Was Touré correct to say that, by trying to access racial stereotypes about the “angry black man,” Mitt Romney was engaging in the niggerization of President Obama? In a word: yes.
However, Touré’s violation in such a charged accusation was not that he was being candid and accurate, but that he identified the wrong culprit. The GOP has for years massaged the superior notions of whites, largely in the context of advancing the notion of inferior qualities of blacks and lately signaling the “otherness” of Latinos.
But this has a long tradition in America, undergirded by institutions which have propped up this racial order. From a legal system that gave us separate but equal, and which began with a Constitution that declared blacks as three-fifths of a human, to the social reality which gave us the era of Jim Crow, the inferiority of blacks is a normality of American thinking. That’s just a fact.
Now, when measuring the validity of Touré’s charge, and the counter argument that Joe Biden’s comment to a crowd of black folks that Romney/Ryan was trying to put them back in chains was equally racist, one must first keep in mind this normalcy of black inferiority in America.
Does Biden’s comment sustain this normalcy? No. It was lazy, crude, and patronizing, but it wasn’t racist. Now consider Romney’s campaign, and its focus on welfare and “taking back America.” Consider the white audiences. Consider the obsession with President Obama’s citizenship by the Tea Party. Consider the constant use of President Obama’s middle name by his detractors, Barack Hussein Obama, they say. Consider the push by the GOP to drug test welfare recipients despite there being no evidence that welfare recipients use drugs at greater rates than non-welfare recipients.
The only campaign which operates under the normalcy of black inferiority is the GOP campaign. When Rick Santorum spoke to a crowd of white folks in Iowa and told them that he doesn’t want to make black folks’ lives better by giving them someone else’s money, he was appealing to that normalcy. In Romney’s terms, Rick Santorum was making a cultural connection with his audience.
The normalcy of whiteness is a constant problem for blacks, of course, but it is also one that is complicated by the growing Latino population. While there is a long record of discrimination toward Hispanics in America, Latinos could also appeal for inclusion into white society with varied success.
Legally, Hispanics are white, so other methods of exclusion became necessary. But Latinos used their legal status as whites to tear down the mechanisms of separation. For instance, Westminster v. Mendez was a desegregation case in California that sued the city of Westminster to allow Hispanic children to attend the “white schools.” This case predated Brown v. Board of Education by almost ten years.
Despite the legal victories, our socialization to accept the normalcy of whiteness is being constantly reaffirmed by framing ethnic minorities as “others.” In the case of Latinos, this socialization is often supported by the use of terms that dehumanize them. The use of the term “anchor baby” is quite literally a dehumanizing term. The almost universal acceptance by the GOP of use of the term “illegal immigrant” is another mechanism of delegitimizing Latinos.
Quite similar to our immigration laws, Congress signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, compelling law enforcement to arrest and detain anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. This law served to put any black person under an aura of suspicion, and it was constantly used against free blacks to detain them under suspicion of violating the law of being present in public when they had no legal right to be. Since black folks had no social standing, the inconvenience this presented to free blacks was not a concern, since without the status and privilege of whiteness, they had no claims to civility.
The immigration debate does much the same thing to Latinos in the US. When Jan Brewer issued her executive order reaffirming that undocumented immigrants had no right to access any state resources, she was reminding Latinos of their second-class status in the State of Arizona. Latinos are all under suspicion. And that’s the way the GOP likes it.
It’s the normalcy of whiteness that Touré should have criticized. It’s hard to say how intentional the GOP consultants are being in making these appeals and whether Romney is consciously participating in these cultural appeals. For now, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, its difficult to be conscious of the air we breathe.
Stephen A. Nuño, Ph.D., NBC Latino contributor and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. He is currently writing a book on Republican outreach into the Latino Community.