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Gingrich Wins in the "Sahara of the Bozart"

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R acism is alive and well in the Republican Party of South Carolina. You saw it up close and personal if you watched the recent presidential debates in that state and heard symbolic racists in the audience cheer Newt Gingrich every time he offered up the newest racial code words.

Code words are required in the Sahara of the Bozart because ugly overt racism needed to be replaced and has been replaced by what scholars call "symbolic racism"- "a coherent set of beliefs including the sense that discrimination is no longer an obstacle for blacks, that their current lack of upward social mobility is caused by their unwillingness to work hard, that they demand too much of government, and that they have received more than they deserve." [Vincent L. Hutchings and Nicholas A. Valentino, "The Centrality of Race in American Politics," Annual Review of Political Science 2004. 7:p. 390]

Code words took over, because, as Republican political operative Lee Atwater once put it: "You start out in 1954 by saying 'n-word, n-word, n-word.' By 1968 you can't say 'n-word' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites." [Bob Herbert, "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant," New York Times, Oct. 6, 2005]

Thus, South Carolina's symbolic racists can now applaud Newt when he calls President Obama "the food stamp president," -- notwithstanding the fact that non-Hispanic whites far outnumber blacks as food stamp recipients -- just as they applaud his recommendation that "black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps."

No wonder. Few symbolic racists possess the education to know, let alone consider, that a study of over 100,000 businesses across America found that nearly 1.2 million instances of overt job discrimination against blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans occur every year. They do not know, let alone consider, that "a white man with a criminal record is more likely to be called back for a job interview than a black man without one, even when their credentials are the same." [Tim Wise, Dear White America, pp. 30-31] But, how better to rebut the despicably empty claims of reverse discrimination, than by introducing such inconvenient facts?

Beyond those facts, there's the long troubling history of how "lazy" southern whites have employed blacks during the past four centuries. (As Stephen Innes has written, in Creating the Commonwealth, "Where there was a landed aristocracy based on slavery, as in Brazil or the ante-bellum American South, an anti-work ethic ideology became common." p. 187]

Thus, after stealing land from Native Americans and forcing slaves to work that land for them for some 250 years, lazy but predatory white folk produced children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who recovered from the ass-whipping they suffered at the hands of Yankee soldiers -- and the 400,000 acres of South Carolina land given to former slaves by General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1865 -- to impose Jim Crow laws "essentially intended to criminalize black life" [Blackmon, p. 53] across the south.

Good Christian white folk -- like the ones who previously justified slavery -- employed extrajudicial means, especially lynching, to "terrorize" African-Americans. South Carolina was probably the most egregiously racist of all the big lynching states -- all southern -- in the country. Although its good folks only lynched 156 African-Americans during the period 1882-1968, while Mississippi -- its closest competitor for most egregiously racist -- lynched 539, Georgia 492, Texas 352, Louisiana 335, and Alabama 299; South Carolina lynched only 4 whites, or less than 3 percent of the African-Americans lynched there. Even the fine white folk in Georgia, Newt Gingrich's home state, had the extrajudicial decency to lynch at last 7 percent as many whites as African-Americans.

During most of those lynching years (in fact, up until World War II) southern states re-enslaved African-Americans through the establishment of American gulags (labor camps) that were systematically populated with terrorized African-Americans, who had been arbitrarily arrested, convicted, fined and then jailed for failure to pay the fine and sundry fees associated with the adjudication of their arrest. Once securely in jail, small town sheriffs and governing officials leased them out to farmers and business owners until they worked off their fees and fines. Thousands died under the unsanitary and harsh work regimes imposed by good old white farmers and businessmen.

The crime of choice trumped up by these small town white racketeers was "vagrancy," a crime that curiously and coincidently touched few of the down and out white folk roaming the south. (As Douglas A. Blackmon has written in, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War, "After white South Carolinians led by Democrat Wade Hampton violently ousted the last black government of the state in 1877, the legislature promptly passed a law for the sale of the state's four hundred black and thirty white prisoners." (p. 55))

In all, predatory white southerners exploited African-American slave labor for some 250 years and African-American gulag labor for another 70 years. Is that what the members of the Tea Party have in mind, when they talk about "taking our country back?"

Thus, I'm always amused when I hear Southerners like Gingrich recommend that blacks should demand jobs. But, seriously, do such Southerners even deserve the right to speak about the subject?

The spectacle of symbolic racism on display during the presidential debates in South Carolina brought to mind an article written in 1917 by the great journalist and thinker, H. L. Mencken. Titled, "The Sahara of the Bozart," Mencken argued that the Civil War had killed off most of the best men that the South had to offer to American civilization. The "white trash" that, generation after generation, reproduced itself would have been bad enough for the region, but their preoccupation with race, their need to keep the African-American down -- which he called "the cornerstone of all their public thinking" -- virtually guaranteed that they would be unable restore the civilization they enjoyed during the lives of Washington and Jefferson.

Thus, wrote Mencken, "for all its size and all of its wealth and all the "progress' it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert."

Now, I'd never go so far as to say that Mencken's description accurately captures southern life in its entirety. The South has its fair share of artists, intellectuals and cultural centers. But it certainly captured the life of those Republicans in South Carolina who applauded the symbolic racism of Newt Gingrich a week ago

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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