VOICES | Red-Baiting and Racism: Socialism as the New Black Bogeyman

Obama-socialism-Joker.jpgBy Tim Wise

Throughout the first six months of his administration, President Obama-- perhaps one of the most politically cautious leaders in contemporaryhistory -- has been routinely portrayed as a radical by his opponentson the far-right. In particular, persons who have apparently neveractually studied Marxism (or if they did, managed to somehow findtherein support for such things as bailing out banks and elitecorporations) contend that Obama is indeed a socialist. Reducing allgovernment action other than warmaking to part of a larger socialistconspiracy, the right contends that health care reform is socialist,capping greenhouse gas emissions is socialist, even providingincentives for driving fuel efficient cars is socialist. That the rightinsists upon Obama's radical-left credentials, even as they push an Obama=Hitler meme (something they apparently think is fair, since, after all the Nazis were National Socialists,albeit the kind who routinely murdered the genuine article) only speaksto the special brand of crazy currently in vogue among the nation'sreactionary forces.

As real socialists laugh at these clumsily made broadsides, and asscholars of actual socialist theory try and explain the absurdity ofthe analogies being drawn by conservative commentators, a key pointseems to have been missed, and it is this point that best explains whatthe red-baiting is actually about.

It is not, and please make note of it, about socialism. Or capitalism.Or economics at all, per se. After all, President Bush was among themost profligate government spenders in recent memory, yet few everreferred to him in terms as derisive as those being hurled at Obama.Even when President Clinton proposed health care reform, those whoopposed his efforts, though vociferous in their critique, rarelytrotted out the dreaded s-word as part of their arsenal. They prattledon about "big government," yes, but not socialism as such. Likewise,when Ronald Reagan helped craft the huge FICA tax hike in 1983, in abipartisan attempt to save Social Security, few stalwart conservativesthought to call America's cowboy-in-chief a closet communist. And manyof the loudest voices at the recent town hall meetings -- so many ofwhich have been commandeered by angry minions ginned up by talk radio-- are elderly folk whose own health care is government-provided, andwhose first homes were purchased several decades ago with FHA and VAloans, underwritten by the government, for that matter. Many of them nodoubt reaped the benefits of the GI Bill, either directly or indirectlythrough their own parents.

It is not, in other words, a simple belief in smaller government orlower taxes that animates the near-hysterical cries from the rightabout wanting "their country back," from those who have presumablyhijacked it: you know, those known lefties like Tim Geithner and RahmEmanuel. No, what differentiates Obama from any of the other bigspenders who have previously occupied the White House is principallyone thing -- his color. And it is his color that makes the bandyingabout of the "socialist" label especially effective and dangerous as alinguistic trope. Indeed, I would suggest that at the present moment,socialism is little more than racist code for the longstanding whitefear that black folks will steal from them, and covet everything theyhave. The fact that the fear may now be of a black president, and notjust some random black burglar hardly changes the fact that it is fearnonetheless: a deep, abiding suspicion that African American folk can'twait to take whitey's stuff, as payback, as reparations, as a way tobalance the historic scales of injustice that have so long tilted inour favor. In short, the current round of red-baiting is based onimplicit (and perhaps even explicit) appeals to white racialresentment. It is Mau-Mauing in the truest sense of the term, andespecially since Obama's father was from the former colonial Kenya!Unless this is understood, left-progressive responses to the tacticwill likely fall flat. After all, pointing out the absurdity of callingObama a socialist, given his real policy agenda, will mean little ifthe people issuing the charge were never using the term in the literalsense, but rather, as a symbol for something else entirely.

To begin with, and this is something often under-appreciated by thewhite left, to the right and its leadership (if not necessarily itsfoot-soldiers), the battle between capitalism and communism/socialismhas long been seen as a racialized conflict. First, of course, is thegenerally non-white hue of those who have raised the socialist orcommunist banner from a position of national leadership. Most suchplaces and persons have been of color: China, Vietnam, North Korea,Cuba, assorted places in Latin America from time to time, or theCaribbean, or in Africa. With the exception of the former Soviet Unionand its immediate Eastern European satellites -- which are understoodas having had state socialism foisted upon them, rather than having itfreely chosen through their own revolutions from below -- Marxism inpractice has been a pretty much exclusively non-white venture.

And even the Russians were seen through racialized lenses by some ofAmerica's most vociferous cold warriors. To wit, consider what GeneralEdward Rowney, who would become President Reagan's chief armsnegotiator with the Soviets, told Manning Marable in the late 1970s,and which Marable then recounted in his book, The Great Wells of Democracy:

"One day I asked Rowney about the prospects for peace, and he repliedthat meaningful negotiations with the Russian Communists wereimpossible. 'The Russians,' Rowney explained, never experienced theRenaissance, or took part in Western civilization or culture. I pressedthe point, asking whether his real problem with Russia was itsadherence to communism. Rowney snapped, 'Communism has nothing to dowith it!' He looked thoughtful for a moment and then said simply, 'Thereal problem with Russians is that they are Asiatics'."

