Michael Brown and the politics of racism

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When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, progressives were overcome with optimism. Finally it seemed as if America was entering a post-racial era. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of an America where people are not judged by the color of their skin felt within reach. 

But progressives failed to factor in how deep and visceral the roots of racism are in America. Progressives don’t tune in to the right-wing echo chamber or attend tea party rallies. So we were naïvely unprepared for the “take back our country” rhetoric that came to dominate right-wing politics. And we were aghast at the escalating vehemence of the war against what remains of the nation’s social safety net — a war that’s supported by poor whites even though they comprise 42 percent of the people who utilize public-assistance programs.

We never imagined that so many poor whites would derive more pleasure from looking down on people of color than from being able to provide their children with health care or a college education. Nor did we imagine that so many poor white conservatives would give a free pass to the billionaires who brought the world’s economy to its knees, destroying their own futures. 

But by the time yet another unarmed black man was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this month, we knew exactly what to expect. We were not surprised that Ferguson police rolled in with military assault vehicles and battleground weaponry to quell demonstrations and lootings. We expected that conservative whites would respond with outrage directed not at the slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown but rather at the local black community’s anger over the shooting. We knew it was inevitable that the conservative spin machine would gin up to try justifying Brown’s death even before Ferguson’s wily police chief released a surveillance video of him allegedly robbing a convenience store.

Our black president has been a dream-come-true for Republicans who’ve vowed allegiance to Wall Street and displayed disdain for Main Street. Ever since Obama’s election, corporate-backed Republicans have craftily exploited racism to bridge the economic gap and unite poor whites with their wealthy cousins.

Michael Brown is one of four unarmed black men who have been killed by police in the past month. Police or vigilantes kill an unarmed black man in America every 28 hours, according to a study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that divided the number of such victims in the past year by the number of hours. 

We hope the increasing attention being paid to the killing of unarmed blacks in America will prompt more people of color and their progressive supporters to vote in November. But we fear the reverse will happen — that more racist whites will rush to the polls, propelled by their reinvigorated fear of blacks conjured by the turmoil in Ferguson.

After enduring six years of unprecedented right-wing extremism in the wake of Obama’s election, we are no longer naïve. Racism is clearly the most effective card that leaders on the political right have to play, and they will continue to use it without apology. They’ve replaced the “N”-word with more polite wterms such as “inner-city blacks” and “urban youth,” but the evil of racism is as strong among them today as it’s ever been.