Monday, October 29, 2012

GOP and race: Lawrence Wilkerson says it plain

BY WAY of an Associated Press poll, The Washington Post reported late last week on a disturbing trend of sentiment that dovetails with the polarities of the current presidential campaign: the racial discord that defines so much of the American experience hasn’t modulated — not even since the 2008 campaign. To go by the numbers, it’s gotten worse.

“Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.

“In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.”

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Whatever the source of the popular discontent is, there’s an abundance of evidence that the Republicans are waging a presidential campaign powered with the fuel of racism. Over the last three years, conservatives and their proxies and enablers in the media have called President Obama a statist, a racist, a socialist, a Marxist, a new Hitler, a dick, a food-stamp president and a foreigner, among other printable things.

The more circumspect of those extremist leading lights (the ones who depend on ratings and advertisers) have assiduously avoided calling him the thing that troubles them the most: black man in the White House.

That fact is near or at the very heart of the heart of their objection, and they know it. It took one of their own last week to say it plain.

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The latest phase of the American hate started on Thursday, when former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Obama on “CBS This Morning,” taking a support position consistent with what he did in 2008, when he broke ranks with his own Republican Party. “I voted for him in 2008 and I plan to stick with him in 2012,” he said. “I signed on for a long patrol with President Obama, and I don't think this is the time to make such a sudden change.”

Powell, concerned by the “very strong neoconservative views that are presented” by Team Romney, called Romney’s foreign policy “a moving target. … I am not quite sure which Gov. Romney we would be getting with respect to foreign policy.”

Never missing a chance to worsen his reputation, John Sununu, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, told Piers Morgan on CNN: “Frankly, when you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama,” Sununu said Thursday.

When Morgan asked what that might be, Sununu said, “Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.”

Sununu, realizing he’d stepped in it big time, walked it back fast and furious. Late Thursday, in a statement, he said “Colin Powell is a friend, and I respect the endorsement decision he made, and I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the President’s policies.”

It was a similar walkback from when the Romney surrogate apologized for saying he wished President Obama “would learn to be an American.”

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IT WOULD have been enough if Sununu’s outburst was the start and the end of it. But what he said then and now was just indicative of an old pattern of identity common to the Republican Party, and a longstanding antipathy to the concerns of African Americans and minorities in general. It was an identity crisis that South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke of recently.

“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” he told The Washington Post. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

We’ve seen a variety of other idiocies, including the one in September in Austin, Texas, where a homeowner hung an office chair from a tree, in some bizarre postmodern attempt to invoke Clint Eastwood suggesting President Obama. Or at the Republican National Convention, back in August, when two attendees were thrown out of the hall after throwing peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman, telling her, “This is how we feed animals.”

Or the June experiment in racist diorama design by the Rev. Terry Jones, the Koran-destroying nominal Florida pastor who hanged President Obama in effigy on a gallows above the gay pride and American flags, as an Uncle Sam figure stands by, a response to Obama’s stand on gay marriage and what Jones in a statement called Obama’s “appeasing of radical Islam.”

“Part of it is growing polarization within American society,” said Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, to The Associated Press. “The last Democrat in the White House said we had to have a national discussion about race. There’s been total silence around issues of race with this president. But, as you see, whether there is silence, or an elevation of the discussion of race, you still have polarization. It will take more generations, I suspect, before we eliminate these deep feelings.”

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SO THE growing climate of intolerance makes it easy for bilious fishheads like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump to endlessly revive the birther canard, calling into question President Obama’s citizenship, and by extension his very right to even be president with the tacit approval that follow from a generalized climate that suggests such behavior is permissible, even fashionable in some conservative quarters.

On Friday, Lawrence Wilkerson finally gave voice to the Republican sub rosa narrative about this president, the subtext of race and racial animus that’s not so much a dogwhistle as it is a shout at the top of the lungs.

A longtime loyal Republican, Wilkerson has served the country in a variety of capacities, at a very high level of the food chains of the government and the military. On camera, he’s the military leader from central casting, with the voice, bearing and countenance of a Serious Man. If he looked you and said “follow me,” you’d by God do it.

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A snapshot of his real bona fides, from his bio page at the George Washington University Web site, is enlightening:

“Lawrence Wilkerson is the Visiting Pamela C. Harriman Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary, as well as Professorial Lecturer in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. His last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02).

“Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army, including as Deputy Executive Officer to then-General Colin Powell when he commanded the U.S. Army Forces Command (1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and as Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97).”

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For all his previous work on the nation’s behalf, though, Wilkerson rendered what could in some ways be his greatest service to his country: expressing an honesty about the fractious tango between the GOP and African Americans, an apostate frankness about the party’s passive-aggressive belligerence on racial matters that’s damn refreshing right now.

Wilkerson was a guest on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” on Friday, there to respond to the fusillade of racist rage spouted by Sununu. And respond he did, with a clarity, a sense of civic duty, and a moral courage Mitt Romney could learn a lot from.

“My party, unfortunately, is the bastion of those people, not all of them, but most of them, who are still basing their decision on race,” Wilkerson said.

“Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists. And the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin. And that’s despicable.”

Coming from a member of the Republican Party, Lawrence Wilkerson’s cri de Coeur will be seen and interpreted as surprising. The truth that underlies its expression leads to something more sadly astonishing: the fact that what he said, that such an appeal to our better angels, should be seen as surprising at all.

Image credits: Colin Powell: CBS News. Tea Party protest signs: Via The Huffington Post. Sununu: CNN. Folding chair: Burnt Orange Report. Obama effigy: via theGrio. Wilkerson: MSNBC.

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