What It Do: Burdened By History

In May, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that non-white births in 2011 had outnumbered Caucasian births for the first time. Perhaps the fact that reaction to the news was largely muted can be viewed as a sign of progress. There was a time when such a headline would have provoked a firestorm of fear-mongering amongst the conservative protectors of white Christian America, especially during a presidential election year.

But there were no Mitt Romney soundbites about the assault on ‘our heritage.’ No ominous Ron Paul pronouncements about the coming ‘demographic winter.’ One would have to journey to the fever swamps of the internet to find what would have been mainstream only a few years ago. That is not to say that white resentment has faded away, or that the GOP has any qualms about manipulating said resentment. Far from it.

As the generations born post-Jim Crow have matured into adulthood and taken their role as the drivers of American culture and attitude, the old George Wallace style racism has become somewhat passé. In its place, xenophobia—always a presence in American culture—has taken the forefront and given a whole new era of white people a brown menace to fear.

Anti-immigrant ideology so dominates the current incarnation of the Republican Party that Rick Perry’s failure to properly tow the nativist line became the death knell for his once-formidable candidacy, when he suggested educating the children of undocumented immigrants was not only good public policy but also the kind of behavior expected of a compassionate society.

Appearing at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit recently, Mitt Romney neglected to even utter the word ‘immigration.’ One can appreciate his dilemma. Either maintain some level of consistency with the stances he took in the primary and blow another hole in the Romney Campaign’s rapidly sinking chances with Latino voters or speak to the type of rational policies that would be well received by Latino business leaders and subsequently face the fire-breathing wrath of the xenophobic Republican base.

Romney finds himself the prisoner of the devil’s bargain made as part of Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy,’ when Lee Atwater discovered how to harness the electoral power of white resentment and fear for Republican gain. At the time, the so-called ‘silent majority’ manifested as an easily manipulated beast, readily controlled with frightening images of Willie Horton and dark tales of beastly, drugged-out welfare recipients living like royalty on the taxpayer’s dime. Rarely did political strategy conflict with policy agenda.

But now, as cheap immigrant labor has become a cornerstone for the economic system built by the Reagan revolution, the shamefully powerful force of white resentment has become a double-edged sword, a fact demonstrated in the fallout from anti-immigrant legislation passed in Georgia last year. Hailed as a great victory for nativist forces, the policy quickly turned into a fiasco as Georgian farmers were unable to find sufficient labor during harvest time. A report commissioned by the agribusiness sector and completed by the University Of Georgia estimated Georgia’s economic losses at close to $400 million.

In addition to causing headaches for the corporations and contractors whose profits largely depend on inexpensive labor, the nativist agenda isn’t exactly winning the hearts and minds of Latino voters. Recent polls give President Obama a crushing 30-point lead over Mitt Romney in that particular demographic. And as the ethnic makeup of American society continues to become more brown, the long-term future does not appear bright for a party beholden to white resentment.

And yet, as we were treated to the grotesquely entertaining spectacle of the GOP primary—and its endless debates—over the past few months, one couldn’t help but feel Atwater’s craven spirit hovering over the proceedings as each candidate attempted to outdo the other in nativist sentiment.

Highlights included Rick Santorum telling a Puerto Rican newspaper that to obtain statehood, they would have to comply with a (nonexistent) federal statute by making English their “principal language.” Then there was Michele Bachmann gleefully contemplating denying education and medical care to the children of undocumented immigrants. And Herman Cain, the first non-white GOP candidate for president, shoring up his bona fides among white voters with jokes about a death-dealing electric fence along the Mexican border.

It can be safely argued that the white resentment voting bloc is a creature whose days are numbered. Between the changing demographic landscape of the American population and the increasing number of Caucasians who are genuinely not terribly concerned about ethnicity, Republicans are finding the backlash that comes from pandering to racial animosity is increasingly outweighing the payoff.

The unfortunate truth is that racism—in all its variations—will be part of the American cultural fabric for some time to come. Ignorant attitudes and ideas will continue to spew forth from small-minded people in offices and backyards all across this vast nation. But it would at least appear the use of racism as a political weapon is a tactic rapidly diminishing in effectiveness.