THE BLOG
11/06/2012 11:13 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

Ain't Your Father's Southern Strategy: Whiteness as Mass Appeal

The 2012 election, like every election before it, has been defined by race. This is America, and race always matters. Death, taxes, and race. While 2008-2012 has prompted more explicit racial assault on then candidate and ultimately President Obama, race, racism, and white supremacy defines the history of American politics. Sister Souljah, Willie Horton, anti-Muslim appeals, demonization of undocumented immigrants, "the welfare queen," the southern strategy, and countless other examples point to the ways that race defines American political campaigns. And these are just examples since the late 1960s from national presidential campaigns.

Yet the vitriol, the explicit racial appeals, and the ubiquitous racial rhetoric has been a noteworthy outcome of the 2012 election. Adele M. Stan, in "Romney Pushed Boundaries of 'Acceptable Racism' to Extremes" aptly describes the campaign as a long and winding campaign of racism, one that irrespective of the outcome has had its consequences:

If asked what one thing about the 2012 campaign most impacted everyday American life, one answer stands out above all others: racism. The wink-wink racial coding Romney uses, combined with the unabashed racism of such surrogates as former Bush administration chief of staff John Sununu, adds up to quite a wash of race-baited waters over the campaign. Then add to that the steady stream of racist rhetoric that characterized the Republican presidential primary campaign, and the wash looks more like a stew set on simmer for the better part of a year.

Since the early months of 2011, our politics have been marinating in the language of racial hatred, whether in former U.S. senator Rick Santorum's "blah people" moment, or former House speaker Newt Gingrich's tarring of Barack Obama as "the food stamp president."

The consequences and context of a campaign based in racism, based in a thirty-year racial assault on the civil rights movement is fully visible in AP's recent poll, which found that both explicit and implicit racial bias against African Americans and Latinos is on the rise. According to the AP, "51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes," which was a 3 percent rise since 2008. When examining implicit bias, "the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election." Should we be surprised?

The likes of John Sununu and Donald Trump, the sight of racist t-shirts and posters at GOP rallies and elsewhere, and the explicitly racist discourse point to the strategy of racist appeals and the consequences of such appeals. The impact of racism isn't simply voters picking Mitt Romney because of their anti-black racism, or even the ways that the accusations against President Obama as a "food stamp president," as "lazy" as a "socialist" and as "anti-White" resonate because of an entrenched white racial frame, but in the yearning and appeal of a white male leader. Race doesn't just matter in why whites are voting against President Obama but also why they are voting for Mitt Romney. Tom Scocca, in "Why Do White People Think Mitt Romney Should Be President?" argues that anti-black racism, dog "whistles" and prejudice isn't the only reason why white males are casting their vote for Romney-Ryan but because they are white and because white masculinity is associated with toughness, leadership, intelligence, and countless other racial stereotypes. "White people -- white men in particular -- are for Mitt Romney. White men are supporting Mitt Romney to the exclusion of logic or common sense. Without this narrow, tribal appeal, Romney's candidacy would simply not be viable. Most kinds of Americans see no reason to vote for him."

Chauncey DeVega describes the centrality of whiteness, of the sense of loss resulting from a black president, and therefore explicit appeal of a white president.

Despite their great advantages in wealth, income, power, social mobility, resources, and all other socioeconomic measures, many white people-- especially white male conservatives --are terrified and upset by the symbolic power of a black man who happens to be President of the United States. Ultimately, White Masculinity is imperiled by the idea of Barack Obama. White men rule this country; ironically, no group of people, especially on the Right are as insecure," he notes. "In the Age of Obama, White Masculinity imagines itself as at risk and obsolete. Because of their authoritarian streak, white conservative men must have control of women and the Other. White Conservative Masculinity's overreaction to the Age of Obama, and the social and political gains of people who are not white, male, and straight, are a function of this standing decision rule.


The cultural imagination of the white savior; the historic elevation of white men as shining knights, as war heroes, as protectors, as problem-solvers, and as leaders is on full display within this election. It is the same ideology that governed the founding principles of republicanism, which saw white men as the one and only capable of self-governance. It is the same ideology that under-girds American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, and "white man's burden." In 1899, Rudyard Kipling penned, the White Man's Burden:

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden--
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

It is that "burden"; it is that arrogance, it is that belief that only white mean can save civilization, can save America, can bring people together, can change the economy, that unifies the Romney campaign. It is the same racist and sexist logic that justified segregation in the military and positional segregation in sports. The appeal of Mitt Romney mirrors the appeal of white quarterbacks within the white imagination. The privileging of white male as quarterbacks and the exclusion of African Americans from this position "has implications off the football field. The discrimination dynamic that surrounds the issue of Black leadership on the turf reflects the greater racism that shapes our entire society," writes Dave Zirin. Racism, which questions black intelligence, which imagines leadership as incongruous to racial Otherness, to women, is foundational to American racial ideology. The 2012 election is just another piece of evidence of how far we haven't come. I don't know the outcome in terms of vote tallies and the next president, but I do know this: the 2012 campaign proved that like the twentieth, the nineteenth, the and the 18th centuries ... the "problem of the twenty-first century will be the color line" although it is a color line created, maintained, and for the sake of white men.

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