Saturday, October 20, 2007

Perfect Racists: Hard Bigotry and Low Expectations in the GOP

Bill O’Reilly’s shock at the idea that blacks can behave themselves in a restaurant and Ann Coulter’s recent anti-Semitic outburst should have come as no surprise since the modern Republican Party built its electoral coalition on racism and intolerance.

For those of you who have been hiding under a rock, in a late September broadcast Fox Noise commentator Bill O’Reilly expressed the surprise he felt during a recent dinner at the landmark Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s. "I couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship." Later on, O'Reilly expressed his surprise that "there wasn't one person in Sylvia's who was screaming, 'M-Fer, I want more iced tea.' You know, I mean, everybody was -- it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn't any kind of craziness at all."

O’Reilly claimed that his comments somehow were taken out of context, though reading the full transcript of the broadcast doesn’t improve his case any. This is hardly the first time racist words have tumbled from O’Reilly’s lips. Check out some choice comments documented by Fairness and Accuracy in the Media (FAIR) and the Daily Kos:

In April 2003, O’Reilly served as host for a fundraiser put on by Best Friends, a charity benefiting inner-city schoolchildren. According to a Washington Post story (4/15/03), O’Reilly told jokes before a singing group connected with the charity, called the Best Men, was set to perform. “Does anyone know where the Best Men are?” O’Reilly asked about the African American group. “I hope they’re not in the parking lot stealing our hubcaps.’”

On a February 6,2003 broadcast, O’Reilly used the term “wetback” to describe someone helping immigrants across the border. Fox Noise excused the comment as a slip of the tongue (New York Times, 2/10/03), but the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call (1/5/03) quoted O’Reilly using the same slur in an earlier speech that year: “O’Reilly criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service for not doing its job and not keeping out ‘the wetbacks’” O’Reilly denied the statement (Washington Post, 2/17/02), but the reporter stands by his story.

During a discussion (2/9/00) on African American athletes filing suit against the NCAA’s minimum academic standards for college admission, O’Reilly said: “Look, you know as well as I do most of these kids come out and they can’t speak English.”

On the April 12, 2006 Radio Factor show, O’Reilly insisted that the previous day’s guest, New York City councilman Charles Barron had unintentionally revealed the “hidden agenda” behind the current immigration debate, which, O’Reilly claimed, was “to wipe out `white privilege` and to have the browning of America.” O’Reilly suggested that this “hidden agenda” involved letting “people who live in the Caribbean, people who live in Africa and Asia … walk in and become citizens immediately.’”

On March 24, 2004, in response to a contributor who reported that by mid-century the United States would no longer be predominantly white, O’Reilly responded by exclaiming, “Yeah, but by then we’ll all be dead. Thank God!!”
Ann Coulter stirred her own dust-up in recent days when, during an appearance on The Big Idea" with Donny Deutsch, she looked forward to a world without Jews. Here are her comments:

"DEUTSCH: Let me ask you a question . . . If you had your way, and all of your . . . dreams, which are genuine, came true having to do with immigration, having to do . . . with abortion — what would this country look like?
COULTER: UMMMMM (pause) ... It would look like New York City during the Republican National Convention. In fact, that's what I think heaven is going to look like . . . People were happy. They're Christian. They're tolerant. They defend America, they —
DEUTSCH: Christian — so we should be Christian? It would be better if we were all Christian?
COULTER: Yes.
DEUTSCH: We should all be Christian?
COULTER: Yes. Would you like to come to church with me, Donny?
DEUTSCH: So I should not be a Jew, I should be a Christian, and this would be a better place?
COULTER: Well, you could be a practicing Jew, but you're not . . .
DEUTSCH: You can't possibly — you're too educated . . .
COULTER: Do you know what Christianity is? We believe your religion, but you have to obey . . . We have the fast-track program. . . we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.
DEUTSCH: Wow, you didn't really say that, did you?
COULTER: Yes. That is what Christianity is. We believe the Old Testament, but ours is more like Federal Express. You have to obey laws . . . [T]hat is what Christians consider themselves: perfected Jews. We believe the Old Testament. As you know from the Old Testament, God was constantly getting fed up with humans for not being able to, you know, live up to all the laws. What Christians believe — this is just a statement of what the New Testament is — is that that's why Christ came and died for our sins. Christians believe the Old Testament. You don't believe our testament."

