Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Wearing Racism

What's Wrong With This Picture? In this cartoon from the Presidential Election Campaign of 1860, Black Americans in Victorian finery are depicted as a warning of what will happen to America if the Republican Party's candidate, Abraham Lincoln, becomes President. Clothing as a status marker carries with it a powerful political charge when the person wearing it is assumed to occupy an inferior social position.

THERE WAS A VICIOUSNESS about the United States presidential campaign of 1860 that, with hindsight, seems horribly portentous. No matter how many times the South’s politicians did the political math the result was always the same. The newly-formed Republican Party was going to win a majority in the Electoral College, and its anti-slavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was going to become the sixteenth President of the United States.
 
In desperation the slave-owning South and their Democratic Party allies in the northern states threw everything they could at “Honest Abe”. Given the hugely divisive issue at the heart of the campaign, racial slurs abounded. Plucking the most tightly-wound string of the American electorate’s fiddle, Lincoln’s opponents accused him of believing in racial equality, miscegenation and plotting secretly to turn America into a mongrel state.
 
Naturally, the pro-slavery parties’ cartoonists had a field day. One of their favourite visual taunts was to portray black men and women sashaying around beneath “Honest Abe’s” approving gaze in the clothing of the upper-classes.
 
To racially prejudiced Americans (which in 1860 constituted the overwhelming majority of US citizens) the image of a black person decked out in the lavish Victorian finery of the period was profoundly offensive. It implied that Blacks might one day disport themselves in exactly the same symbols of economic success and superior social status as Whites.
 
The anti-Republican cartoons were also intended to warn voters about the Abolitionists’ determination to not only free the slaves, but also to have them declared United States citizens with exactly the same civil and political rights as their White brothers.
 
It must also be noted, however, that in addition to making White Americans angry these images of “gussied-up niggers” also made them laugh. The whole idea was so preposterous, so outlandish – like an ape in evening dress – that it could not be taken seriously. Racial equality was thus revealed as a wild abolitionist fantasy – proof of just how far beyond the pale the Republicans and their candidate had positioned themselves.
 
One hundred and twenty years later, proof of American racism’s cultural tenacity was clearly evident in the presidential election campaign of 1980. The Republican Party’s candidate, Ronald Reagan (whose party had, in one of History’s most poignant ironies, become the preferred party of the old Confederacy) launched his campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, an annual event held on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.
 
The White Man's Candidate: Resplendent in his white shirt-sleeves, Ronald Reagan launches his 1980 Presidential Campaign on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where, just 16 years earlier, three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. American racism has a remarkable cultural tenacity.
 
America’s racists grasped the dark symbolism of Reagan’s choice immediately. He was identifying himself proudly and unmistakably as the White voters’ candidate. Not that they needed much convincing. Four years earlier, in his first run at the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan had introduced America to the person he dubbed the “Welfare Queen” – a Black American woman living on the South Side of Chicago:
 
“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”
 
Reagan’s words served a purpose identical to those 1860 cartoons’ depicting Black Americans dressed in upper-class attire. His Welfare Queen, with her “tax-free cash income” of over $150,000, played to exactly the same prejudices. The notion of a Black woman earning $150,000 was clearly preposterous: only the most egregious defrauding of the welfare system could possibly produce such a creature.
 
Reagan’s message was clear: Liberal America, by promoting racial equality and demanding that the equal rights of citizenship, won at such cost under Lincoln’s presidency, be enforced in every state of the union had created (at the ever-escalating expense of the long-suffering taxpayer) a feckless underclass of welfare cheats, drug addicts and gang-bangers. Reagan didn’t have to say that the people he was talking about were Black. The people who cheered him on knew that already.
 
Disreputable politics? Undoubtedly. But also highly effective – which is why so many politicians throughout the English-speaking world have tried so hard to emulate Reagan’s success.
 
Including some New Zealand politicians?
 
I would certainly like to think not. The idea that there might be some Pakeha politicians who, without resorting to the derogatory terms of our not-too-distant racist past, and almost certainly without reflecting on how their words were likely to be misinterpreted, might nevertheless call attention to the way a non-Pakeha person was dressed, and to how much money they might have spent on their ensemble – is a very troubling one.
 
To the minds of some undoubtedly oversensitive wee sausages those 1860 cartoons might be recalled, along with Ronald Reagan’s quip about welfare queens.
 
Just how would a racist politician say “gussied-up nigger” in 2014?
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, February 04, 2014.

13 comments:

CarbonGuilty said...

