God's Politics

Obery HendricksVirginia Senator George Allen has been under fire since he publicly called an Asian American spectator at a campaign stop “macaca,” an apparent racial slur, then told the brown-skinned young man – an American-born citizen – “welcome to America.” While Virginia’s governor, Allen had also been denounced for hanging a confederate flag in his statehouse office. Since the “macaca” incident it has come to light that on numerous occasions Allen used the heinous “n” word to describe American citizens of African descent.

But the apparent racism of Allen should not be seen in a political vacuum. Historically, political conservatives like him have shown themselves much too willing to condone racism or to exploit it. In fact, racial demagoguery is heard from many conservative politicians and commentators, although they are seldom taken to task for this sin by their conservative colleagues. For instance, in his campaign for the presidency against Michael Dukakis, George H. W. Bush used the specter of paroled black rapist Willie Horton to appeal to whites’ deepest racial fears. In the 1990 North Carolina senatorial race, archconservative Republican senator Jesse Helms also used obviously racially charged campaign ads to defeat Harvey Gant, his African American opponent.

Bob Jones University, a right-wing stronghold that is a favorite stop for conservative candidates for political office, officially – and vociferously – endorsed racial segregation as an institutional policy until 2000. Yet presidential candidates Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both made pilgrimages to Bob Jones’ campus. And Ronald Reagan opened his first campaign for the presidency of the United States in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the grisly KKK murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, by proclaiming his support for “states’ rights,” a well-known euphemism for institutionally sanctioned white supremacy and racial violence.

Moreover, the conservative communications media are riddled with inflammatory racial rhetoric. Radio personality Rush Limbaugh once declared to his millions of listeners, “Let the unskilled jobs, let the kinds of jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do – let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.” And in the midst of the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina, conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly claimed that, “Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans” (whom he knew to be overwhelmingly black) were caught in the storm because “[t]hey were drug addicted. They weren’t going to get turned off from their source. They were thugs, whatever.”

In his 2001 book, The Death of the West, conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan argues that western civilization is on the decline. Among his reasons: “By 2050, only one-tenth of the world’s population will be of European descent.” Buchanan’s racist implication is clear: people of color are incapable of sustaining civilization without the domination of whites. Buchanan’s argument for drastically heightened immigration controls in his recent book, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, is similarly racially tinged.

Like Limbaugh and O’Reilly, popular conservative media personality Ann Coulter makes no effort to disguise her attitude toward race. In her book, Treason, she actually uses the racially degrading term “Third World savages.” And Tony Perkins, president of the influential conservative lobbying group The Family Research Council, once bought a mailing list from former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke for $82,500.

Why does racist discourse permeate conservative politics? Consider this: a defining feature of political conservatism is its dedication to maintaining the wealth and power of those who historically have had wealth and power. Thus, one reason for the racial antipathy exhibited by many conservatives is that social and economic inroads by those who had previously constituted a cheap and desperate labor pool presents a growing threat to the continued domination of average Americans by the wealthy and the powerful, those President Bush affectionately calls “the haves and the have-mores.” In addition, continued racial turmoil serves as a loud and convenient distraction from corporate exploitation of all rank-and-file Americans, regardless of race.

This does not mean that all political conservatives are racists or that all use racially inflammatory language. That simply is not true. Nor does it mean that racism in the political sphere is limited to conservative politicians. Racists can be found at all points of the political spectrum, from left to right. What it does mean, however, is that racism and racist political discourse seem to be endemic to political conservatism and constitute ongoing components of right-wing political discourse and strategy. To put it simply, racism and the willingness to exploit it for political gain characterizes the words and deeds of conservatives, especially the right-wing, more than any other political grouping.

Clearly, George Allen’s repugnant racial rhetoric must be rejected, but it must not be seen as an isolated case. Most importantly for Christians, it must be recognized that the lingering racism of conservative political discourse is a sin and a transgression against the love-based Gospel of Jesus that right-wing politicians claim to hold dear.

Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. is a professor at New York Theological Seminary and author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted.

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