Republican racism is a recurring phenomenon that the mainstream media chooses to largely ignore. Whenever television covers the Republican National Convention, the cameras always manage to zero in on every African American in the audience. Similarly, the Republicans find media-savvy African Americans like former Congressman J.C. Watts and talk show host Armstrong Williams to front for them on news shows, thus creating the illusion of a diverse, tolerant party. (In fact, 90 percent of African Americans vote for Democrats. Mexican Americans and other Latinos prefer the Democrats by 2-1, and Asian Americans reject the GOP by a 6-4 margin.)

Similarly, the rightwing trotted out NPR and Fox News commentator Juan Williams to deny Bill O’Reilly is a racist. “They[O’Reilly’s critics] are trying to shut up anybody who’s having an honest thought about race relations in this country, and wants to speak honestly about the damage being done by the likes of these rappers or these comedians who use the N-word, and all of that,” Williams said. “You know, they’re willing to celebrate Snoop Dogg, or Twista, or any of these guys who go out there and present these minstrel show images of black people . . . [O’Reilly’s comments] had nothing to do with racist ranting by anybody except these idiots at CNN.”

Williams’ apologia aside, it is clear from O’Reilly’s comments that he regards boorish and crude behavior as the norm among African Americans. Or at least he did until he went to Sylvia’s. One might well ask why O’Reilly, who has lived in New York for years, took so long to visit such a great restaurant unless it was because of his fear of black people. O’Reilly’s comments indicate that his dinner in Harlem was a rare close encounter of the black kind and that the TV and radio host lives most of his life in segregated isolation.

If Republican exploit accommodating black people to cover for white racists, they are now using Jewish writers to argue that Coulter’s comments are not anti-Semitic. “On one level, the whole affair is just so silly,” writes David Klinghoffer at the National Review Online. “Which religion, whose adherents accept the tenets of that religion as the truth about God, does not regard adherents of other faiths as holding imperfect theological notions? If religious belief is important, then to accept more perfect beliefs is to be more perfect.” A similar argument is made by Dennis Prager at Human Events.com. “There is nothing in what Ann Coulter said to a Jewish interviewer on CNBC that indicates she hates Jews or wishes them ill, or does damage to the Jewish people or the Jewish state,” Prager writes. “And if none of those criteria is present, how can someone be labeled anti-Semitic?

"What damage has she ever done to Jews? What is wrong with a person believing that it would be better if another person adopted their faith? Is there one liberal who doesn't believe that a conservative would be better -- "perfected," if you will -- by embracing liberal beliefs and values? Why is it laudable for a liberal to hope that conservatives convert to liberalism, but dangerous and hate-filled when a Christian hopes that Jews or anyone else will go to heaven (that is, after all, Ann Coulter's and most other Christians' primary concern) by believing in Jesus?"

Klinghoffer and Prager hold a zero-sum view of theology whereby the truths of one religion necessarily invalidate the truths of another. It may be beyond their imagination, but some people of faith acknowledge ambiguity and doubt and recognize that, because of human imperfection, no person or doctrine can contain the whole truth, or to definitively possess a “perfected” version of it unquestionably superior to its competitors. Competing ideas of God are all founded on speculation and, as such, have equal standing to the tolerant.