One definition of a racist is, I believe, a person obsessed with race. That could be me so I have to watch it. But it is more applicable to that whinger from the Green party who does not know her place in our society. Her place is advocating a pure socialist future, as the Greens are hard left. But instead she is always on about Maori stuff as well so her vision is a Maori distorted socialist future, not a democratic one where everyone's vote has the same value, a colour blind equal vote, and not sexist like Maori culture. Worse, she laments poverty, evn though poverty is farmed by the left, yet she dresses as far from any identifying with the down trodden as she can. She wants votes in Merivale perhaps? So she is a ligitimate target for the democratic conservative polititian and picking on her expensive tastes in clothes is perhaps a little crass but it is fair game. The left do it all the time, especially against rich white women. You Mr Trotter are close to being racist yourself in focusing on race in this little scrap. IT is the least likely motive but you zoom in on it. Race obsessed: Racist?

Jan said...

Excellent article!
The current outrage also reminds me of the story of Cinderella and the two ugly sisters. I just love the gracious way that Cinderella, in this instance, called the ugly sisters to account.

Davo Stevens said...

We all are racist to varying degrees.

Carbon; it's not important what some-one wears, you can get some very modern stylish clothes cheaply -- it's called an "Opshop". Her comments are just as silly as those who raised the issue in the first place.

Both sides of the divide make such unfortunate comments and distract people from the real issues.

The US prior to the Civil War was racist and to a degree still is. They didn't give 'Equality' to Blacks until the mid 1960's and I beleive that they only allowed Blacks to vote after WW II.

Yes, there are some people who have views of all sides of the political divide, some are "Left" as yo describe and others who are "Right" and conservative. Each has the right to be heard.

Victor said...

I'd be tempted to suggest that at least one of those ugly sisters is a highly insensitive sausage.

As to Meretiria's graciousness, I would expect nothing less from her.

Of course, it's unsurprising that the Greens should be targeted in this way. Labour can't possibly govern without them. And so, from National's point of view, no trick will be too low if it helps discredit them.

Six years ago, they targeted NZ First as a means of getting Labour out of office. How Winston must now be savouring the irony of it all!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/01/the-racially-fraught-history-of-the-american-beard/283180/

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2013/12/linda_taylor_welfare_queen_ronald_reagan_made_her_a_notorious_american_villain.html

Two very interesting takes on race and welfare.

Fern said...

It’s the little off-the-cuff remarks that reveal the person behind the political mask. Even a pollie as experienced as Judith Collins fell into the trap, with her “sensitive little sausage” remark. The venomous tone made me gasp. Up till now I had thought of her as a tough, single-minded woman whose political views I cannot abide. Now I know she’s a b---h.

TM said...

I don't see what Collins/Tolley said was racist. It was cheap, snide and below the belt, ad hominem, but not racist. I think Turei was trying to land her own low-blow in retaliation.

And I say this as "a person of color" who is normally sensitive to racism (which is wide-spread in this country).

Victor said...

Fern

I agree with you entirely.

I too have always disliked Crusher's politics but had, up till now, thought of her as a relatively honourable politician. Alas no longer.

Wayne Mapp said...

Victor, how exactly is Meretiria calling Anne Tolley racist an example of her graciousness.

Davo Stevens said...

@ Fern; yep I don't like Collins either, not even her politics. She has the same problem that Shipley had, namely when she tries to smile it comes across as a sneer!

Her comment was childish and peurile and totally un-necessary too.

If our Johnny doesn't do well in the next election he will be feeling a sharp pain between his shoulder blades and Collins will be holding on to it.

Victor said...

Wayne

In the face of highly personalised and misleading political invective, Meretiria neither cowered nor engaged in vitriol. Nor did she lose the "niceness", which seems to me to be an essential hallmark of her public persona.

To my mind, this showed both graciousness and character. Moreover, I would still be of this view if I didn't think that your two erstwhile colleagues had deliberately engaged in dog-whistle politics.

Of course, I might be wrong about the deliberate use of a dog whistle. It's sometimes hard to achieve objectivity over such matters. But, talking to some of my fellow citizens, I can't help but feel that (deliberately or otherwise)the whistle has been used to effect.

May I add that, assuming you are THE Wayne Mapp, you are also one of those politicians from whom I would always expect graciousness.

Perhaps, in this case, you are motivated by a misplaced sense of chivalry.

Anonymous said...

I think turie became a target for the jibe because she plays the poor little brown girl . It was another version of Chardonnay socialist.

Richard McGrath said...

From Wikipedia:

There are critics who claim that Reagan gave his 1980 presidential campaign speech, about states’ rights, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. This also happens to be the place where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964. However, despite the critics’ claims, Reagan had actually given it at the Neshoba County Fair, in the unincorporated community of Neshoba, Mississippi, seven miles away. It was a popular campaigning spot, as presidential candidates John Glenn and Michael Dukakis both campaigned there as well.