The post-Civil Rights era has seen advances in civil liberties, but they are juxtaposed by a state of neo-slavery. African-American males remain in proverbial chains: disenfranchised by a criminal justice system designed to relegate them to second-class citizenship. The millions who manage to escape are still met with the suspicions of the broader white populace – many of whom don’t see them as All-American.
The backlash against Barack Obama‘s presidency bears out this truth; perhaps it’s acceptable for African-American men to be successful in music and basketball, but becoming President, and appointing a black Attorney General, is just a step too far. And when the teenage Trayvon Martin was murdered while walking home, armed with Skittles and iced tea – because somehow his youthful male frame caused “suspicion” – the nation wondered: how did we get here?
The modern-day Republican Party employs racially-infused propaganda to appeal to poor, disgruntled white American voters and wealthy whites who harbor racist ideologies and sentiment. The vitriol spewed by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump and even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who succinctly articulated their goal to ensure Obama is a “one-term president”, has effectively poisoned many white voters against Obama’s character and convinced them of a peculiar “illegitimacy” only ever applied to black males.
The subtext of these attacks is blatant racial hatred. Yet the tactics are not new: they are born of the White Redemption Era (1866-1877), which saw the rise of the KKK, unfettered violence and the systematic disenfranchisement of African-American voters. What is most important to note is that hundreds of African-Americans were being elected to public office during that period – especially at the state level, all across the South and Midwest. Dozens were elected to Congress and two to the U.S. Senate. White Redemption was unleashed to unseat them – in the same way Obama is being ravaged by similar wolves. That period gave birth to Jim Crow and was the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement which spawned international awareness of failures in American democracy.
What survived from Jim Crow is the criminalization of Blackness – and Black male behavior in particular. Especially in light of the War on Drugs, which has enslaved two generations of African-American males in the prison industrial complex – the false meta-narrative of a criminal, violent Black male has been reinforced. The snake oil of “Black-on-Black crime” is so effectively marketed and consumed, Black, brown and White alike believe it: unable to see it as part of an imbedded system of White supremacist ideology that makes “white” behavior–even when criminal–somehow normal, acceptable, understandable and mainstream. But all things “Black” become deviant, disparaging and dangerous.
The result is that brown skin has become a perceived badge for criminal activity and justification of white fear. Never discussed is the fact that White American males commit the vast majority of crime and violent crime in particular, because the “Black criminal” myth is sold to a public all too eager and conditioned to believe it.
The Republican establishment boldly plays on these stereotypes to divide and conquer; fueling an anti-Obama, Tea Party machine and creating a hyper-partisan political climate that is hell-bent on keeping Black people (and now Hispanics) in their place.
This renewed “Birth of a Nation” chooses the mantra “take our country back” as its preferred motto, and have placed their entire political platform on a goal to unseat the nation’s first Black president. These politics have real world implications. The circumstances surrounding the senseless murder of Trayvon Martin are emblematic of the Dred Scott conclusion that African-Americans have “no rights which the White man was bound to respect.” Martin is not alone. From Amadou Diallo to Sean Bell to Kendrec McDade: White fear and Black male stereotypes justify violence against the innocent, criminalize the victim and stain our social consciousness.
These racialized myths are borne out in political debates, as Republicans wage an intellectual civil war against the presidency of Barack Obama, seeking to turn his every strength into weakness, successes into failure: eroding the idea that all men are created equal by reinforcing a narrative that black males aren’t worthy of equal respect, authority or ascendency.
This explains how the Hawaii–born, Harvard University educated president is considered “un-American”. It is why Congressman Joe Wilson, from the former Confederate State of South Carolina, can attack President Obama by screaming “you lie” in the midst of a State of the Union Address. Or why Arizona’s Republican Governor Janice Brewer feels comfortable placing a finger in the face of her Commander-in-Chief, later claiming she felt “threatened”. This behavior reeks of a putrid white privilege, deeply entwined in the social fabric of American life.
It explains why the all-American Trayvon, a smart student and athlete, quickly became – in the eyes of his killer George Zimmerman–“suspicious” and “up to no good”. The truth? The boy was on the phone to an adoring 16 year-old girlfriend, covering his head from the rain, walking home to his father, armed with Skittles. But this image of an innocent Black male isn’t one usually told or understood by the White American populace. It doesn’t fit the established metanarrative of Black criminality and White victimhood they choose to perpetuate.
Obama’s opponents claim he is “unfit” to hold the land’s highest office and detractors claim Trayvon must have been the true perpetrator. And this is where lies become folklore, folklore becomes legend, and legend becomes history.
That history also reveals the tactics behind the present-day Republican strategy. For you see, conservatives do not simply object to President Obama’s policy agenda: they oppose what he represents and embodies; namely, the new face of Black power and an unapologetic Black elite. The recent voter suppression attempts by GOP operatives in states like Florida, are a page torn from the white redemption playbook. Attacks against Attorney General Eric Holder, and calls by Congressional Republicans to unseat him, are not just race-based, it is a power struggle. Holder’s position threatens their ability to disenfranchise. He serves as the guard to American freedom which the modern Redeemers seek to undermine. And Barack is the antithesis to how they wish Black men to be unseen and unheard. As such, Obama is a threat to the manifest destiny of White male authority.
Barack and Trayvon meet at an intersection of demented racial ideology: subject to the racialized myths embedded in the American psyche. There are too many living Trayvons who, because of the social constructs and challenges they face, believe they can never become a Barack. And as far as the Republican establishment is concerned that scenario need never change. This is separate and unequal redux, in both American life and American politics.
This is White Redemption 2.0.