A Less Perfect Union: Is Racism Now Socially Acceptable?
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s address to the NAACP and his continued provocations at the expense of the African American population, a question needs to be asked: Since when has blatant racism become socially acceptable? After deriding the NAACP about Obamacare, he has gone on to say, “If they want more stuff from the government, tell them to go vote for the other guy,” insinuating that black people prefer to feed at the government teat in lieu of earning their rights for the privilege of heath insurance. In terms of strategy, this was a no brainer for Romney. He earned bragging rights for “telling it straight”, while being in no danger of losing votes. Why compete with Obama for the black vote? It’s better politics to incite his racist base - base being the operative word here.
In the1980s, black jokes were part of the vernacular, leading comedians like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby to take off by addressing this very issue directly. There was, once upon a time, an instance when it seemed perfectly okay to address a group of strangers at a party with a joke, “Why to the black man wear a suit to his vasectomy?” White people neither flinched, grimaced, nor laughed drily behind a hand.
The 1990s and the Clinton era of political correctness ushered in by liberals who not only took offense, but deemed it so offensive that they changed the social atmosphere by making it a social wrong to display blatant racism. Eventually, even jokes about the handicapped, women, and retards weren’t funny. Bummer.
Yet, in the last five years, there has been a resurgence of that kind of humor, which has at its base the desire to put its subject in its place. What could have happened in the past five years to make that part of society rise out of its perceived status in the United States, needing it to be beaten back? Five years ago, President Obama started his campaign, making speeches across the United States about the insidiousness of Washington insiders and how his community activism made him uniquely qualified to bring change to the status quo. After eight years of elitist President George W. Bush, the son of a prominent politician and bearer of a silver spoon upon birth, Obama looked exactly like what we needed. If a black intellectual President wasn’t the complete opposite of Bush, well, what was?
We all remember the allegations that followed: Obama’s association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright being called “palling around with terrorists” according to then vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Obama’s famous speech in Philadelphia attempted to head off this resurgence at the pass as he discussed what a “more perfect union” might look like. He met the accusations head on, and what’s more, he brought into the public forum a debate about race relations on a national level that had not been addressed at that level before.
But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
It seemed to put to bed all of the racist garbage that was rising to the surface, reawakened like Rip Von Winkle. Yet, over the last five years, the culture has shifted so decisively that it is a faux pas not to utter a racist slur, but to accuse someone else of racism. In 2008, Obama rightly anticipated Mitt Romney. So calling out Mitt Romney on his racism will only invite more derision. With commentators like Rush Limbaugh feeling comfortable making statements like, “The NAACP booed Romney because he’s white,” it says more about the state of this union than the dark face of our leader.
This has opened doors for a new kind of comedy. That of Daniel Tosh, in the papers recently for suggesting that it would be funny if a women in the audience of his show at the Laugh Factory who took offense to a rape joke be gang raped right there in front of him. Tosh rose to fame for being the host of Comedy Central’s show Tosh.0, which pokes fun at You Tube videos. What makes the show successful is his off-color running commentary, often full of racist observations including a segment entitled, “Is it racist?” that featured among them a watermelon eating contest in a baptist church in Alabama and a watermelon-flavored candy that featured Disney Princess Tiana on the packaging. Somehow by calling out the racism, he is able to exploit traditionally racist stereotypes to big laughs and wild success.
A show like this could not have existed in the 1990s, yet here we are, two decades later, moving forward - or behind? What do we have to look forward to under a Romney presidency, when he blatantly dismisses a whole segment of the population because he knows that he will not win their vote. Instead of pandering to the black voters, he disrespects them for country club street cred. This is a product of 2012. Change, certainly, that unfortunately many believe in.