Both the Coulter and the O’Reilly incidents bring to stark light a basic truth: that appeals to racism lay at the heart of the conservative message and that the distance between mainstream conservative like O’Reilly and Coulter and the fringe occupied by the likes of former Klansman David Duke is shorter than anyone in the mainstream media is willing to admit. The Republican Party comes almost entirely in one flavor, vanilla, and any gathering of the GOP closely resembles the old Sun City resort in apartheid-era South Africa. This stems from the origins of the modern Republican coalition, which became competitive, after the Democratic monopoly over the White House from 1933 to 1953, when Southern segregationist Democrats like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms began to leave the party of their fathers and, ironically, drift towards the part of Lincoln.

In the 1950s, William F. Buckley’s National Review played a pivotal role in creating the modern conservative movement, creating an iron alliance between libertarians who wanted little or no government regulation of business and traditionalists who wanted to defend and preserve respect for traditional moral authority, as represented by conservative churches. Buckley set the tone for conservative discourse and frequently expressed sympathy for segregationists. “Prior to [the 1955 founding of the National Review], conservative intellectuals had no central outlet for rigorous debate among themselves, let alone a means of communication to preach to the unconverted,” wrote sociologist Sara Diamond.

As the magazine gained a following among wealthy and influential conservatives, Buckley acquired the power to define conservative orthodoxy and excommunicate those deemed damaging to the cause, such as when he disowned any alliance with the extremist anti-communist John Birch Society. An unembarrassed elitist, the patrician Yale graduate Buckley embodied the right wing of the mainstream, appearing as a frequent guest on television talk shows and even hosting a Public Broadcasting System television show, Firing Line from 1966 to 1999.

Buckley’s ugly, not-so-hidden secret, was that this mainstream conservative held a view on racial issues not substantially different from that of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace. Under Buckley, the National Review abandoned its lip service to libertarianism and adamantly supported the right of Southern states to regulate whether whites and blacks could sit next to each other, or use the same public transportation, water fountains or bathrooms. In a 1957 editorial headlined “Why the South Must Prevail,” Buckley defended the denial of black voting rights:

"The central question that emerges . . . is whether the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes – the white community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.

National Review believes the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority."

In this editorial, Buckley calls blacks primitive and suggests that granting African American voting rights in the South would threaten civilization, defined as the will of the white community. At the time this was written, of course, that Southern civilization embraced lynching and the mob mentality that resulted in the savage murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. However, black voting so endangered white standards of living, Buckley wrote, that the South was justified in using any means necessary, including presumably violence, to prevent the ballot from falling in the wrong hands.

Buckley’s views not only reveal a deep racism, but an antipathy to democracy itself. Buckley believed that majority rule should be respected only as long as it provides a vehicle for elite objectives. What check would exist to prevent a politically dominant minority from using the “defense of civilization” to rationalize any tyranny doesn’t concern the typically intellectually sloppy Buckley. Inconvenient dissent, even on the part of the majority, should be squashed as ruthlessly as it was in the Soviet Union Buckley so despised.

Buckley’s views of the Jim Crow South reflected no aberration in the magazine’s general view of African Americans, who were consistently portrayed in the pages of the National Review as mentally backwards. In the 1960s, the National Review supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and in a June 1964 article cheered the life sentence given African National Congress Leader and future South African President Nelson Mandela. The National Review also regularly tapped white supremacists advocating eugenics, such as Phillipe Rushton and Steven Sailer, the far right-wing journalist, to contribute articles on race and to write negative reviews of anti-eugenicist academics and authors like Stephen Jay Gould.

The National Review also leant its prestige to the cause of neo-eugenics, running a rave review on September 12, 1994 of J. Phillipe Rushton’s Race, Evolution, and Behavior in which writer Mark Snyderman praised Rushton’s “fearless” thesis that “Orientals are more intelligent, have larger brains for their body size, have smaller genitalia, have less sex drive, are less fecund, work harder and are more readily socialized than Caucasians; and Caucasians on average bear the same relationship to blacks.” The National Review would similarly praise The Bell Curve, a book that argued that African Americans were an average of 15 points lower in intelligence than whites, that the difference stemmed from biology and not poverty, racism and discrimination, and that no remedial programs like Head Start could make a difference regarding black achievement.

