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The Color of Socialism

Some interesting points here about the nature of the whole uproar about “socialism” among right wing rabble-rousers we keep seeing on the news. The main issue that needs to be recognized is that the whole uproar about “socialism” in American discourse is a profoundly racial matter:

As real socialists laugh at these clumsily made broadsides, and as scholars of actual socialist theory try and explain the absurdity of the analogies being drawn by conservative commentators, a key point seems to have been missed, and it is this point that best explains what the red-baiting is actually about.

It is not, and please make note of it, about socialism. Or capitalism. Or economics at all, per se. After all, President Bush was among the most profligate government spenders in recent memory, yet few ever referred to him in terms as derisive as those being hurled at Obama. Even when President Clinton proposed health care reform, those who opposed his efforts, though vociferous in their critique, rarely trotted out the dreaded s-word as part of their arsenal. They prattled on about “big government,” yes, but not socialism as such. Likewise, when Ronald Reagan helped craft the huge FICA tax hike in 1983, in a bipartisan attempt to save Social Security, few stalwart conservatives thought to call America’s cowboy-in-chief a closet communist. And many of the loudest voices at the recent town hall meetings — so many of which have been commandeered by angry minions ginned up by talk radio — are elderly folk whose own health care is government-provided, and whose first homes were purchased several decades ago with FHA and VA loans, underwritten by the government, for that matter. Many of them no doubt reaped the benefits of the GI Bill, either directly or indirectly through their own parents.

It is not, in other words, a simple belief in smaller government or lower taxes that animates the near-hysterical cries from the right about wanting “their country back,” from those who have presumably hijacked it: you know, those known lefties like Tim Geithner and Rahm Emanuel. No, what differentiates Obama from any of the other big spenders who have previously occupied the White House is principally one thing — his color. And it is his color that makes the bandying about of the “socialist” label especially effective and dangerous as a linguistic trope. Indeed, I would suggest that at the present moment, socialism is little more than racist code for the longstanding white fear that black folks will steal from them, and covet everything they have. The fact that the fear may now be of a black president, and not just some random black burglar hardly changes the fact that it is fear nonetheless: a deep, abiding suspicion that African American folk can’t wait to take whitey’s stuff, as payback, as reparations, as a way to balance the historic scales of injustice that have so long tilted in our favor. In short, the current round of red-baiting is based on implicit (and perhaps even explicit) appeals to white racial resentment.

Its actually quite an important point. The whole discussion of “socialism” and “captitalism” needs to be diagnosed as the racialized discourse that it is.


  1. This may have been subliminal before, but Glenn Beck has come right out and said it. He claims this isn’t about socialism but about reparations.

    Somehow buying GM is reparations.

    Somehow health insurance efficiency is reparations.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I saw that. Crazy racist nutcase.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  3. Hmm. I agree that calling health care reform “socialism” is silly at best, and I am even favourably inclined toward it. But I don’t know if I am convinced by this “racism” thesis.

    Although Clinton didn’t get called a socialist for similar thinking, a lot has happened since then. Over the past decade alone, the partisan divide is getting increasingly more and more sharp (hence Obama’s campaign platform of changing “party politics”).

    What would seem more convincing to me is that the “socialism” talk is yet another example of the extremism our partisan divide has come to.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  4. Jeremy wrote:

    I’m an Obama supporter and as annoyed as anyone about the right-wing smears on health insurance reform – but I don’t really buy this. I remember in the 90s how hysterical the right became over Clinton. I think it has to do more with anti-government paranoia than racism.

    I’m sorry my first comment here has to be in disagreement. :)

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  5. Bobby Grow wrote:

    This piece is nonsense. So now anytime anyone disagrees with Obama they are a racist, case closed . . . an unfalsifiable situation (win-win for Obama).

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    That’s quite the sensationalistic interpretation. Its talking about the volume and intensity of the anger that is being spewed at him in this particular case and asking why it was different for previous (white) presidents.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  7. Alex wrote:

    I’m not buying the racism theory either and I am unceasingly appalled at what Bush did to this country and voted for Obama. Though there is correlation there, I don’t see causation. I don’t think it’s anti-government paranoia either. Until January 20th, 2009, the right wing was the most vociferous supporter of the national security state and blind trust in government. It’s ultimately about power, not racism or any other kind of principle. People only grow principles when they’re not in power.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  8. james wrote:

    This is a stretch. Of course the writer makes a living off of racial analysis so no surprise. When all you have is a hammer….

    White liberals will eat it up of course because it fulfills the stereotypes they need of the right (low status whites = racists). But of course the right has been warning of the creeping growth of government for years. They didn’t use the wild rhetoric of ‘socialism’ as often because they were in control of either the presidency or the congress, so there was no fear of the slippery slope as each incremental growth of government occurred.

    For instance Republicans opposed the prescription drug benefit for years that the Democrats and perhaps the public demanded. So the Republicans when in power and feeling vulnerable on the issue passed their preferred version which amounted to a public-private partnership in order to stay in office. It wasn’t ideal, Republicans didn’t like it, but it was necessary. 1992-1994 represented another time when the right was completely out of power in Washington, and the same paranoid rhetoric about ‘socialized medicine’ was present at that time. The author is exercising selective memory here. I suppose the author would blame the right’s opposition on Bill being the ‘first black president’, but I think it is more a sign of how one acts when one is completely out of power in Washington.

    Similarly the left was near paranoid derangement in 2002-2006 when they were out of control (burning effigies of Chimpy McHitlerburton). Do you want to go back and read the ‘fascism’ book titles, conspiratorial nonsense, and blog hysteria. Bush’s Social Security reform was prevented by the left with similar ‘privatization’ scare rhetoric used to frighten current seniors from supporting the legislation. True libertarians would likewise have laughed at the so-called ‘privatization’ of forced, partial-privatized, government-matched saving. I suppose if Colin Powell had accepted the nomination as VP the right could have written off all criticism as coded racism.

    The right has accomodated itself to the socialized safety net of the New Deal economy, (but notice they did dismantle the welfare state and made a white Democrat president do it). Government creep(not what is proposed but what is the end goal) into health care however is generally accompanied by permanent high unemployment and lower growth of the social democracies of Europe. It also changes the relationship of the people to the government. Nanny states and all that. It threatens the dynamic individualism of America. When the right says ‘socialism’ they aren’t talking about academic jargon they are referring to the old Soviet system or now the sluggish European economy. This is why they coopt the ‘patriotism’ rhetoric too. It’s an argument about national, not racial, identity.

    And of course, the perceived birth certificate ambiguity doesn’t help matters when national identity is in limbo, but that one gets lumped in the racism box too. If there is any racial angle to any of this it would be an intra-white squabble between the Scots-Irish and the coastal whites over how comfortable we are with how the continental whites live. Miller Lite vs. Merlot.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  9. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I know what it is “trying” to do, “spin” has been around since the “Fall.” It is highly reductionistic and sensational to say that this is all about “color.” The fact that Obama DOES or DID have ties to socialist agendas (ACORN) is no secret; and this has nothing to do with color.

    Btw, I don’t agree with those in the “right-wing” who would use the “race-card;” nor for that matter with those on the “other-side.” It is diversionary IMO (for both).

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  10. robert wrote:

    Not buying it. Mr. Wise has apparently not exposed himself to much right-wing nuttery in recent years. The current “socialist” rhetoric is different from what preceded Obama’s presidency only in that it’s not being ignored by the rest of the country. The craziness has not increased, it’s only inserted itself more forcefully into the wider conversation.

    “It is not, in other words, a simple belief in smaller government or lower taxes that animates the near-hysterical cries from the right about wanting ‘their country back’”

    Duh. It’s certainly about the Other, but that Other is not a black man (lefty use of “racist” is as sloppy and irresponsible as the right’s use of “socialist” — the words have meanings, folks, and they’re not “doodie head”).

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    This guy is simply asserting that socialist is code for black. There isn’t a single bit of compelling analysis about why this is the case other than the fact that Obama is black and being called a socialist. There may be something to it, but I remain unconvinced by the excerpt provided.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    An example of spin: “So now anytime anyone disagrees with Obama they are a racist, case closed . . . an unfalsifiable situation.”

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    I’ll grant that the case is somewhat overstated.

    I do think, though that “socialist” does have a distinctly non-white (or at least non-Western European) connotation, as the article points out. All the socialist countries in the world are non-white. They are the Asiatic “other” that threatens to destroy our way of life. And the fact that Obama’s American status has been constantly called into question with piles of wild conspiracy theories seems to fall in line with this.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  14. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Two negatives=a positive.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  15. james wrote:

    Except when Americans say socialist we generally mean France (as proxy for Europe). Americans don’t worry about becoming China, but France.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  16. dave wrote:

    It’s plainly clear that some of the vitriol spewed at Obama is rooted in hatred and sometimes racism. The charge that the label socialist is just a cover is obviously what’s most interesting here, and while I don’t agree that it’s as simple as that, the person has a point. Another thing that is plainly clear is that the people throwing the word socialist around are clueless, which indicates to me that the word, devoid of any understandable context, has got to be standing in for other fears and worries. To that extent I don’t agree with those expressing reservations here – it’s more than plausible that one of these fears is a racist attitude that hasn’t gone away in the contemporary climate. I’m not arguing that it’s always the case, but it seems obvious that it’s a factor.

    Another interesting point is that Obama really isn’t that much different than Bush. This holds true outside of these so-called economic concerns that relate to his socialism. In foreign policy, for instance, there’s been almost no recognizable shift.

    I think it’s probably more accurate to pin this one on the general reactionary attitude of the majority of Americans. A similar attitude is on display with this whole shitstorm over Guantanamo Bay and the bandying about of the word “terrorist” in a discourse that belongs more at the end of the seventeenth century than the beginning of the twenty-first.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there’s something philosophically deeper going on here than a racist attitude, although thinly veiled racism is all over the place, as evidenced by Glenn Beck’s alleged comments (I say alleged just in case he never said it, not because I don’t believe whoever posted that. I don’t really make it a point to watch any cable news).

    PS, I like the new look more than the last one, Halden. I’m worried that the dropdown comments might become an issue when there are a ton of comments, but so far they seem pretty functional.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  17. Theophilus wrote:

    Bingo. The scary “other” countries that the “anti-socialists” talk about are primarily Canada and Great Britain, at least in terms of health care, and France in terms of just about everything else, with a dose of derision for the Nordic/Scandinavian countries thrown in. Those are, in the popular imagination at least, white countries.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    I kinda don’t think people look at Obama and think French, though. Just saying.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  19. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Accusations of racism are a non-starter in public discourse in America. It’s right up there with comparing something with Nazism or Hitler.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  20. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Good one, Nathan!

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Are you joking here?

    Sure just yelling “racist” is a bad idea, but racism a reality that’s very much a part of present-day America. Its absolutely nothing like Nazism, a horrific relic from the past that we have no tangible connection to.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  22. This is exactly on target: it’s Canada and the UK that are always under discussion.

    As one commenter noted above, the author makes a living analyzing racial issues. This article is reductionistic at best, and completely ignorant at worst.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  23. Bobby Grow wrote:

    How do you work at disentangling yourself, Halden, from racist tendencies? I’m sure the Gospel has something to do with that . . .

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    I don’t understand what bearing that question has on this discussion.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  25. Damn, this brought out the wingnuts. You’re right, by the way, and it is clear from people worrying about America not being the America they grew up in that some of this is rooted in race, though that also means class. Anyone saying otherwise probably doesn’t get race in America.

    I love my health care in the UK. I’ll miss it when I’m back in the US and at the mercy of our shitty insurance again.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  26. Theophilus wrote:

    Funny, the new system won’t give a reply button to Halden’s comment below this one.

    …People may not see France/Britain/Canada in Obama, but they think they see those countries in the health care proposals. (Obamacare would be considered outrageously right-wing and business-friendly in any of those countries, but still.) So reaching the conclusion that the opposition is fundamentally racist requires the assumption that the “anti-socialists” deal solely in racial identity politics, and are too stupid to actually think about actual policies and proposals, but clever enough to unanimously choose to target other white countries as examples of the problem that they are too stupid to actually think about. I don’t buy it. If racism is at the root, they should be attacking Cuba’s universal health care, not Canada’s.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  27. Halden wrote:

    Comment threading only goes down 4 levels I think. So it goes.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  28. Cortney wrote:

    Well first I do kind of agree with Hill. However the point is that we have people of all color in our country that are sick, needlessly suffering and even dying merely because they’re unable to afford health-care. According to the U.S. Census Bureau something like 46 million Americans under the age 65 were without health insurance in 2007 and the beginning of 2008. One study estimated that the number of preventable deaths among uninsured adults ages 25-64 was about 22,000 in one year. Then we have rich middle class white people slandering and attaching our black president for attempting to provide for the uninsured (85% of registered Republicans are white). So I’d say there’s definitely an undeniable connection. References for facts can be found on

    Second if one thinks that racism isn’t alive and kicking in our country then they need to get out of their white suburban neighborhood and/or at least watch the movie Crash.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  29. Nathan Smith wrote:

    It was joke in that some conservatives are currently comparing Obama’s domestic agenda to Nazism. My point is simply that racism is among a catalog of accusations (another of which is Nazism) which are almost certain to destroy a conversation.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink
  30. Halden wrote:

