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Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Threat to White Nationalsim: The Obama Presidency

This post is an abridged version of a presentation made at the recent joint meetings of the North Central Sociological Association (NCSA) and Midwest Sociological Society(MSS)in Chicago. This piece was prepared for publication in the NCSA newsletter. RGN

The Presidency of Barack Obama and the New Faces of America’s White Nationalism
by Robert Newby
Central Michigan University

The presidency of African American Barack Obama after one year has been a case of celebration by his supporters, but one of resentment for many among America’s white majority. His election was epochal in that for over 200 years, all forty-three of his predecessors were white. Beginning in 1790, citizenship was restricted to whites. Until the Brown decision in 1954, the citizenship status of blacks was dubious. Now, a half century later, a person of color, a black man, its 44th President, the nation’s First Citizen.

From the moment of his election, the question became what does his election say about race in America today, a nation that has historically reserved its lowest regard for blacks? Early on the question was asked: “Is America ready for a black president?” In translation, that question meant: “Will whites vote for a black man to be president?” Barack Obama answered that question by saying to his confidants when he decided to run: “America is ready to have a black President.” The Obama campaign was historic for its overwhelming grassroots support, specifically its successful use of the Internet. Essentially his victory in 97% white Iowa paved the way for his Democratic nomination. With a coalition of minorities, 97% of the black vote, 67% of the Latino vote, 62% Asian vote and 43% of the white vote, Obama’s victory over McCain for the presidency was resounding. He was right, “America was ready for a black president.”

The election may have proved him to have been right about the American electorate, but it is now clear that he was not right when it comes to much of white America. A majority of white Americans, fifty-five per cent, voted for McCain. Ninety percent of McCain’s votes were whites. For the first the time in America’s history, the Presidency is in the hands of a man who is not white. Obama’s election represents a major threat to the white nationalist core that has been central to U.S. politics from before its inception as a nation. Until the accommodations made by the white nation as a result of World War II, the Brown decision, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, with few exceptions, citizenship was restricted to being white.

As stated at SNCC’s (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) 50th anniversary celebration recently, “…African Americans are not in these positions today because a sudden change of heart occurred in this nation.” He went on to say, “There was pressure” mounted against a resistant white nationalist regimes. The 1964 Civil Rights and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts, based upon the principles of Brown, altered the citizenship status of blacks during this period. These advances notwithstanding, it was Reagan who re-legitimized national the white nationalist discourse for the nation. Even so, the failures of the Bush administration and the election of Obama brought the “Reagan revolution” to its end.

It is this defeated “Reagan Revolution” that is resisting acceptance of the democratic outcome of the election that serves as the core of the Tea-Parties. It was Reagan who popularized the saying that the scariest eleven words in the English language are: “I am from the government and I am here to help.” This anti-government sentiment is exacerbated now that the head of government is an African American. A black president is not legitimate in the eyes of the white nationalists. It was this “he is not one of us” sentiment that gave rise to the demands for the President’s birth certificate, or the “birther” movement.

The Republican legislature of Arizona has passed legislation requiring the President to produce a birth certificate in order to be on the ballot in 2012. A similar bill has been introduced in the Georgia legislature. Not only is his American citizenship questioned, among the Tea-Partiers, the President is portrayed as a socialist, a communist, a fascist, a Muslim, even a witch doctor with a bone in his nose. In their eyes he is not “American.” It is this sentiment that leads to call that they “want their country back.”

Armed demonstrators at Tea-Party rallies, accompanied by an inflammatory rhetoric, symbolic of armed revolutionary struggle makes today’s context one that is unsettling. Gun sales have escalated to record levels. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the anti-government militias have grown by 250%. The developments are ominous. As reminded by President Clinton in reference to the 15th anniversary of Oklahoma City bombing, a similar anti-government sentiment was extant. The anti-government white nationalists who declare “he’s not one of us” are at war with the changing demographics of America not just an election outcome.

Threatened by this “new majority,” the Tea-Party, “birther,” and militia movements find themselves in association with some very dangerous currents in today’s racial politics that may not bode well for our society’s future. The salient question is to what extent will these forces go in their efforts to maintain white dominance in the face of a changed demography in America?

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