The Republicans' Race Strategy

It's been an odd and at times ugly journey to this week's 2012 Republican National Convention in St. Petersburg. Looking to unseat America's first black president, the party has played a dangerous game with race and gender politics. Hazlitt speaks with Danielle McGuire, an historian of the civil rights movement, about her take on the unprecedented divisiveness of this year's campaign.

August 27, 2012

Britt Harvey is an assistant editor at Hazlitt. She's previously written for the Winnipeg Free Press, and has spent an inordinate amount of time...

No matter how much Mitt Romney insists the 2012 U.S. presidential election is all about the economy, members of his own party seem determined to prove otherwise. The Republican primaries felt at times like an alternate reality tour through the late twentieth century, replaying arguments about race and gender we thought had been put to bed long ago. Now, hardly a week goes by without another high-profile Republican lobbing a doozy into the fray, igniting a firestorm over the very issues—gender, race, class—Romney wants to avoid now that he’s supposedly back to being a man of the middle again. Those fault lines that have in great measure defined America maybe haven’t been this clear in decades.    

Danielle McGuire is a professor of modern African American history at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her award-winning book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance—a New History of the Civil rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power reframes the origins of the Civil Rights Movement by documenting black women’s overlooked but decades-long struggle against sexualized violence. Rosa Parks, she points out, was an anti-rape activist before going on to be the “sweet old woman” that sparked the Montgomery bus boycotts.

Hazlitt spoke with McGuire about how race, class and gender issues are figuring in the current U.S. presidential campaign, and what lessons Occupy could learn from the Civil Rights Movement.

Compared to 2008, do you see the issue of race playing out any differently in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign?

I think in some ways the election of Barack Obama has enabled more people who have racial biased opinions to be more vocal about those opinions but in coded ways. Instead of just being racist they can oppose Obama’s policies and couch it in policy decisions where it’s clear they have some racial feelings about him as an individual.

In this election cycle racism feels more calculated. There’s less on Obama’s birthplace and his citizenship, there’s less on Jeremiah Wright. There’s more trying to do what Richard Nixon did in 1968, which is to use the Southern strategy. That is, use this colour blind racism that calls on race without being explicitly about race. In 1968 instead of saying he was in favour of segregation like George Wallace did, Nixon said he was opposed to forced bussing. Instead of arguing against the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act he said he was in favour of state’s rights. You don’t have to say anything about race in order to appeal to people’s racist ideas.

Where in the current campaign have you seen these instances of coded racism?

It was most clear during the primary season, and I think it’s clear in the summer campaign led by Mitt Romney. In the spring Newt Gingrich, was the most Nixonian when he argued that Obama was a food stamp president. He said he was going to go to the NAACP and lecture them and tell them that instead of demanding food stamps from the Obama administration, they should demand paychecks. As long as you can ‘blacken’ government programs: like health care, social security, then you can limit white people’s support for it, even though the white people you’re targeting often benefit from those programs as well.

That is what’s so interesting about the dialogue around so called “Obamacare.” Even calling it “Obamacare” becomes charged.

For strategists who know that they’re speaking to a slice of the electorate that hold deeply ingrained racial prejudices but are unwilling to admit it, calling it “Obamacare” and associating it with the black president, instead of “Democrat Care” or “Affordable Health Care”—they’re purposely trying to link it with the man who some people see only as a black man.

It harkens back to the Reconstruction Era fears of African Americans who are emancipated, but who [whites] believe are unready for leadership, and the fear they’ll take over government and use it to benefit black people instead of white people. That’s why you get a lot of comments on the “federal takeover,” which I think is in some ways about racialized memories about the Civil War and Reconstruction that have been constructed over time in order to make white people feel insecure about their place in society. When the truth is that they’re insecure about their place in society because of a lot of other complex things that have little to do with race, and have more to do with the economy and global capitalism.

Do you see the renewed issue of Voting Rights amendments as a form of coded racism?

I think that when one party is majority all white, nativist, attacks immigrants, is anti-Muslim, is increasingly anti-black—then you can read the tea leaves. America is becoming more and more brown, young people are less inclined to have the same prejudices as their elders. It’s going to be very hard for an all-white majority male party to continue to win elections unless they find some way of curbing the voter rolls, and dividing and conquering the electorate in ways that limit their ability to see issues that benefit them, and only call on their fears and prejudices.

Historically this has always been the way that it has worked. Any kind of restriction on voting has been a way to limit voters, particularly African Americans, and you can see that especially after Reconstruction in the 1890s to the 1920s. That’s partly when you first got Voter Registration laws.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has helped make class a feature of this election campaign. Is class becoming more of a pivotal issue than race, or are they intertwined?

I think race and class are always intertwined. And yet some people think they are separate, or that race trumps class. There are moments in time when that’s true. During an economic crisis people are looking for a scapegoat. You see that with Occupy, they’ve scapegoated Wall Street, big bankers and global finance. The Democrats have done the same thing, while also scapegoating Republican policies of tax cuts and wars. Republicans will scapegoat Democrats tax and spend policy.

However, I do think that the crash of the housing market has exposed the class faults in America more than you ever saw in the 1990s, when everyone thought they were middle class and people felt they had a chance to climb the [economic] ladder. The gap between the rich and the poor is greater now than it was in the Gilded Age. When you have a gap that large, people start to see the ladder as inaccessible.

Your book makes clear that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t arrive fully formed. That it was the result of years of hard work and metamorphosis, and its origins lay in some unexpected places—such as black women’s resistance to sexual violence. When Obama was elected there was a feeling that America was on the cusp of some major changes. Obviously this hasn’t happened. How do you account for the disillusionment, even among Obama’s supporters? 