If prior to the 1960s, the “solid South” could be counted on to support the Democratic Party, which had been the party of the slave South and held monopoly power in the Jim Crow era, by the 1960s this loyalty frayed badly. Richard Nixon launched an era of Republican domination of the presidency in 1968 when he reached out to segregationists in the South and parents angry over school busing and anti-war protests in the North through the use of racially coded language about law and order and “neighborhood schools.”

Such language appealed to men like the Rev. Jerry Falwell. When Falwell, the founder of the Christian Right organization the Moral Majority, died this past May, obituaries inevitably mentioned his warnings to parents that one of the characters in the children’s television show “Teletubbies” was gay and his remark after September 11 that the terrorist attack happened because God was angry with America due to “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America."

Such comments bordered on entertaining in their sheer dimwittery. The media, however, whitewashed Falwell’s earlier support of segregation, perhaps because much of the press does not take anti-black racism seriously. The Virginia preacher, however, stood with the racists as the greatest moral crusade of the twentieth century raged in his native region. Responding to the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision, “Brown v. The Board of Education” which ruled that segregated public schools violated the constitution, Falwell said, “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made…. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”

In 1958, Falwell delivered a sermon at his Thomas Roads Baptist Church titled “Segregation and Integration: Which?” in which he proclaimed, "The true Negro does not want integration... He realizes his potential is far better among his own race... It [desegregation] will destroy our race eventually...” In 1964, Falwell delivered another sermon, this time against the sweeping civil rights legislation pushed by President Lyndon Johnson in wake of the JFK assassination. Falwell declared that the bill “should be considered civil wrongs rather than civil rights” and that it represented “a terrible violation of human and private property rights.”

A preacher who would joyfully plunge into politics to roll back the human rights of gays and the reproductive choice of women, Falwell condemned preachers involved in the civil rights movement, arguing that ministers had no place in political debate but should focus instead on saving souls. In a March 1965 sermon titled “Ministers and Marches,” he expressed doubt as to the “sincerity and non-violent intentions of some civil rights leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. James Farmer, and others, who are well known to have left-wing affiliations. It is very obvious that the Communists, as they do in all parts of the world, are taking advantage of a tense situation in our land, and are exploiting every incident to bring about violence and bloodshed.”

It was inappropriate for a minister like King to lead the charge for social reform, Falwell argued. Referring to the clergy, he declared that, “our only purpose on this earth is to know Christ and to make him known. Believing the Bible as I do, I find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else -– including the fighting of communism or participating in civil rights reform . . . Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul-winners . . . If as much effort could be put into winning people to Jesus across the land as is being exerted in the present civil rights movement, America would be turned upside down for God.”

As William Martin, author of “With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America,” points out, Falwell’s stand reeked of hypocrisy since defense of segregation constituted political activism as much as fighting for civil rights. In any case, in 1965, Falwell formed the Lynchburg Christian Academy to serve as a refuge for white parents fleeing the ordered desegregation of local schools. The “Lynchburg News” described the academy as “a private school for white students.” Falwell regularly hosted segregationist governors like George Wallace and Lester Maddox on his “Old-Time Gospel Hour” television show. Meanwhile, Falwell’s church and school remained segregated until 1968, and did not baptize its first African American member until 1971, years after “whites only” signs had come down across Dixie.

Racism and intolerance lurked barely below the surface as Falwell aligned his Moral Majority organization with the GOP. Falwell’s period of heavy political involvement began in 1977, as he backed singer Anita Bryant’s campaign to repeal an ordinance providing equal rights to gay men and women in Dade County, Fla. Holding “I Love America” rallies, Falwell urged churches to register voters and for openly campaign for candidates supporting allegedly Christian positions on moral issues and even welfare and affirmative action.

