November 15, 2021
The playbook is not new. Components include stoking fear. Subtly igniting the embers of racism using “wedge issues” that provide a “respectable” veneer to hide behind. It is not new, but it continues to work.
Lee Atwater, a famed Republican party strategist, knew this 40 years ago as he described how the Reagan campaign capitalized on white fear. “You start out in 1954 by saying “N—, n—, n—.” [Editor’s note: The actual word used by Atwater has been replaced with “N—” for the purposes of this article.] By 1968 you can’t say “n—” — that hurts you. Backfires. So, you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut taxes and we want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—, n—.” So anyway, you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.”
In a 1976 campaign speech, Ronald Reagan created the image of a “welfare queen”, to illustrate how people were gaming the welfare systems and cheating hard-working taxpayers to live lives of wealth and ease. “In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” Ignoring the actual demographics of the population helped by social safety net programs, he personified this scourge with a picture of a single Black Chicago woman. The fear of struggling men and women that they were being left behind and taken advantage of was enhanced by the race card.
In 1987 the “welfare queen” became “black violent rapist on the rampage” when Willie Horton became the poster child of the George Bush campaign. The story of one convicted violent criminal who had been released from prison only to commit another violent crime had to, in this approach to politics, have a Black face.
In 2021 we have a front-row seat for its newest iteration. This time it is not a single Black face being used to cue up fear as the game has gotten even more subtle. Critical Race Theory now takes center stage.
This time we are not studying history but watching the plan play out before our eyes. Then-President Donald Trump, as documented in a recently published report by Pen America, rang the fear and race bell as he faced his campaign for a second term. . “In a speech at the National Archives, Trump claimed that ‘the left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies,’ identifying certain efforts by name as especially pernicious: ‘Critical race theory, The 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, the ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country.’ To fight back, he announced the formation of a ‘1776 Commission’ to promote ‘patriotic education.’”
The pandemic unsettled every facet of our lives and left many struggling to cope emotionally and financially. The government at all levels struggled to contain the virus. Government programs helped some but left others in difficult straights and most of us were very anxious about what might happen next. A spate of police murders of Black men and women, amplified by the power of the internet, brought a national reckoning with racism and classism. American history’s untold story was opened to critical scrutiny by works like the New York Times 1619 Project.
With all this going on it was the right time to again play this strategy out.
In this moment of societal shift, I think of an observation made by business consultant Joel Barker “When paradigms shift we all go back to zero” Such moments are unsettling for everyone. We no longer can be sure of our present and our future. Uncertain times bring on anxiety, especially when people feel unseen and unheard. Changing demographics will result in changing power. Responding to disadvantaged and marginalized communities’ demand for recognition and redress for past wrongs requires a painful reckoning on the part of those who have been in power and control for centuries. The rules of life are uncertain as these relationships change and that is unsettling. The cost of redress and preparing for new realities will be high. Everyone is uncertain and for those who have been told they were at the front of the line, scary.
Using the same game plan as Atwater had described, history books and graduate school theories were the new black boogieman that could play on these emotions.
Pen America’s study gives us the detail of how the work was done. “According to The New York Times, ‘Mr. Trump’s focus on diversity training seems to have originated with an interview he saw on Fox News, in which Christopher F. Rufo, a conservative scholar at the Discovery Institute, told Tucker Carlson of the ’cult indoctrination’ of ’critical race theory’ programs in the government.’ Rufo himself has been clear that his goal is not to attack critical race theory as a concept in academia, but rather to appropriate the phrase as an umbrella term to demonize a range of vaguely related activities that he believes conservatives should find objectionable and can be motivated to mobilize against. As described in a profile of Rufo by The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells, ‘As Rufo eventually came to see it, conservatives engaged in the culture war had been fighting against the same progressive racial ideology since late in the Obama years, without ever being able to describe it effectively.’ Rufo told the magazine, ‘We’ve needed new language for these issues,’ and ’critical race theory’ is the perfect villain.’ Rufo had previously explained on Twitter, ‘We will eventually turn [critical race theory] toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category…. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.’“
There is nothing new here; it just continues to work.
As a nation, we wish to believe that we have made great progress. The continuing ability of conservative forces to count on race and fear to motivate enough voices to hold back progress tells us we have not. A browser search for information on Critical Race Theory now gets 237 million listings with titles like “Fear, accountability and the classroom: The Critical Race Theory panic in White America” from the NY Daily News or “The furor over critical race theory puts feelings ahead of truth“ in the Dallas Morning News. It has motivated people to show up and protest, sometimes violently, at school board meetings, at statehouses, and in Washington. It has become a potent electoral issue activating voters to vote for candidates who they believe will hold the line and protect their status and interests.
Are school curricula, diversity training, and the social safety net important to those who are fueling the flames? Or are they just ways to gather support so that they maintain wealth and power? Are they die-hard racists or are they just cynically using fear and race to build support among people struggling to cope with a changing world?
Does it even matter what the motivations are?
More important than motivation is the question of why this strategy continues to prove effective. Why does it shape election results and cause those on the right to smile? Why is it, decade after decade, that this game plan works? Why is it that Democrats continue to stutter trying to respond to these dog whistles?
Democrats and liberals, when they have been in power, have been reluctant to go all in. Unlike those driving these wedges who are happy to unleash the full furor of the moment, they have been too afraid. Race remains an issue because we have never been willing to do the work of redressing it. Economic uncertainty remains powerful because we have never been ready to put in place the kind of safety net that would make transitions less disruptive and provide protection that is dependable. We have never been willing to redo tax systems so that the bills that will need to be paid can be paid.
In the absence of finishing the work, the issues remain unresolved and grow ever more intense as it festers awaiting the next provocation.
Those who want to end the scourge of American racism must be willing to risk more than they have. The need to risk like Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam did last summer when he told the New York Times that “he was in sixth grade when public schools were desegregated and that he was experiencing ‘white privilege and black oppression…what we’re teaching, and what we’ve been taught, is not only inadequate but inaccurate. Our textbooks are inadequate and inaccurate, as is who is teaching them. I think there are a lot of white people that are open-minded and want to do better. And you may be able to teach them something that they never really realized. But there’s some people that don’t want to lose their parking spots.”
They need to test this nation’s real commitment to equality and equity. They need to put out the plans they will enact and their cost on the table and let the people decide what country they wish to live in. They need to risk finding out that this may not be the country we have thought it to be, that it may, indeed, be one that wants to remain a white nation.
It is time to clearly call the question. We need to know who this nation really is.