I think people are so profoundly disappointed because they expected Obama to be able to rise above the pettiness and partisanship of Congress, and I don’t ever think that was humanly possible. He’s not Martin Luther King incarnated and I don’t even think MLK could have done it.

It partly comes from false hopes. It comes back to grounding yourselves in reality and trying to find out where the real problems are and then targeting them. In some ways, if you look at the debate now between Obama and Romney, talking about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital is important because people need to know what private equity is, and how it functions. How can a CEO not take responsibility for what happens in their company? With the way these corporations are structured it’s totally possible. If we can have a real conversation about entities like Bain, then maybe we can have a real conversation about the problems that continue to plague America’s economy, and not have it be divided by issues of race.

What are some lessons the Occupy movement could learn from the Civil Rights Movement? Do current social movements lack its stamina or ethos?

I think Occupy is a great start, and it got enormous attention, more than any other nascent movement would have gotten in the past. I’m not sure if modern movements lack the stamina or ethos. But I do think that the Occupy movement lacks structure. There seems to be no national organizational leadership—nothing akin to an NAACP, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or Southern Christian Leadership Convention. There is not an identifiable set of leaders who help to set agendas and focus on media messaging.

Of course, the Civil Rights movement was fundamentally led by ordinary people—footsoldiers—who put their lives and livelihoods on the line for freedom and human dignity. But the Civil Rights movement needed charismatic national leaders, too, such as Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Ella Baker. They helped coordinate marches and local movements; knit activist communities together; identified key issues on which to focus; set goals; and worked with legislators at the local, state and national level.

Occupy is so decentralized, and it’s not directing activist energy toward electoral politics the same way that Tea Party activists did in 2010. And while decentralization may be good in some respects, I do not think it’s a sustainable strategy. Historically, social movements had achievable goals, committed leaders, tireless activists, and organizational structure or hierarchy. Occupy does not seem to have all of that. But movements take time.

After nearly a year of boycotting the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, African Americans forced the city to integrate public transportation in 1956. It was a huge victory and it energized civil rights activists, gave them hope. Change didn’t come quickly—the sit-ins didn’t start until 1960, the Freedom Rides were in 1961, and the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. You get the point. We need to be patient. And we need to organize.

It’s hard not to notice the change in Romney’s demeanor on certain issues. During the Republican primary he was more vocal on issues such as birth control and abortion. Now less so.

It’s hard to placate a party that is so opposed to choice, and so opposed to women’s reproductive options, but he will because he wants to win their vote. But now that it’s the general election, it’s harder to explain those things and the Republican Party needs women in their fold.

We are seeing some tactics at a more local level that are really insidious. In Georgia you see billboards going up about black children being an endangered species, even the fact that they’re referring to black children as ‘species’ as if they’re animals, is disturbing. Trying to misinform people, black people in particular, to believe that Planned Parenthood and reproductive choice are all designed to commit genocide against black people so that they support these policies that won’t benefit them at all but will in fact hurt them.

That billboard isn’t coming out of nowhere. It’s occurring within a historical context of racism and forced sterilization. And it’s being used to drive a wedge between women and black voters. 

It feeds into a history of suspicion against anything having to do with reproductive rights and control, and rightly so. Because there is a history of forced sterilization and hysterectomies and experimenting on people without their knowledge. But they’re using it in a way to mislead and misinform. They’re using history in a way that’s designed to manipulate.

How do you counteract that, especially in a campaign, when the issues are dumbed down the most?

You see more conversations happening about the issues in schools and people’s homes than on television. The kind of real conversations that are happening where people live and work. There’s a lot that the media is not paying attention to. In North Carolina for example, there’s a major fight going on over the re-segregation of schools. That’s happening completely off the radar of national news.

What’s your experience been like as a white woman teaching black history in a city like Detroit that still struggles with segregation?

On the first day of classes there is almost always a trust issue. Some African American students look at me with a side eye that says, “Hmmph, what does she know about Black history.” I am used to that. It’s not offensive or hurtful because I know it is rooted in a history that is real—a history in which white folks often rewrote the past in a way that deleted, ignored, and misrepresented African American history in favour of a white supremacist narrative. But after a few classes they are with me, and by the end of the course we have created a democratic community. We trust each other because we work through the past honestly.

Teaching African American history in Detroit is incredible. It is perhaps the mecca of black history and almost everyone has a story that is fascinating. Nearly all my students are children or grandchildren of the Great Migration. Many of them have family members who were witnesses to or involved in some of the nation’s largest race riots and rebellions. I have returning adult students who are former Black Panthers or members of the revolutionary union movements of the 1960s. There are those that belong to some of the more famous African American churches in Detroit and have the honour to hear Sunday sermons from esteemed preachers like Reverend Dr. Charles G. Adams. In other words, they carry within them the greatness of American and African American history. It is my job to help them see themselves and their histories as part of a larger trajectory and struggle.

There are some sad ironies. When we study the movement to end segregation in southern schools and we talk about the dangers and difficulties faced by Ruby Bridges or the young people who integrated Little Rock High School in 1957. My students end up telling their own integration stories—what it was like to be the only black student in a nearly all-white suburban classroom in 2009 or 2010.

I’m continually surprised by Detroit. It’s a really important place in America and always has been.

Britt Harvey is an assistant editor at Hazlitt. She's previously written for the Winnipeg Free Press, and has spent an inordinate amount of time reading about other people's problems.