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Racist undertones of the 'socialist' epithet

With the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama joins the company of fellow laureates Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. But he already shares with them the more dubious distinction of being assailed as a socialist.

By Christopher J. Lee / October 16, 2009

Chapel Hill, N.C.

By most assessments, this summer's moment of racial anxiety and outcry – namely, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge police in July – came and went faster than it takes to empty a glass of beer.

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This was perhaps to be expected. Americans are famously reluctant to talk about race and racism, and the self-congratulatory remarks by Professor Gates, Sergeant James Crowley, and President Obama after the touted "beer summit" only appeared to reinforce this aversion.

Yet, as seen at various town hall meetings and the Tea Party rally in Washington Sept. 12, a deeper sign of racial tension has emerged with the reappearance of a different inflammatory expression: socialism.

In the context of American politics, socialism has seldom been about the economy or state power alone, despite its political-economic roots. Instead, it has been a slur, synonymous with the charge of communism, but with meaning extending beyond this term as well.

Black leaders in particular have faced this accusation. In 1964, amid the momentous occasion of congressional approval for the Civil Rights Act, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina declared its passage the result of "Negro agitators, spurred on by Communist enticements to promote racial strife."

Martin Luther King Jr. was not an exception to this allegation, but a direct target. Indeed, he faced immediate pressure to distance himself from close aide, intellectual mentor, and key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, who once had ties with the Communist Party.

Take another black leader, another society fraught by racial division. In 1956, Nelson Mandela and 155 other antiapartheid activists were arrested by the South African government under the infamous Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, a law that was used gratuitously to incarcerate anyone who was critical of the government.

The treason trial that followed resulted in a 1961 acquittal for all those involved, the government unable to prove any "socialist" intentions. But the political equation of black activists as "communists" would continue up through the 1980s.

The Reagan administration egregiously soft-pedaled the issue of apartheid on the basis of the South African government's purported anticommunist stance. Indeed, the South African government itself viewed its policies not as racist, but as anticommunist. Only popular pressure through a global antiapartheid movement persuaded the US to isolate South Africa.