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Racism and the Right

Malkin's hateful photo: it wasn't Trayvon Martin

Last Friday on Real Time, Bill Maher asked his panel, “Why is the Right so anxious to defend George Zimmerman?” the man who shot Trayvon Martin. The panel never really got around to answering that question. The answer is important.

As disgusting as the Right’s ugly character attacks upon Trayvon Martin are, they are made even uglier by the cynical tactical thinking that motivates them. The Rush Limbaughs, Matt Drudges, and Michelle Malkins of the world know that blowing the racist dog whistle galvanizes white racist voters. And there are a lot of white racist voters, and all of them vote Republican. At least Malkin had the sense to apologize after falsely claiming a photo of a black teenager shooting the finger was Trayvon. The apology was hollow, because the picture had already done its work.

According to a recent poll, 30 percent of Mississippi Republicans believe interracial marriage should be illegal. That’s a pretty good indication that they are not without racial bias. I’m sure Mississippi is near a worst case, but racists are everywhere, and it’s no secret that the Republican Party has relied upon a high turnout from them to win elections.

Whatever beliefs about justice hide in the hearts of Malkin or Drudge or other right-wing pundits, they easily ignore them. In their ends-justify-any-means worldview, they overcome what qualms they might have in order to send their signals to the racists.

Non-racists are, I hope, outraged by the murder of Martin. But I’d bet the outrage does not figure into their voting decisions. Racists, however, will respond to hints that their enemies on the left are using sympathy for the Martin family to marginalize white America. So, the racist dog whistle is all gain. Racists are motivated; non-racists aren’t affected.

The idea that America has somehow entered a more tolerant, post-racist era is pure poppycock. I think a number of liberals and moderates want to believe that it’s true. It’s not.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, Democrats and their consultants wanted to avoid issues of race. They understood the above: such talk would motivate racists but have little impact on most other voters, especially that unicorn of politics, white “swing” voters. Their silence, however, just exacerbated the problem. Without strong, public moral condemnation of racism, the political power of bigotry goes unchecked. It’s not going to disappear on its own.

Democrats needn’t worry about stirring up racists. The Right does a fine job of that. Democrats should worry about mobilizing Americans against racism and injustice.

Now Republicans are mounting legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act, arguing it’s no longer needed, after advancing a series of voter suppression laws intended to institutionalize racial discrimination at the polls the VRA was passed to erase. In other words, the Republicans themselves are proving the need for the VRA at the same time they’re arguing it’s no longer needed.

Bizarre, bureaucratic restrictions on voter registration drives are causing even the League of Women Voters to leave the field. Early voting periods are being reduced to discourage voting. Onerous voter requirements are being passed to limit voting by the poor and minorities.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican of course, has now challenged the VRA directly at the U.S. Supreme Court. The challenge comes in the legal war over Texas’ new voter ID law, which the Justice Department has refused to clear under Section 5 of the VRA. It’s possible the Supreme Court will toss the VRA before the November election. If it does so while approving Texas’ voter ID law, the Court will be proving the need for the VRA in the very act of ruling it unconstitutional.

Every political pundit, player and insider in America knows the game. Republicans want to suppress the votes of minorities. Despite their knowledge of this indisputable fact, they are reluctant to cover it as the real, persistent issue that it is.

Likewise, everyone knows that Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because he was a black person. In the twisted mind of George Zimmerman, he was suspicious because he was black. Instead of acknowledging this, the right-wing media tries hard to justify the killing by raising ridiculous character concerns about the victim. He wore a hoodie! He was suspended from school! For marijuana!

If we’re going to diminish the impact of racism on American political culture, we’re going to have to challenge it, loudly and truthfully. Pretending a post-racial era won’t work. Wishful thinking, it turns out, can be deadly.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith