His name wasn’t Tim Knotts, but it’s a good pseudonym. Tim was 13 when he tried to start his mom’s barbecue grill with gasoline. When the coals seemed to go out, he decided to add some more gasoline. For weeks we all wondered if he’d live, and he spent most of the next year in and out of hospitals for repeated surgeries.
When I remember what was said about Justice Sonia Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings, or Rush Limbaugh calling health care reform “backdoor reparations for slavery,” or Glenn Beck calling the president a “racist” with a “deep-seeded hatred of white people,” my thoughts go to Tim Knotts and the mistake that almost killed him.
Because I’ve begun framing racism as GOP gasoline.
Racism – GOP Gasoline (The Political Mind)
This week Morning Feature will explore Dr. George Lakoff’s book The Political Mind. Dr. Lakoff is a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at U.C. Berkeley and, as you’ll see from the link, an active Kossack. If you’ve not read his book, it’s well worth doing.
But rather than dive right into the theory of frames, I thought I’d begin with a topical example in framing. Frames are often expressed (and found) in metaphor: A as B. In this case, Racism as GOP Gasoline. I’ve chosen that frame because it expresses some subtleties about how and why the GOP so often raise race in issues that aren’t about race, and why that is so dangerous for our society. In the coming days we’ll talk more about the science of framing and how it works.
Racism as Gasoline as Fuel.
Regular readers of Morning Feature know that I usually can’t respond to the first few comments as they come in, because I’m driving Springoff the Fourth to his carpool. Doing so involves gasoline, but in a particular way. I don’t drive him to his carpool in order to support the oil companies or the use of gasoline. My goal is to get him to his ride so he can get to university, and gasoline is the fuel that energizes my car. Still, I’m contributing to the problems of fossil fuels: adding CO2 to the atmosphere, supporting oil companies and oil-based economies, and all the other ancillary problems. You could fairly call me a “gasolinist,” and I’m aware of those problems. If I could afford a non-fossil-fuel powered car, or make do without a car at all, I would. But again, burning gasoline is not my objective when I’m driving; it’s what fuels my car, a means to another end.
Perhaps I’m naïve, but I see the same relationship in the GOP’s use of racism in the health care debate. Yes, the GOP has advocated and continues to advocate policies that hurt people of color – from discriminatory sentences on crack cocaine to immigration reform to ending affirmative action to blocking access to polls – but the GOP’s political agenda is more often focused on preserving wealth-based privilege. And while health care reform is not a direct threat to white privilege, it is a direct threat to wealth-based privilege.
Whether by accident or design or both, our present health care system rewards wealthy people for being wealthy, but not it doesn’t reward white people for being white. So why did Rush Limbaugh call health care reform “backdoor reparations for slavery?” Why do Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and others stoke the fires of racism – challenging President Obama’s place of birth, and none is alleging he was born in Canada or Norway – as a recurring theme in their opposition to health care reform? As an objective in health care reform, racism makes no sense.
But racism makes perfect sense as a fuel. It’s a highly-charged, emotional appeal to what remains of the GOP base. It taps into four decades of race-baiting in Republican politics, from Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, through Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen, to Tom Tancredo’s White Culture Under Siege frame on immigration. Racism energizes the angry white Republican base, and the proof of its effect as fuel is seen in the signs so many of them carried in this past weekend’s protests. Many of those signs had nothing to do with health care reform policy, because the people carrying them did not show up to protest health care reform. They were there to protest a black man living in the White House.
As a fuel to energize the GOP base, racism works. But it’s a toxic and dangerous fuel.
Racism as Gasoline as Explosive.
In The War of the World, British historian Niall Ferguson describes the 20th century as “the age of hate,” fueled by what he calls the most tragically successful cognitive mutation in human history: racism. While many assume racism is as old as our species, the historical record doesn’t support that assumption. What we now call “racism” is a modern phenomenon, dating to the 17th century and the emerging science of biology. No, Charles Darwin didn’t invent racism – it preceded him by almost 200 years – but racism was born in science.
There probably had always been Us vs. Them divisions among humans, but the historical record suggests that, with the exception of sexism, those boundaries were permeable: matters of religion, fealty, and/or culture. You might be one of Them, but if you adopted Our religion, swore fealty to Our sovereign, and assimilated into Our culture, you could become one of Us. Non-Greeks could become Greek citizens, with all the rights and privileges of citizenship. The same was true of other ancient empires from Persia to Egypt to Rome, and of the world’s major religions. Identity was a matter of belief, loyalty, and/or behavior. Change those and you become one of Us.
But in the 17th century, as biology emerged, some theorized (pdf link) that skin pigmentation, hair texture, and other physical features marked different human specimens. Indeed many prominent biologists into the early 20th century theorized the races were different species, that the offspring of interbreeding would be infertile, if not in the first generation then “within a few generations.” They kept pushing that back as the offspring continued to prove them wrong. These were not wackos at the fringe, but the mainstream scientists of their era, and they proposed that other human traits – such as intelligence, industriousness, honesty, and criminality – were differently inherited within each race.
Where Us vs. Them divisions had been permeable – you could become one of Us by changing your beliefs, loyalties, and/or behaviors – the divisions became impermeable. You could adopt Our religion, swear fealty to Our sovereign, and assimilate into Our culture, but you could never be fully one of Us because your Other-ness was biological. A black person could no more become “one of Us” in a white society than a camel could become a giraffe by living among them.
That theory of racism became accepted in every culture exposed to it. While a given culture might rearrange the hierarchy of human species on some hypothesized evolutionary ladder – ranking itself at the top – the underlying biological theory of race was the same. It was a malignant contagion that gave birth the most horrific mass slaughters in history, some of which are still ongoing. And as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, race-fueled violence is again a growing threat.
Tim Knotts had no inkling of the danger he courted when he tried to pour gasoline on what looked like unlit coals. But Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and others who are using racism to motivate the angry white Republican base can’t claim ignorance as their excuse. They will glibly deny any such intent when that fuel explodes into violence again, just as they did earlier this year in the Holocaust Museum shootings.
Yesterday they angrily denounced former President Jimmy Carter, who called their race-baiting what it is. They said, and will continue to say, that we are “injecting race” into politics. But their political engine has been powered by the gasoline of racism for 40 years, and they’re doing the fuel-injection.
I have no choice of what fuel to put in my car, but they do. They’re using the most toxic, dangerous, and explosive fuel they can find. And they’re using it on purpose. Racism is Republican Gasoline, and we have not only the right but the duty to make sure Americans know it.