    Ok, good. Sorry for my obtuseness.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  31. Hill wrote:

    I’m just not sure I buy the racial component. It definitely means non-white American, but if socialist is associated with anything, it is with France. Making the case that socialism is readily associated with being African-American in any sense in the American consciousness seems really tenuous. If anything it is Barack Obama’s “whiteness” that is being attacked, since it is more of a cosmopolitan, European flavor.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  32. Hill wrote:

    It’s not that there isn’t some kind of point to be made here. It’s just that the point is being made in a really shitty and unconvincing way. I was more motivated to comment by the fact that I think a functionally equivalent argument can be made in a much more convincing way.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  33. Halden wrote:

    Ok, that’s fine. But isn’t attacking his “whiteness”, well, racist? At least in some sense I think it has to be.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  34. Hill wrote:

    Sure… I’m not denying the racial component, but this guy really is just shouting “racist” with no real critical analysis whatsoever. He’s making the claim that people think feel comfortable to call Obama socialist because he’s black. He is literally making this argument: “Obama is the only black president, so anything critical that is said about him that hasn’t been said about other presidents is a function of his blackness.” This is stupid.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  35. james wrote:

    It’s whites on whites rhetorical violence though. Suburban American vs. coastal/urban American. “My country right or wrong, France can’t teach us shit” vs. the “ , oh my god France is laughing at us” set. Different ways of being white.

    The right sees the left as unpatriotic in their cosmopolitan detachment to national identity. The left sees the right as racist for its nostalgic commitment to traditional America. Neither charge is true, just barbs thrown in a whitey status war. The left doesn’t hate America they just are embarrassed by the suburban/rural whites and want them to disappear so they don’t have to go visit at Thanksgiving and listen to them rant. Similarly, the suburban/rural whites don’t hate ‘blacks’ just the urban whites. They suspect that if invaded before defending the country, the coastals will run a cost-benefit analysis of the invaders pending health care policies.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  36. First, I really, really hate comment threading.

    Second, fair enough I suppose. One could begin to do so, first, by saying that the socialism most of these people are scared of is the kind that provides for poor people. The worry being that if poor people are able to get the same kind of care as “white me” then the quality of my care will go down. In America this poor is popularly thought to be colored poor, whether that be black and brown or “white trash”, a kind of discolored white. Would that be an ok start to such an argument? I do see a problem in your thinking that these folks are being consistent, so, yeah they may think “Fucking French!” but they are also thinking along racial lines too. Part of what makes the rhetoric coming out of FOX News and these town hall wingnuts so frightening, to me at least, is the seeming lack of any semblance of sound thinking. It is pure anger and fear, which of course has its own kind of reason, but it isn’t the kind of reason one can sit down with – at least not in a mob.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 5:36 pm | Permalink
  38. Halden wrote:

    Further to this:

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  39. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Nothing . . . just the race point, nevermind, carry on.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:09 am | Permalink
  40. dave wrote:

    I think you’ve got it spot on with the lack of any semblance of sound thinking. It’s a headache to even try to follow any of the stuff because there’s no internal consistency to anything.

    The link you posted below is pretty telling. It might be argued that these kinds of letters represent the extreme. I don’t disagree, really, but I would argue that the ones who send the letters are merely the vocal, provocative members of a fairly substantial group. Among this group, generally speaking, I think it’s pretty accurate to enter into a discussion about the veiled racial discourse.

    What I have to support my claims is a general experience with conservative (both religious and political) people. If I need to, I can try to dig up some unfortunate emails. I’m twice removed from some pretty ass-backwards email hate circles – my dad regular receives emails from my grandmother and one of my good friends regularly receives emails from a friend from high school who is now in the military. I wish I had to describe the emails for clarification, but I’m pretty sure most have been subject to one of these devoid-of-thought abominations at one time or another.

    I’m not intending to trash on all conservatives here, because I know a number of conservatives and even had one as a kind of mentor who could not be forced into this category. But I think it is a fair criticism to say that this whole racialized discourse fits with a certain kind of conservative rabble-rouser.

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 1:41 am | Permalink
  41. Lee wrote:

    The premise of the linked piece is just flat-out wrong: accuastions of socialism have been a staple of right-wing rhetoric going back to the New Deal. Not to say there hasn’t also been a racial component (opposition to civil rights laws, “welfare queens,” etc.), but this is hardly some new phenomenon. The basic right-wing narrative has always been that any movement toward a welfare state, mixed economy, etc. is a step down the slippery slope to socialism (or sometimes communism).

    Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink

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