Recall the woman who told Sen. John McCain at a recent Minnesota rally that his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, is an Arab and therefore not to be trusted? McCain “defended” Obama by contrasting Arabs and Americans as separate groups of people in a kind of hierarchy of trust.
That exchange speaks volumes on the ideology of white supremacy. It has been and continues to be a mirage of unity between Caucasian lower and upper classes. That has been so in varying degrees since America’s colonial days of black and Native people’s dehumanization and subjugation. The same ideology drove Chinese, Filipino and Mexican people’s exclusion from the U.S. mainstream. Also in this outcast mix, seen initially as non-whites, were Irish, Jewish, and southeastern European immigrants to the U.S.
Cut to today. For white supremacy to help sustain the widening income and wealth gap in the U.S., elected leaders can and do conjure an “Other,” a darker and dangerous sub-human to build up and put down for reasons of public safety and security. McCain’s Minnesota rally illustrates domestic and foreign threads of this ideology.
I turn here to Diana Ralph of Canada. She has an important chapter on “Islamophobia” in The Hidden History of 9-11-2001. Ralph shows how anti-Muslim bigotry, a demonization of the “Other,” works for the U.S. political class in mobilizing a grass-roots anger and fear after the East Coast attacks of Sept. 11. One result has been a sort of silent consent for the torture of prisoners of the war on terror, mainly non-white Muslims.
On that note of armed repression, Islamaphobia dovetails with the U.S.’s “peculiar institution” of white supremacy. That ideology is the wellspring for much of the Obama character assassination rhetoric of McCain and especially Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, his vice-presidential pick. An unclear number of their backers ape this vision, sadly.
I suggest that the tactic of baiting Obama as a racial Other comes in part as a response to the crumbling illusion of market competition’s benefits trickling down to the American people. Further, this approach seeks to defuse the short-lived rebellion from the populace of all backgrounds against Washington’s bailout of big creditors. The threat of a racially inclusive uprising from below of small debtors beset by a rising rate of home foreclosures, plus under- and unemployment, is real to upper class power. What horror!
Accordingly, McCain and Palin offer some white wage earners and pensioners a re-play of what African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois called the “color line,” the main contradiction of U.S. democracy. From this ideology of skin-color inferiority and supremacy emerges the straw man of Obama as a reputed Arab and all-around danger to America.
Transcending the class and race contradictions of U.S. democracy, Du Bois noted, could yield to the American people a truly popular politics. That is the future, a very difficult thing to discuss, indeed. Yet discuss and act on it we must, in the present moment. This process, I maintain, would create a logic of more class and skin color equality and unity where too little exists now.
Such a reformation of U.S. society has high hurdles to clear. One is the economics and politics of locking down the throwaway people who employers no longer need to produce wealth. Crucially, this trend of caging and politically weakening the nation’s low-income blacks and Latinos foreshadowed the Bush II administration’s creation of Muslim “enemy combatants.” Together, the uses of these incarcerated populations serve the agenda of economics and politics as usual at home and abroad.
Now is the time for more rational discussion of the reasons for and results of white supremacy in domestic and foreign affairs. Laboring women and men of America have much to gain here. This holds true no matter which candidate, McCain or Obama, becomes the next resident on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
* This article first appeared in Black Agenda Report