Stanley Kutler: So Much for a ‘Post-Racial’ America





[Stanley Kutler, a UW-Madison professor emeritus, is the author of “The Wars of Watergate” and other writings.]

Thanks to Newt Gingrich’s loose lips, the cat is out of the bag: The Republican Party, answering the call of a large part of its following, will continue its subtle and not-so-subtle uses of the “race card.” Gingrich said during the health care debate that “much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years” when Congress enacted civil rights legislation, President Barack Obama’s health care reform will prove as destructive. His audience needs no reminder of Republican divisiveness, but Gingrich, no stranger to distorting history, demands correction.

First, LBJ and his party, the anomalous home of Southern segregationist congressmen, never could have passed civil rights legislation without the herculean efforts of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., and the late Rep. William McCulloch, R-Ohio, who led most of their party to enact bipartisan legislation. Appropriately, after a century of trimming, the Republican Party briefly returned to its anti-slavery and Reconstruction Era roots. Gingrich’s version of history cannot imagine what he considers improbable.

Second, the Democratic Party was not destroyed by its support for civil rights, but instead it gained some ideological clarity, and lost that segregationist base, which readily donned the proper Republican attire. Being a Republican in the South became a cover for racial attitudes that in no way could be suppressed or changed. The shift is captured in the recent movie “The Blind Side,” with its Christian, Southern setting, in which a prospective employee sheepishly reveals her dark secret—she’s a Democrat. Can anything be more ironic than a Republican “Lincoln Day” dinner in the South? The Republican Party of today, born in that 1960s moment, must be totally alien to its founders. Where are you, Sen. Dirksen, now that we need you?...

More history is in order. The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision striking down segregation in Brown v. Board of Education is the watershed event for the next half century and beyond in our domestic life. Race became—and remains—a central, national issue. It serves as a political platform for those who advocate equality for all citizens, and it provides that useful instrument to play on prejudice for political gain. Racial equality is embraced within our constitutional framework in ways 180 degrees from what had been; nevertheless it also has left us with an increasingly alienated and emotionally distraught part of the populace, bereft of the once legally mandated system of apartheid....

Innuendoes are gone; witness the recent protests at the Capitol by supposed tea party folks as they hurled racial epithets at congressmen as they approached to vote on health care. House Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey, D-Wis., merely was accused of illegitimate birth; Barney Frank, D-Mass., received the familiar homophobic remarks. Similar outbursts occurred in the chamber. The C-SPAN archives undoubtedly will prove useful to future historians. Unlike the networks’, the C-SPAN video was unedited and not vetted to remove “offensive” remarks....

The media have obsessed on the 2010 midterm elections, and beyond to 2012. The Republican nominee will have a racist constituency he dare not disavow. All the more imperative that President Obama, who, in the health care run-up, looked and sounded like the 2008 candidate he was, return to that attractive, widely appealing form. Race will remain in our politics, but we can defeat the ambitions of those who embrace it to divide and cater to our worst instincts.



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list