s playin’ with his dog,” says Brent.
“Nigger,” says his sidekick, Gareth (Dwight in the States), recalling with glee the name of the dog.
Brent flinches, eager to mitigate the slur. “Yeah!… it was the ’40s,” he says, “before racism was bad.”
The problem with the illusion of a postracial society is that at almost any moment the systemic nature of racism, its legacy, methods and impulses, might have to be rediscovered and restated as though for the first time. If the problem has gone away, those who point it out or claim to experience it are, by definition, living in the past. Those who witness it in action must be imagining things. Those who practice it are either misunderstood or maligned.
So it has been these past few weeks with Republicans on the stump, campaigning as though in a time “before racism was bad,” when Rick Perry’s family had a hunting lodge known as Niggerhead and white people could just run their mouth without consequences. In Sioux City, Iowa, Rick Santorum was asked a question about foreign influence on the economy. As he meandered incoherently through his answer, he came out with this gem:
“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
“Right,” said one audience member, as another woman nodded.
“And provide for themselves and their families,” Santorum added, to applause. “The best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling again.”
The black population of Sioux City is 2.9 percent. In Woodbury County, in which Sioux City sits, 13 percent of the people are on food stamps, an increase of 26 percent since 2007, with nine times as many whites as blacks using them.
Just a few days later, in Plymouth, New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich told a crowd, “I will go to the NAACP convention and explain to the African-American community why they should demand paychecks…[instead of] food stamps.” African-Americans make up 0.8 percent of Plymouth’s population. Food stamp use in Grafton County is 6 percent—a 48 percent increase since 2007.
And then there’s Ron Paul, who would like to repeal civil rights legislation and who once claimed that “order was only restored in LA [after the Rodney King riots] when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.” Or at least newsletters bearing his name did—newsletters he paid for and once defended. Paul now claims that they had nothing to do with him.
The point here is not to accuse the GOP hopefuls of racism. That would be too predictable and has been done with great effect elsewhere, prompting denials that are beyond pathetic. Ron Paul, it turns out, has been passing as Malcolm X. “I’m the only one up here and the only one [including] in the Democratic Party that understands true racism in this country is in the judicial system,” he said. Santorum’s defense, on the other hand, is that he temporarily lost the ability to speak English. The best he could come up with, after several attempts, was that he really said “blah” people.
Neither is the point to show how Republicans leverage racial anxiety for electoral effect. According to the Agriculture Department, more whites use food stamps than blacks and Latinos combined. By coloring poverty and food insecurity black, even in areas where few black people exist, Republicans hope to spin food stamps as a racial entitlement program, diverting attention from their attempts to balance the budget on the stomachs of the poor. Republicans want to slash spending on food stamps by around 20 percent and in June voted to cut the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, which provides assistance to poor pregnant women, mothers and children, by 10 percent. All of this is important. But efforts to encourage whites to identify with their race rather than their class, as though the two could be separated and then ranked, is an age-old ploy perfected first by Southern Democrats.
No, what feels new here is the collapse of the broad consensus about racial discourse in electoral politics since the ’60s. The Nixon Strategy dictated that racism would continue to be an integral part of electoral campaigns, but those who used it would work in code. Reagan visited Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered, to talk about “states’ rights” and went on to trash “welfare queens”; George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University; his dad had “Willie” Horton (the architect of that ad is now on Team Romney). The point was to frame a politics that scapegoated blacks in a manner that racists would recognize but that would also provide plausible deniability against accusations of racism.
Today it seems as though Republicans who might be put off by racist rhetoric are in short supply, as though the presence of a black president has left them blind to their own sophism. No candidate’s polling numbers nose-dived after his remarks; there was precious little in the way of mainstream media frenzy—as recently as 2006, George Allen’s “Macaca moment” cost him his Senate seat. There is no parsing these statements. They are what they are. We are back to the days when conservatives feel comfortable calling a spade a spade. Some commentators have described it as a dog whistle: a call set to a tone that rallies some without disturbing others—a special frequency for the inducted. But this is no dog whistle. This is Wing Commander Gibson taking his mutt for a walk and calling him loudly and fondly by name.