I had been away from the Mississippi Delta for nearly a decade when the hip-hop group Public Enemy came out with their seminal album Fear of a Black Planet back in 1990. I remember thinking about that title — Fear of a Black Planet. I have no doubt that many of my fellow whites from the Delta saw the album as a threat, a call to arms among young black men everywhere… but I strongly suspect that very few whites realized that Public Enemy's Chuck D was harshest of all on his fellow blacks, expounding on everything from history to fashion: "use your brain instead of a gun … drugs are death … know your past so you won't screw up the future … gold chains worn around the neck demean the brotherhood in South Africa." But to a racist – even to those who were 'only' moderately so such as myself – what would have mattered was not the contents of the album, but the title on its cover. I cannot think of a more appropriately-named work of art when it comes to the fear that is driving the current resurgence of overt racism among whites in America.
Fear. That indeed is what is driving the right-wing call to arms. Another pivotal moment in race relations was something that has become a part of modern culture, pop and political, the Sistah Souljah moment: "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Whites – and many blacks – saw that as a baldly extremist statement supporting racial violence… and in almost any context, that's precisely what it is.
Here's something else Sistah Souljah said that was eerily prescient of the attitudes of many white conservatives today: ""Racism is a disease. It affects whites as well as blacks. It may even be a kind of mental illness. But the effect on black people is greater because we are the victims of it. The effect on whites is severe because it deforms their thinking and gives them a distorted picture of the world. But because the economics of racism is inarguably in their favor, most whites learn to live with it, even to deny it."
The Republicans (and their comrades-in-arms in the Tea Parties) aren't racist. They'll tell you precisely that, and point directly to RNC Chairman Michael Steele as proof. Of course the burden of proof is not on the accused – the Republicans – but on the accuser.
When someone commits a crime, those around him who know he committed a crime but still protect and support him are accessories after the fact. Strictly speaking, it's not a crime to make a racist statement… but it is a legally accepted cause for dismissal from a job or from military service. Make racist (or racially insensitive) comments in the modern workplace and you're literally placing your career at risk – unless you're a Republican politician. Haley Barbour, Republican governor of Mississippi, recently stated that the political scandal surrounding Republican Virginia governor Johnny Secesh's decision to declare this April as "Confederate History Month" without any reference to slavery "not significant, trying to make a big deal of something [that] doesn't amount to diddly."
Now that's not necessarily racist, is it? Well, let's put that in the context of the man who said it: Republican Governor Barbour. Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, who spoke before a Council of Conservative Citizens-sponsored political rally in 2003 and was photographed with Council leaders. He later claimed that he knew nothing about the Council of Conservative Citizens. This is especially hard to believe since he was the Republican National Committee Chairman when Trent Lott was embroiled in the controversy over his connections with the blatantly racist CCC.
But this is just one governor of a backwater state, right? No. In fact, Governor Barbour has been one of the leading lights of the Republican party for some time. He served as an adviser to President Ronald Reagan for two years as Director of the White House Office of Political Affairs, served two terms as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and in 2000 Haley chaired the Bush for President Campaign Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C. He was one of ten members of Governor Bush’s National Presidential Exploratory Committee in 1999. He is one of the most influential Republican politicians in America.
And he is a racist. Here is an Anti-Defamation League article describing the history of and current political connections of the Council of Conservative Citizens. To be sure, in 1998 the then-chairman of the RNC Jim Nicholson asked Republican party members to resign from the CCC because of its racist views, but six years later many Southern lawmakers were still pandering to and meeting with the CCC — and still pleading ignorance. No fewer than 38 federal, state, and local elected officials had attended CCC events between 2000 and 2004, most of them giving speeches to local chapters of the hate group — including Haley Barbour.
Now would such an organization be tolerated by the Democrats? Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, yes. Remember, the CCC was largely started in the 1960s by a racist Democratic senator named James O. Eastland. But just as the Democratic party has evolved from once accepting and supporting racism and segregation to supporting the progress of civil rights in word and deed, the Republican party has moved away from the days of Reconstruction when they were the only major political organization supporting civil rights to now by their silence tolerating racist organizations and politicians.
And how they have changed!
During Reconstruction following the Civil War, there were no fewer than 22 African-American men and one African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives, all from the South, all from the Republican party, and 11 of whom were former slaves. Since 1901, there have been exactly four African-American Republicans elected to Congress: Sen. Edward Brooke (1967-1979), who was by today's standards more liberal than most Democrats; Rep. Oscar DePriest (1929-1935); Rep. Gary Franks (1991-1997); and J.C. Watts (1995-2003). And none of these were from the South, the home of the KKK, the home of the CCC — and the centerpiece of the Republicans' Southern Strategy popularized by Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips after he saw the growing success of the Civil Rights Act:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
Before the Democratic party began giving broad support to civil rights in word and deed, the South was firmly in the Democratic camp. But just as Nixon strategist Phillips predicted, as the blacks became stronger within the Democratic party, the whites fled to the Republican party…and now the South is the strongest pillar of the Republican base.
The Republican party is not officially racist. But they do tolerate racists (and so make themselves accessories after the fact). And as long as they continue to do so, their political base will continue to have Fear of a Black Planet, will continue to fear that the next African-American he or she meets is about to have a "Sistah Souljah moment," will continue to fear that his or her grandchildren might have skin of a darker shade. And they'll continue to listen to the weekly, sometimes daily race-baiting by the most powerful conservatives in America: the radio talk show hosts like Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, Savage, and Beck.
Fear indeed! Fear keeps those radio talk show hosts in business. Fear keeps the gun shop owners and gun show promoters in business. Fear is what has more than doubled right-wing extremist groups in the past year.
"The only thing we have to fear…is fear itself!" A wise man once said that. He knew then – as any historian knows now — that fear is perhaps the greatest enabler of persecution, of tyranny, of atrocity.
This, too, will pass. In the decades to come, when whites are no longer the majority race in America and the Republican party finally confronts its own imminent marginalization, then and only then will they begin to realize the magnitude of the long-term error of Kevin Phillips' Southern Strategy, his cognizance of the Southern whites' Fear of a Black Planet. Perhaps it will then be too late to avoid marginalization… but given the fact that both major political parties have remade themselves before, there is hope for them yet. But it will surely be a painful transition, as all political upheavals are wont to be.