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The Persistence of Racial Politics

By Michael F. Cotter

Considering Mitt Romney’s comparative lack of deference to Donald Trump earlier in the campaign, it may come as a surprise that last week Trump deigned to anoint Romney with his blessing for the Republican nomination. In the 24 hours before the announcement, rumors had surfaced that Trump would throw his weight behind Newt Gingrich.  Yet it was Romney, not Gingrich, who appeared with Trump at a press conference in Las Vegas. The newfound political relationship between Romney and Trump offers a glimpse into the likely shape of the campaign against incumbent President Barack Obama.   The attacks against the president’s policy agenda will be overshadowed by tacitly racist attempts to undermine the president’s authenticity as an American.

Unfortunately, both Trump and Romney have emphasized Obama’s ethnic and racial background. Trump single-handedly turned himself into a political figure by feeding baseless fears about the President’s supposed Kenyan birth.  Similarly, the Romney campaign has made it a point to stoke the flames of suspicion about the President’s supposed lack of American authenticity. At a rally in Las Vegas last week, Romney accused Obama of not “feeling…this American spirit” that “we share.” He said that Obama is intent on “poisoning the spirit of America” and “replacing ambition with envy.” Such accusations serve as a dog-whistle aimed at those whose xenophobia and, yes, racism, has led them to be suspicious of the President not just for his policies but also for his identity.  The likes of Romney and Trump have sought to both further and benefit from the American right’s vestigial racism.

The right wing of the Republican Party’s reliance on racial fear to excite its base has deep, well-documented roots. In 1968, the Nixon campaign sought to capitalize on the Democrats’ decision to go all-in on civil rights by launching the now-infamous “Southern Strategy.” This strategy consisted of playing to Southern white fears about lawlessness in the wake of integration. It meant providing open arms to racists fleeing a Democratic party overtaken by “negroes and Jews.” As a result of the race-baiting tactics of his campaign, Nixon was the first member of the Republican Party to establish an electoral base in the South since Reconstruction.  In 1981, Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained in not-so-subtle terms that the politicians of his party spoke in “coded” language with regards to “the racial problem.” By the Reagan era, talk of so-called welfare queens and luxurious government handouts evoked racial stereotypes to arouse the fear of bigots.  Atwater went on to lead George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, which included the racially charged Willie Horton Ad.

Certainly racism in America has dissipated significantly, even since the late ‘80’s. However, it is fanciful to imagine that after centuries of explicit racial politics, the specter of bigotry is entirely absent from our discourse.  Indeed, Trump harps on the bizarre notion that President Obama was born in Africa, and Romney asserts that Obama does not “believe in America.” Attacks against the President that rely on the implication that he is un-American do little to end the malignant tradition of racism in politics.

These on the right often offer an ungenerous critique of so-called “political correctness,” opting instead to speak bluntly and plainly.  Well, it’s time we tear down the greatest monument to wrongheaded political correctness in America.  We must end the charade that places a taboo on acknowledging the existence of racial politics.

The Birther movement, entirely bereft of a factual basis, was the offspring of the latent racial animus that still exists in this country.  By last spring, it became widespread enough that denying the President’s natural-born citizenship became de rigueur for all aspiring conservative presidential candidates. I admire the optimism of those who genuinely believe that the tradition of the “Southern Strategy” has been entirely erased in the last forty years, but I do not share it.  It is not a mere coincidence that our first black president is also the first one whose American nationality has been called into question.  It is not a coincidence that our first black president is the only one whose religious identity is the subject of persistent doubt.

In the 2008 campaign, John McCain had the maturity to publicly dismiss claims that Obama was a secret Muslim.  Unfortunately, I expect no such thing from Romney. He has shown himself incapable of connecting meaningfully with voters.  His road to the Republican nomination has been one of sad resignation for the Republican base rather than excitement. Furthermore, his entire narrative will fall apart if unemployment continues to fall. His best chance at capturing the Oval Office rests in rousing deep, unfounded fears about the President’s identity.  I do not think that Mitt Romney is racist, nor do I think he doubts the President’s place of birth.  Yet Romney apparently wants the presidency badly enough to sing any tune, play to any fear, and stand on stage with any would-be demagogue for a few votes.  I, for one, maintain no illusions about the pitch of his dog whistle.

Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.

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