Saturday, October 03, 2009

Racism or Nativism: The Anti-Obama Rallies and Race

James Vega has a provocative and I believe solid piece about the racialism of the teabagging rallies. After carefully examining just what sorts of images of Obama appeared on signs at the rallies, Vega notes that relatively few contained the traditional iconography of anti-black racism. Rather, they remind him more of the late 19th century "yellow peril" anti-Asian freakout.

The “yellow peril” comparison suggests a much more robust conceptualization of the protesters attitudes – not as an antagonism against African-Americans in particular, but as a broader antagonism to the growing racial and social diversity of America in general – to the replacement of a white-dominated, traditional, conservative small-town American culture with a “Tiger Woods” racial mélange of white, black, brown red and yellow Americans and an eclectic urbanized culture of diverse tastes, values, music, clothing, slang and even sexual preference and expression. It is a reaction against a new world of Spanish signs on stores, Asians and Indian families moving in next door, gays calmly accepted as part of ordinary daily life and the necessity of having to be retrained in new jobs and fields in response to the economic demands of a complex globalized world. The “real America” the protesters want to restore is the America of Tom Sawyer and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” – a culture rooted in the rural and small town values that are still a very real and significant part of America.

Democrats need to call this perspective by its correct name. It is not simply anti-Black racism, but rather a modern version of the “nativism” or cultural xenophobia that has been a recurring feature of American culture and politics throughout the country’s history – a fear not simply of alien and foreign ideas but of wrenching social and cultural change in general.

Vega goes on to explain why its so important that Democrats are careful what they call this reaction--because a lot of Americans are not willing to call this racism. It doesn't sit right with them. Many Americans think of racism as a strictly bound set of actions--supporting segregation, not allowing blacks to vote, maybe opposing your family members from relationships with people of other colors. Outside of that, they don't see it that way.

I know these teabagging actions are racist and you know they are racist, but that doesn't mean everyone sees it this way. I think there is a non-zero chance of Democrats overplaying this card and alienating some white voters who don't like to hear their own attitudes called racist when they oppose segregation and such. I'm a big believer in accurate nomenclature and while these actions are racist, they are also more accurately nativist. Calling it such probably makes more sense politically as well.