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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

 
It's A Tradition

by digby


Paul Waldman and Kevin Drum have a couple of good posts up today discussing Limbaugh's crude racist comments this past week and what it says about his conservative listeners. Both are well worth reading, but I think there's chicken or the egg question that goes unanswered. Waldman writes:
When Limbaugh says Obama's resentment is about race "as you know," his audience certainly does know, because they've heard it hundreds of times. I think most liberals are unaware that this message gets pounded home to white conservatives day after day and has been since 2008. This is how something like health-care reform can be fit so seamlessly into the culture war: It's big government, and that can only mean taking money from hardworking white people and giving it to undeserving, shiftless black people. That's why Limbaugh so often refers to health-care reform as "reparations" -- Obama, angry black man that he is, enacted it to stick it to white people in vengeance for slavery and discrimination.
He's absolutely right. This particular narrative is as old as the republic and it's always been part of conservative talk. It's why people like me, who grew up immersed in it, recognize it for what it is and reflexively cringe. Way back when I wrote about this (and I've quoted it a few times since then, so forgive me for repeating myself):

Sociologist Nathan Glazer of Harvard answers a ... question --- “Why Americans don’t care about income inequality” which may give us some clues. Citing a comprehensive study by economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth called, "Why Doesn't the United States have a European-Style Welfare State?" (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2/2001) he shows that the reluctance of Americans to embrace an egalitarian economic philosophy goes back to the beginning of the republic. But what is interesting is that both he and the economists offer some pretty conclusive evidence that the main reason for American “exceptionalism” in this case is, quite simply, racism.

AGS [Alesina, Glazear and Sacerdote] report, using the World Values Survey, that "opinions and beliefs about the poor differ sharply between the United States and Europe. In Europe the poor are generally thought to be unfortunate, but not personally responsible for their own condition. For example, according to the World Values Survey, whereas 70 % of West Germans express the belief that people are poor because of imperfections in society, not their own laziness, 70 % of Americans hold the opposite view.... 71 % of Americans but only 40% of Europeans said ...poor people could work their way out of poverty."
[…]
"Racial fragmentation and the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities among the poor played a major role in limiting redistribution.... Our bottom line is that Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution. In fact the political system is likely to be endogenous to these basic American beliefs."(p. 61)

"Endogenous" is economics-ese for saying we have the political system we do because we prefer the results it gives, such as limiting redistribution to the blacks. Thus the racial factor as well as a wider net of social beliefs play a key role in why Americans don't care about income inequality, and why, not caring, they have no great interest in expanding the welfare state.
Glazer goes on to point out how these attitudes may have come to pass historically by discussing the roles that the various immigrant support systems and the variety of religious institutions provided for the poor.

But initial uniformities were succeeded by a diversity which overwhelmed and replaced state functions by nonstate organizations, and it was within these that many of the services that are the mark of a fully developed welfare state were provided. Where do the blacks fit in? The situation of the blacks was indeed different. No religious or ethnic group had to face anything like the conditions of slavery or the fierce subsequent prejudice and segregation to which they were subjected. But the pre-existing conditions of fractionated social services affected them too. Like other groups, they established their own churches, which provided within the limits set by the prevailing poverty and absence of resources some services. Like other groups, too, they were dependent on pre-existing systems of social service that had been set up by religious and ethnic groups, primarily to serve their own, some of which reached out to serve blacks, as is the case with the religiously based (and now publicly funded) social service agencies of New York City. They were much more dependent, owing to their economic condition, on the poorly developed primitive public services, and they became in time the special ward of the expanded American welfare state's social services. Having become, to a greater extent than other groups, the clients of public services, they also affected, owing to the prevailing racism, the public image of these services.

Glazer notes that there are other factors involved in our attitudes about inequality having to do with our British heritage, religious background etc. But, he and the three economists have put their finger on the problem Democrats have with white Southern voters who “vote against their economic self-interest,” and may just explain why populism is so often coupled with nativism and racism --- perhaps it’s always been difficult to make a populist pitch that includes blacks or immigrants without alienating whites.

The angry black man seeking revenge narrative has been out there just as long. (When you treat people like dirt it's natural to worry they're going to turn on you.) I wrote about this during Katrina:

Ever since 1791, there have been white Americans who get very nervous when they see a large number of angry black people in one place. That was the year that Haiti's slaves rebelled and killed almost every Frenchman on the island. The fear of slave revolt --- black revolt --- entered the consciousness of the American lizard brain and has never left. From Gabriel Prosser to Nat Turner to Malcolm X to Stokely Carmichael and the long hot summers of 66 and 67, notions of barbaric vengeance being wreaked upon unsuspecting white people has lurked in our racist subconscious. During slavery it was the immoral institution itself combined with horrible inhumane treatment. After the civil war it was the knowledge of seething anger at Jim Crow. During the 60's the anger became explicit and words like "by any means necessary" reached deep into the American psyche and fueled the backlash against the civil rights movement --- and set the conditions for the Republican dominance of politics today.

Race is America's deepest psychic wound that festers in different ways over and over again. It has lost much of its original blazing pain, but it is still there, buried and waiting to come to the surface.

Waldman points out today that it's important to recognize the extra layer of opposition that Obama faces as the first black president and he's right. Obama has a political complication that no other president has faced. But it's also important to recognize that liberalism itself is opposed for many of the same fundamental reasons. Historical opposition to the welfare state was always at least partially motivated by racism and so American liberalism, which promotes the welfare state and equal rights is suspect as well.

Waldman concludes with this observation

Liberals look at Obama and see someone who is overly conciliatory, forever reaching out to opponents who despise him and giving up more than he should. But we shouldn't forget that a substantial portion of the population is constantly steeped in this racial poison. Nothing the president or anyone else says or does will change that.

It does change, actually. But it takes time. It's changed tremendously during my lifetime and the pace is picking up. But there's no use in pretending that it's gone because it isn't. Limbaugh proves that every day.


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