Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Little Fear and Trepidation Are Terrible Things to Waste: A Brief History Lesson by Professor Reddick

I fancy myself to be a student of history; the past forever fascinates me, and additionally, you would be amazed just how much insight on the present that might be gained by looking critically at the past.

So, this past summer when the Tea Party protests surrounding healthcare reform first arose, when people began to hi-jack town hall meetings with seemingly feigned and contrived outrage, when we began to hear appeals to the “real Americans” to take back our country, it all looked and sounded vaguely familiar to me.

We all pointed rigid fingers and decried the racism inherent in these actions and statements, and rightly so, but in doing so, I do believe that we completely missed the most prevailing motivations. But when on last week Virginia governor proclaimed the month of April to be Confederate History Month, it all started to come into focus for me. And a glance backward to the past would provide the historical correlations necessary to understanding what is afoot.

The first period we would need to take a good hard look at is during Reconstruction and the period shortly thereafter. Things were still pretty shaky then, but black folk were off to a promising start. They were fighting hard and diligently to rise above their station in life, and most importantly, they were actively availing themselves of the political process. And herein lies the rub.

The alarm quickly went up that black folk were taking over the country, that the country had to be taken back and preserved for “real Americans” at all costs. At this time, though, it was the Democrats leading the charge, and they used the fear and trepidation wrought by the societal changes underway to create a certain political urgency and rally people to their cause (and political party).

Historian John Hope Franklin refers to this timeframe as the very nadir of black existence as black folk lost any and all gains made during Reconstruction and found themselves in an even more precarious position. And since people had no inkling of political correctness at the time, overt racists did not have to couch their racism in terms like “Socialists” or “Communists” or “Muslim.” They just came right out with it. I read an account that stated that to win political office in the South during this period, you had to “out-nigger” your opponent; whichever politician could use the word nigger the most times and the most creatively in their stump speeches usually won the race.

Next we would have to fast forward to the period following the Civil Rights Movement. As black folk took advantage of the hard-earned opportunities afforded by the Civil Rights Movement, some white folk became nervous and fearful. And as the riots spread throughout the urban communities in the late 1960’s, that nervous fearfulness transformed into abject terror. And then here comes Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon.

Nixon was able to capitalize on white Americans’ fears that black folk were moving too far too fast. And by pointing out the riots sweeping the nation and defining them as evidentiary of the lawlessness sweeping the nation as African Americans were allowed to enter the mainstream, he was able to convince them that a domestic barbarian horde of knee-grows stood at the ready to usurp the place of the good white people whose forefathers had made this country what it is.

Nixon’s return to “law and order” and a certain social normality message managed to resonate with voters, and rural and Southern Democrats still aggravated by the Democratic Party’s passing of civil rights legislation were only too eager to jump ship. Nixon’s racist rhetoric greatly appealed to them. Nixon perhaps would have gone down in the history books as being great had his own personal foibles and paranoias not tripped him up.

And Ronald Reagan’s true genius lay in his ability to code Nixon’s almost overtly racist rhetoric, which had begun to turn many people off by this time, into covertly racist, race neutral language.

Now, let’s take a look at what is happening today. If you are like me, the whole furor surrounding health care reform took me completely by surprise. I attended a small local rally out of mere curiosity, and it seemed that the crowd protesting “Obama’s Socialist Health Care Reform” should have been leading the charge to support it; more than a few looked as if they could use at least a good dental plan.

But in hindsight, I remember noting during that protest, as well as numerous others, that the conversation seemed only peripherally about and motivated by healthcare and more about and by President Obama’s perceived difference and change and the concomitant fear and trepidation that attend to both.

Following President Obama’s election and amid the threat of financial crisis and ruin, people—all people—were afraid and naturally so. They were in desperately in need of guidance and re-assurance—leadership, and I still hold firmly to my previous notions that if the right and conservatives were genuinely concerned about this country, at that time they would have stepped out front and worked to allay public fears about the ascendance of an African American president and the meaning thereof. That does not mean that they had to agree with his agenda or his policy; they just had to acknowledge both his humanity and his legitimacy, both of which seemed to be in question.

Instead, they chose to contrive this straw man in the form of a healthcare reform debate, and use any number and/or manner of outright lies, distortions, and innuendo to play upon the worst fears of the most fearful. And Governor McConnell’s proclamation just reminds Virginians and the nation of what once was and makes an implicit promise for a return to the halcyon days of yore.

But perhaps as a student of history I should have expected this. After all, such has been the historical pattern of politics in America; I guess I was just naïvely idealistic in expecting anything different. But I guess in a time of crisis and social upheaval, politically speaking, a little fear and trepidation are terrible things to waste.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Related Posts with Thumbnails