Once more, we have proof that there is no liberal media in the United States. There is only a corporate media, one that is vulnerable to hostage taking by the Right.
Mitt Romney channels a slogan from the Ku Klux Klan that "we" ought to "keep America American" (or its more "polite" cousin, "Keep America, America"). MSNBC reports Romney's repeated use of this phrase. The Right-wing blogosphere cries "foul" and "unfair." Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton issue apologies to Mitt Romney for unfairly attacking his character.
There are two elements to this story that demand exploration.
First, the suggestion that a Republican candidate, one who is trying to sure up his conservative bonafides to a white populist base, would mine the rhetoric of the Klan (or deploy racially bigoted, xenophobic, and resentful sentiment and slogans more generally) is not at all a surprise. In fact, the politics of white racial resentment and white victimology have been central elements in Republican political strategy for five decades.
While folks are centered on the silly and distracting question--is Mitt Romney a racist or in the KKK--they should in fact be focused on the Republican Party's masterful use of a politics of white racial resentment, nativism, and disdain for the Other. Context matters. Consider the circus that is the Republican Party's presidential primary field for the election year 2012, and the policies they have endorsed.
1. Electric fences and moats to kill illegal immigrants;
2. Suggesting that black people are lazy, and their children should serve as janitors in order to develop a work ethic;
3. Wallowed in the filth of Birtherism, and indulged in rank, open bigotry against the country's first black President;
4. Suggested that Muslim Americans should be profiled (perhaps they should carry special cards? or wear a mark on their clothing?) because of their religion and a propensity to commit "terrorism";
5. Include a candidate who leisured at a family retreat named "Niggerhead" and grew up in sundown town;
6. Are beholded to the Tea Party, a faction and AstroTurf group which can trace its origins back to the white supremacist, white nationalist, John Birch Society (the former is also a group whose racist tendencies have been well-documented).
The Republican Party's rhetoric of "real America," "our America," "take our America back," and Romney's Klan-inspired slogan of "Keep America American" is based on a simple premise of "us and them." Patriotism and nationalism have almost always been infused with appeals to white racism. Given that America's history is one where to be American, meant that one had to be "white" in the eyes of the law, this ought not to be a surprise. Black folks have long been the anti-citizen, the group against which immigrants and others triangulate their belonging and group membership.
The symbolic racism indulged in by the Republican Party, especially as seen in their race baiting against Barack Obama, are dependent on a basic understanding that to be "American" one must first and most importantly be "White" (and to a lesser degree Christian). In the post-Civil Rights era, those appeals have to be hidden behind dog-whistles and coded speech.
The second teachable moment in Mitt Romney's channeling of the KKK's slogan is that historically, America is a profoundly racist country. In fact, there was no language with which to stigmatize such sentiments; "racism" was just "the law," or "commonsense," what was a "natural" way of doing things. For example, the Constitution of the United States is an explicitly pro-slavery, pro-white, herrenvolk, Apartheid document. With approximately 3 million members, the KKK was one of the most important civil society organizations in American history throughout the early part of the 20th century. Their "march on Washington" was one of the largest gatherings in the country to date.
The Civil Rights Movement, only four decades or so in the past, is a recent development. For most of the United States' history, to become a naturalized citizen a person had to be of demonstrable, and certifiable, "white ancestry" and "good stock." People of color, and "questionable" whites (Southern and Eastern Europeans), were not "fit" for American citizenship. In all, pluralist, Multicultural America, the one that elected Barack Obama, is a hiccup, a curiosity, and a very recent development in American history.
The nativism, xenophobia, and "polite" bigotry of the Republican Party, with its most recent appeals to white populism, are part of a larger pattern. In much the same way that the Tea Party brigands displayed posters of Barack Obama as a monkey or a gorilla, Mitt Romney may not even know the origins of "keep America American." But, it resonates with his audience.
More generally, Republican candidates who talk about "the pro-America parts of the country," and "real Americans," may not know about the deep relationship between nationalism, white racism, and the murder and exclusion of non-whites from the polity and public sphere. But, the words are warm and welcoming. The slogan excites them. It makes populist conservatives feel good about something; they belong to a community of "special" people, with privileged insight, and an elect commandment from on high; they are the sacred keepers of American exceptionalism and the Founding Father's prescient wisdom.
Ultimately, Mitt Romney's use of the Klan's slogan is not about responsibility: I could care less if he is a dyed in the wool racist or bigot; in fact, I suspect that he likely is not one.
And of course, how can one overlook the irony of a Mormon, a group none too popular with the KKK, channeling one of their most famous slogans.
However, the use of such language is important because of the questions surrounding causality, consequences, appeal, and sentiment. As we work through Romney's KKK turn of phrase, we cannot forget that White supremacy is part of the ether and air that all Americans, across the color line, inhale and breathe. It is part of the country's collective subconscious. An American can no more escape it, than a fish can water.
Consequently, the bigger and more important element here is the type of political work that such historically racist--but in the present--"race neutral" appeals do for Tea Party GOP candidates who are focused on destroying the United States' first Black President by any means necessary. As the late, oft-quoted, Republican political strategist Lee Atwater alluded to, Republicans most certainly cannot call black people "niggers" anymore and expect to win elections. However, Republicans can do everything to remind their white voting public, the conservative heart and soul of their party, that a President who happens to be black, most certainly, is not one of "them."
This is the truth, that MSNBC, in walking back the obvious connection between Mitt Romney, the KKK's racism and nativism, and the political gamesmanship of the Tea Party GOP, is afraid to make clear and transparent.
The Fourth Estate fails again.