A recent poll revealed seemingly intelligent people were convinced (18% of those polled) that Barack Obama was a Muslim, even after many of these same people denigrated his Christian church associations with the Reverend Jeremy Wright prior to the 2008 elections. Is Alzheimer’s setting in earlier and with more people than we thought? Why do most of these same people insist that the president was born in Kenya despite the fact that records show he was born in Hawaii and nothing authentic exists to support a birth in an African nation?
It strikes me that part of what is in play here is the manipulation by political and media opportunists to exploit a strain of bigotry developed during an earlier predominantly white culture in America which continues to manifest itself within many white conservatives over the age of 50 today. Most of us who lived in the 50’s and were a part of the social changes that brought about Civil Rights to more people were not automatically transformed by this new social dynamic. Old habits and views die hard and many people, though not legitimate racists, are still imbued with a feeling that blacks and other minorities are inferior on levels where leadership potential at the highest levels are required.
It’s not something anyone will own up to but many in the South where I was raised still make comments that reflect a racial superiority of one group over another, though such attitudes are not limited to the old Mason-Dixon demarcation. It’s more subtle now because they are never sure that people they grew up with and held similar views remain unchanged on some levels. When older, conservative whites are amongst themselves and feel sure they are of all the same mind, it is not uncommon when the occasion avails itself that racial stereo-types are discussed. Harry Reid’s slip during the lead up to the 2008 election revealed earlier this year about Obama being “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect” is an example of this. There was no intended racism here but there was a stereo-type expressed, however less malicious than any true bigot would let loose.
But this prevailing strain of bigotry, especially from anti-Obama advocates, is not primarily about being any shade of black. If being black alone were the real issue it would be across the board, yet many blacks are now active within conservative circles. Added to the race thing however is the “foreign” element linked with the distrust for non-Christians. Obama’s foreign sounding name is very uncomfortable to people who evolved from the WASP culture pre-dating the 1970’s. One indication of this is the anti-immigration movement amongst them that is thoroughly focused on Mexicans. Naturally there are more people from below our southern borders here illegally than other countries but anyone would be hard-pressed to witness the hostility Mexicans receive from this white conservative faction than say an Eastern European whose command of the English language was in fine form.
People within the anti-Obama group are able to conceal their hate for minorities by cloaking it as resentment aimed at things and people “un-American”, the code word for them that rejects anyone who doesn’t look and think like them. This was so typical of WASP society in America from the late 1800s through most of the 20th century. The changes in the law that attacked ethnic and religious discrimination did not remove this blight from the souls of many who held it and raised their progeny with it. They found that by labeling such undesirables as anything perceived as a threat to “our American way of life” was more acceptable by mainstream Americans than open biases aimed at race, ethnicity or religion.
The “red scare” days that died with the fall of the Berlin wall left them without a consensus bogeyman, until the attacks by radical Islamic jihadists on 9/11. Their super-patriotic WASP blood once again pulsed through their veins and from the fear that many Americans had after watching madmen commandeer jet liners and crash them into buildings, many in the general public were easily won over to a new personification – Muslims – of the old form of bigotry that never died in some.
Yet what gets missed in this ultra-patriotic fervor by many is that this nation is the supposed melting pot of many cultures, ethnicity and religions. We are all “foreigners”. Our ancestors over ran the existing native cultures here before us to declare it for themselves. Though early America was primarily Western European and Christian, the principles stated in our founding documents did not delineate one faction from another. “All men are created equal” wrote the paternalistic, slave holding Jefferson in his American manifesto to the British throne and it was never alluded to anywhere then that people unlike the signatories to that document were excluded. In fact, it was this signal sent around the world that drew every variation of the human species to our shores in their formative years. It was only when older, more established Western Europeans heritages gained control of the political and economic machinery in the late 19th century did the concept of “equality” get revisited and made less inclusive.
The narrow-mindedness of such people still attracts many to their fold, especially in times of uncertainty. There is a need by such people to lay their woes at the feet of alleged interlopers; stranger who are “not like us”. Our values and way of life have been sullied, in these people’s minds, by others whose historical relevance has never been acknowledged by white culture. In their fantasy world life was good and promising but don’t expect women and dark-skinned people to feel the same way. It’s no longer a man’s world in this country and by the year 2050, whites will be the minority in many states.
Instead of assimilating this reality into their future prospects though, they are repelled by it and feel threatened. Thus the need to band together and conceal such prejudices and fears under a larger tent like the Republican Party or the more historically significant “Tea Party” moniker that reflects a time when not only we opposed taxation without representation but the only time we allowed dark-skinned people to associate with us is when some painted themselves up as Indians to disguise themselves from their British overlords.
I am not attacking those Americans who would assert their right to congregate and protest what they see as interventions of the government into their lives. What I am attacking, and what we all should, is when those arguments are heavily laced with pejoratives by mostly older white people who find themselves facing a social and political existence where the barriers they once erected for themselves are no longer in place.
When times are bad as they most certainly are now for everyone, it is not in the interest of our future as a democracy to become divisive. Being afraid is understandable but attributing false reasons to our fears serves only to deepen a wound that was just beginning to heal. Tolerance is never easy and adjusting to change is always a challenge. Yet had it not been for those very characteristics of those who came before us, the first real contemporary democracy may never have had the label “American” on it.