In the present day, the only remaining socialists in governance on theplanet are of color: in places like Cuba or Venezuela, perhaps China(though to a more truncated extent, given their embrace of the marketin recent decades) and, on the lunatic Stalinist fringe, North Korea.These are the last remaining standard-bearers, in leadership positions,who would actually use the term socialist to describe themselves. Giventhe color-coding of socialism in the 21st century, at the level ofgovernance, to use the label to describe President Obama and hisadministration, has the effect of tying him to these "other" socialistsin power. Although he has nearly nothing in common with thempolitically or in terms of his policy prescriptions, he is a man ofcolor, so the connection is made, mentally, even if it carries nointellectual or factual truth.

Secondly, and even more to the point, we must remember what "socialism"is, especially in the eyes of its critics: it is, to them, a code forredistribution. Of course, some forms of socialism are moreredistributive than others, and even late-stage capitalism tends toengage in some forms of very mild redistribution (as with the incometax code). But if you were to ask most who grow apoplectic at the meremention of the word "socialism" for the first synonym that came totheir mind, redistribution is likely the one they would choose. Surelyit would be among their top two or three.

Now, given the almost instinctual connection made between socialism andredistribution, imagine what many white folks would naturally assumewhen told that this man, this black man, this black man with an Africandaddy, was a socialist. Even if those using the term didn't intend itto push racial buttons (and that is a decidedly large "if"), the factremains that for many, it would almost certainly prompt any number ofracial fears and insecurities: as in, the black guy is going to takefrom those who work and give to those who don't. And naturally, we allknow (or at least our ill-informed prejudices tell us) who's in thefirst group and who's in the second one. Thus, the joke making the roundson the internet, and likely in your workplace, about Obama planning ontaxing aspirin "because it's white and it works." Or the guy with the signat the April teabagger rally, which read, Obama's Plan: White Slavery.Or others who have carried overtly racist signs to frame their message:signs suggesting thatObama hopes to provide care for all brown-skinned illegal immigrants,while simultaneously murdering the white elderly, or that cast thePresident in decidely simian imagery, and refer to him, crudely but clearly as a monkey. Or Glenn Beck's paranoid screedfrom late July, which sought to link health care reform, and virtuallyevery single piece of Obama's political agenda to some kind of backdoorreparations scheme. This, coupled with Beck's even more unhinged claimto have discovered a communist/black nationalist conspiracyin the administration's Green Jobs Initiative. All because theinitiative is headed up by author and activist Van Jones: a guy whoserecent book explains how to save capitalism through eco-friendlyefforts at development and job creation. So even there, it isn't aboutsocialism, so much as the fact that Jones is black, and was once (for acouple of months) a nationalist, and has a goatee, and looks determined(read:mean) in some of his more contemplative press photos.

Fact is, the longstanding association in white minds between socialprogram spending and racial redistribution has been well-established,by scholars such as Martin Gilens, Kenneth Neubeck, Noel Cazenave, and Jill Quadagno,among others. Indeed, it was only the willingness of past presidentslike FDR to all but cut blacks out of income support programs thatconvinced white lawmakers and the public to sign on to any form ofAmerican welfare system in the first place: a willingness that waned assoon as people of color finally gained access to these programsbeginning in the 50s and 60s. But even as strong as the socialprogram/black folks association has been in the past, it has, untilnow, never had a black face to put with the effort. With a man of colorin the position of president, it becomes far more convincing to thosegiven to fear black predation already. It isn't just that thegovernment will tax you, white people. It's that the black guy will.And for people like him. At your expense.

Much as the white right blew a gasket at the thought of bailing outhomeowners with sub-prime and exploding mortgages a few months back(and if you listened to the rhetoric on the radio it was hard to missthe racial animosity that undergirded much of the conservativehostility to the idea, since they seemed to think only persons of colorwould be helped by such a plan), they now too often view Obama's movesto more comprehensive health care as simply another way to take fromthose whites who have "played by the rules" and give to those folks ofcolor who haven't. Even as millions of whites would stand to benefitfrom health care reform -- and all whites, as with people of color wouldenjoy greater choices with the very public option that has drawn themost fire -- the imagery of the recipients has remained black and brown,as with all social programs; and the imagery of the persons who wouldbe taxed for the effort has remained hard-working white folks.

By allowing the right to throw around terms like socialist to describethe President and socialism to describe his incredibly watered-down,generally big business friendly approach to health care, while notrecognizing the memetic purpose of such arguments is to ensure that theright will succeed in their demonization campaign. To respond bypointing out how the plan really isn't socialist, or how Obama reallyisn't a socialist misses the point, which was never, in the end, abouteconomic systems or philosophies: none of which the folks on the rightraising the most hell show any signs of understanding anyway. Thisnoise is about race. It is about "othering" a President who is seen asa symbol of white dispossession: dispossession of white hegemony, whiteentitlement, white expectation, and white power, unquestioned andunchallenged from the darker skinned other. This is what animates theevery move of the angry masses, individual exceptions notwithstanding.Unless the left begins pushing back, and insisting that yes, the olddays are gone, white hegemony is dead, and deserved its demise, andthat we will all be better off for it, the chorus of white backlashwill only grow louder. So too will it grow more effective at dividingand conquering the working people who would benefit -- all of them --from a new direction.

Tim Wise is the author of four books on race and racism. His latest is Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama. (City Lights: 2009).  You can learn more about his work at www.timwise.org and www.redroom.com/author/tim-wise.

(The image depicting President Obama as the Joker from "The Dark Knight" Batman movieis from an anonymous poster that has appearedrecently in cities across the United States.)