We had a minor dustup on our Facebook page over comments by a South Carolina State Representative Kris Crawford (R), who complained earlier this year that, "It is good politics to oppose the black guy in the White House right now," and, over the decision of Egberto Willies, who is African American and Latino, to share these comments on our Facebook page.
A lot of people jumped down Rep. Crawford's throat, assuming that he was gloating about something that he was actually criticizing. Others attacked Egberto for quoting Crawford's words and then pivoting to make his own argument. "Why do you have to bring up the issue of race?" is a common complaint from our more conservative Facebook commenters.
I understand the frustration of conservatives who often feel — and often are — attacked as "racists" when the issues of race and politics intersect, which is often. Our arguments against backward economic policies and institutionalized racism need to go much deeper than name-calling if we wish them to have merit, and, they need to resist name-calling if we wish them to be received with open minds.
However, I commented on the page that:
I think that we all have to acknowledge a truth that is painfully obvious to people of color in America, especially African Americans and Latinos. America has suffered from the tradition of exploiting racism for political purposes. The result has been bad policy, and, bad relationships between races. Heavily financed exploitation of racial anxiety by political parties and media outlets that support political parties has prolonged racial division in America much longer than it would otherwise have lasted.
How does it work? It simply takes advantage of a vulnerability all human beings have. We are afraid of people who are different, and, sadly, we are prone to believe stereotypes and lies about people who are different if those lies are told to us by people who are "the same."
That is why it may have been good politics, in the short term, to make so many false claims about President Obama, and about the majority of Americans who voted for him in the past two elections, and about Blacks and Latinos as a proxy target for simple anxiety over demographic shift.
It is not reprehensible to have such anxiety. It is reprehensible to exploit it.
Annabel Park and I have been filming in Alabama, where a county government is challenging the Voting Rights Act, and in North Carolina where hyper-partisans at the state level are attempting to legislate an electoral advantage for Republicans by limiting the number of people of color who vote. North Carolina legislators justify radical changes to election law by exploiting our tendency to believe lies about people who appear to be different if the lies are spoken by people who appear to be the same. "Voter ID" laws, they tell the public, are needed because the President, and African Americans and Latinos, have been cheating or want to cheat at the polls — one explanation for disappointing results in the last two presidential elections.
It doesn't matter that none of this is true. What matters most in politics is what people can be made to believe, and the sad truth is that political operatives are having a field day right now exploiting our blind spots when it comes to race. Rep. Krawford is absolutely right about that.
Advocates of a "voter fraud" crackdown have not presented any evidence that voter impersonation exists, but the possibility that it could exist, they say, justifies the passing laws that would abridge the right to vote for hundreds of thousands of people who do not have drivers licenses or were born before the era of state-issued birth certificates.
Annabel and I made a film about a similar case in 2007 and 2008 in Virginia. Two politicians in Prince William County staked their campaigns on accusations that undocumented immigrants (Latinos they clearly meant) were committing crimes at a disproportionate level and stealing services meant for "real Americans." This, they said, required a radical "immigration crackdown" that required a reluctant police department to check immigration status based on appearance rather than conduct. In a dramatic hearing before the US Commission on Civil Rights, it was revealed that none of claims about the immigrant community could be substantiated. A few months later, the law was repealed. But it was a powerful electioneering tactic that bore fruit in a time when people were suffering from real economic anxiety, and induced racial hysteria.
In 2013, anti-immigrant electioneering is a less powerful and less popular political tactic. Although successful at the local and state level in some instances, it is falling out of favor because it has backfired at the national level with the Latino community joining other communities of color in voting overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Soon, targeted voter suppression will also fall out of favor, I predict, for for the same reason, if not by order of the Supreme Court. Hopefully, before the President's second term is over, so too will the basic tactic of exploiting America's blind spot on race in order to justify opposition to common sense policies — the very tactic Rep. Krawford was decrying when he spoke his controversial, but refreshingly honest, words.
Television and radio pundits have created for themselves a gullible, often hateful consumer group. Politicians then point to concerns raised by these consumers as justification for obstructionism verging upon economic sabotage. Many of us were concerned when the "Citizens United" decision decreed that there could be no limits to expenditures on political media products, but it turns out that putting more propaganda on the air does not always increase the percentage of people who believe it — often, it merely increases the hysteria and the anger of a dwindling consumer group whose anxiety over demographic shift is being exploited to sell advertising and win elections.
Voter suppression and unlimited election spending can delay and dilute the political impact of demographic shift and the advent of social media. But they cannot prevent it.