It's The Racism, Stupid

Matt had a series of posts a few weeks back about racism and the tea parties. I thought about commenting but, frankly, I wasn't sure what to say. I couldn't tell whether the signs were indicative of the movement, or indicative of a few oddballs. I think it says something that people feel comfortable toting that sort of message to a rally. But my instincts led me to allow for a "charitable interpretation," as one commenter put it last week.

All of that said, I think Matt was on to something.

One common refrain of black Southeners from Robert Smalls to Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King is the notion that white Supremacy has actually corrupted the white South, that while it is a blight on the physical conditions of blacks, it is a greater blight on the spiritual, moral, and mental conditions of whites.

I never understood how that could be true until relatively recently. But when you think about the embrace of white supremacy by political leaders, you understand that it was not simply an embrace of evil and bigotry, but an embrace of superstition, ghost stories and, ultimately, utter ignorance. At times this has been literally true. There's a short portion in Capitol Men that discusses a late 19th century effort by the federal government to upgrade public schools in the South. For fear that black schools might benefit, South Carolina declines all federal help thus fucking over its white children in the name of white supremacy.

Racism, like all bigotry is, at its root, lazy thinking. Thus the demagouge who employs racism is engaged in a kind of mental corruption, aimed not at the victims of racism, but its alleged benefactors. Thus when George Wallace asserts the following...

In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

...he is, for sure, defaming black people. But he's also engaging his followers in a seductive flight of delusional stupidity. The "segregation" part of that quote isn't the worst part. It's the white nationalist hoodoo, the unreflective vanity of "greatest people that have ever trod this earth" that's the killer.

Likewise, when Jesse Helms tells white North Carolians that all their economic troubles can be summed up by Affirmative Action, he is telling them, "don't think too hard." When Mike Huckabee goes to South Carolina and says...

You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell 'em what to do with the pole; that's what we'd do.

...He's saying, Don't think too hard about history. Go kick some ass.

Of course the problem with mental corruption is that it doesn't really respect borders. There's a short step from Farrakhanesque numerology to believing in little green men. Likewise, a group conditioned to, at once, believe that they are "the greatest people that have ever trod this earth," that the stars and bars actually stand for barbecue, NASCAR and rugged individualism, that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, are exactly the sort of people conditioned to believe that man once hunted dinosaurs, that Obama is (all at once) a radical Christian and a closet Muslim, that global warming is a liberal hoax, that a neurogical diagnoses can be done via video-tape. To be sure, history is littered with smart, well-read racists.But they weren't any smarter for it.

I think this amazing quote from Joe the Plumber says it all:

Queer means strange and unusual. It's not like a slur, like you would call a white person a honky or something like that. You know, God is pretty explicit in what we're supposed to do--what man and woman are for. Now, at the same time, we're supposed to love everybody and accept people, and preach against the sins. I've had some friends that are actually homosexual. And, I mean, they know where I stand, and they know that I wouldn't have them anywhere near my children.

So much of this is perfect--including the idea that "honkey" is the worst slur Joe can think of. But his attitude toward not letting "queers" around his children, is oddly reminiscent. Much as the racist demagouges of yore convinced themselves that the highest aim of black maledom was to bed their fugly-ass daughters, Joe the Plumber is convinced that the highest aim of all queerdom is to spend some time with his snotty-nosed brats.

He's indicative of a demographic that has long been ill-served by its leadership. That works out well for the leadership--at least initially. But over the long-term, the trouble with ignorance is that it trades the "now" for the future. You're betting that those who come after you won't wise up. How's that working out?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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