When rabid right wing radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and conservative guru Newt Gingrich initially attacked Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a “racist,” they were using a time-tested strategy to appeal to Whites who believe their “rights” are being threatened by Blacks and people of color. Historically, racism has frequently been used by elements of the White power structure as a wedge to persuade working class and poor Whites to disassociate with or fight against Blacks who should have been seen as their class allies. Deeply ingrained attitudes of White superiority and Black inferiority, which underpin structural/institutional racism in this society, have made White working class and poor people particularly susceptible to this strategy of confuse and exploit. Thus, the slogan “Black and White Unite and Fight” has generally failed to bear fruit because too often Whites have been convinced that people of African descent are their enemies.
Prior to the Civil War, White slave owners would hire out their slaves to business concerns in the private sector, thereby undercutting the wages of free White labor. After the Civil War a slew of laws were passed which criminalized Blacks for petty crimes like vagrancy. This resulted in the incarceration of large numbers of formerly enslaved Africans in the South. In a system similar to the hiring out of slaves, prison Wardens developed a “convict lease” system where inmates were hired out to private companies. Though some White inmates were leased out, the overwhelming majority were Blacks. Once again, the wages of free White labor suffered. When White workers began to organize to form unions and went out on strike to fight for better wages and working conditions, company bosses frequently brought in Blacks as “scab labor” in an effort to break the union. In the cases cited above, rather than viewing the White bosses as the real enemy, White workers directed their venom towards Blacks as well.
On the political front there was no greater opportunity for Blacks and Whites to “unite and fight” than the Populist movement in the late 19th century. Black farmers and laborers actually did join with White farmers and laborers to make the Populist Movement a real threat to the White power structure in the south that was ruthlessly exploiting Blacks and Whites. In the end, however, the power structure was able to persuade White leaders of the Populist Movement to abandon their Black allies. This fateful decision effectively ended the threat to the power structure posed by a united front between Black and White working class and poor people. To ensure that such a threat never materialized again, poor and working class Whites were rewarded with “Jim Crow,” a rigid system of apartheid that provided psychological benefits [White only facilities] and material incentives [low paying jobs “set aside” exclusively for Whites] to drive a wedge between Blacks and Whites. Hence, the “superior” race would always have “special rights” and a privileged place over the “inferior” race in the social order of the south.
In the most recent period, conservatives have sought to seize upon the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, which effectively eradicated legal segregation, to fuel White resentment by arguing that Black progress has been a result of diminishing rights and opportunities for Whites. President Ronald Reagan who proclaimed and popularized the notion that programs like affirmative action and other raced-based remedies constituted “reverse discrimination” promulgated the most perverse of these arguments. In addition, conservatives pointed to isolated instances of Black rage and/or reaction against racism, as in the highly publicized attack on a White truck driver in Los Angeles during one of the rebellions in the 80s, as incontrovertible proof of “Black racism.”
The goal of conservatives was the same as the White power structure in the south in the 19th century, to drive a wedge between Black and White working class and poor people as a strategy to benefit Whites with wealth, power and privilege. Hence, using race as a not so subtle subtext, Reagan railed against social programs like welfare and food stamps as a “burden of government” on the backs of taxpayers. The not so subtle suggestion was that these programs largely benefited “lazy and shiftless” Blacks and people of color. Despite the fact that far more Whites than Blacks benefited from social programs, Reagan was able to advance his agenda of reducing these programs while giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy. Consequently, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Once again the con game of confuse and exploit worked.
To consolidate their success, conservatives launched a furious assault against affirmative action and race-based remedies enacted to overcome the effects of past and present discrimination against Blacks and people of color. Labeling these efforts “reverse discrimination,” they advocated “race-neutral” or “colorblind” public policy and jurisprudence to ensure that “all people” (code word for Whites) would be treated equally. Opportunistically dismissing the idea of institutional/structural racism, conservatives propagated the view that any disparities that continue to exist between Blacks, people of color and Whites are the result of flaws in the culture of these groups and/or an absence of personal responsibility. Having achieved political hegemony utilizing these arguments, conservatives were determined to use the Bush-Cheney years to pass legislation and seize control of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, to enshrine their vision of pro-rich, free market Capitalism.
The election of Barack Obama poses a serious threat to their plans, hence the apprehension over the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to sit on the Supreme Court. For conservatives there is a danger that their con game of confuse and exploit will unravel. They fear that as a woman of color from poor and working class roots, Judge Sotomayor will be “empathetic” to the longstanding and legitimate aspirations of women, Blacks, people of color, working people and the poor in interpreting the Constitution of the United States. By branding her a “racist” and suggesting that they find her views on race “troubling,” once again conservatives are hoping to use a playbook that has worked for decades. With a new people of color majority emerging in America, however, the day when White men with power and privilege can inflame racial passions to advance their interest may well be a thing of the past. Judge Sonia Sotomayor is not confused about gender, race or class. She represents the wave of the future and the potential for a new day in America!