Falwell’s significance, however, is that he sought a coalition that included more than just evangelical or fundamentalist Christians, but also more mainstream but conservative Protestants, right-wing Catholics and conservative Jews who shared a resentment of the civil rights movement, a fear of the Soviet Union, and opposition to abortion and gay rights. Falwell articulated his central strategy in forming The Moral Majority as: “Get them saved, baptized and registered.” Holding highly politicized evangelical rallies Falwell held up a Bible, telling followers: “If a man stands by this book, vote for him. If he doesn’t, don’t.” In just three years the Moral Majority held $10 million budget could count on an army of 100,000 trained clergymen and several million volunteers.

No organization proved more central to Ronald Reagan victory in the presidential election of 1980 than the former segregationist Falwell’s Moral Majority. Christian conservatives helped the Republicans reduce the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and to capture the Senate. In spite of his ostensible repudiation of segregation, Falwell’s anti-black racism surfaced repeatedly during Reagan’s presidency. Falwell supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and would use the pages of Moral Majority publications to ridicule anti-apartheid activist Bishop Desmond Tutu. Falwell also proved to be one of the many prophecy-believing evangelicals who was more Zionist than many Jews, even if he was forced to apologize in 1999 for saying that the Antichrist was probably alive and if so would be in the form of a male Jew.

Reagan was hardly less explicit in his appeal to white supremacists during his 1980 presidential race than Falwell, even delivering a speech supporting state’s rights (a phrase Southerners had used first to defend slavery and then Jim Crow) at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. This happened to be the infamous site where three civil rights workers (Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Cheney) were murdered with the complicity of the local sheriff’s department in 1964.

Reagan also loved to deride welfare queens (by implication black women) and enthusiastically supported reversing a long-held federal policy of withdrawing tax-exempt status from private schools that discriminate racially, going to mat to defend the tax-exempt status of segregated Bob Jones University, a South Carolina school that in its student code of conduct explicitly banned interracial dating. Even as he rode on a wave of white backlash, Reagan denied that racism was a major issue in America. Speaking of civil rights leaders, Reagan once remarked, “Sometimes I wonder if they really mean what they say, because some of those leaders are doing very well leading organizations based on keeping alive the feeling that they're victims of prejudice."

Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, rose to the White House in part due to an ad that featured the menacing mug shot of a black rapist, Willie Horton. In 2000, Bush’s son, George W. Bush ran into a serious obstacle on his road to the GOP nomination in the person of John McCain, who beat him in the New Hampshire primary. Desperate for momentum as he campaigned in the South Carolina primary, the younger Bush borrowed a tactic from his father’s arsenal and made one more appeal to the angry white man vote. Bush’s political operatives distributed fliers featuring pictures of McCain’s dark-skinned adopted Vietnamese daughter, implying the girl was a black love child.

Making a speech at Bob Jones University, Bush not so subtly linked himself to the school’s white supremacist outlook, declaring, ''I look forward to publicly defending our conservative philosophy.'' While Bush’s comments were vague enough to provide plausible deniability, they were inclusive enough to the Bob Jones audience to imply an endorsement of BJU’s racial separatism. Bush, of course, would later pretend to be offended when presumed Republican Senate majority leader Trent Lott, at the 100th birthday party of Senator Strom Thurmond, noted that his home state of Mississippi had supported Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential campaign. "We're proud of it,” Lott said. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either.”

Bush led the charge to drum Lott out of his position as Senate Majority leader, but the Mississippi politician’s comments merely reflected the attitude of a conservative movement that has in the past half century routinely portrayed African Americans as less intelligent, more promiscuous, as allergic to hard work and as prone to crime. Racism, such as that shown by Lott, draws condemnation only sporadically and randomly and anti-black comments are widely accepted. In the past decade, the venom has shifted to immigrants, but the white supremacist sentiment remains the same. David Duke served in the state Legislature of Louisiana as a Republican for a reason. He found many kindred spirits there.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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