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 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.

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.

Needless to say, the cold war has ended. But its legacies have not. The re-emergence of "socialist" as an epithet amid this summer's healthcare debate has served as an expression of fear among far-right critics toward the idea of a bigger, more powerful, tax-heavy federal government. Yet this discourse has gone wonky when this term has been placed beside others that would, by any strict definition, appear incompatible. The Obama administration embraces socialism and fascism at once? Mao and Hitler as ideological comrades?

The response among progressives to such associations has ranged from silence to a shaking of heads to a sober litany of examples as to how federal and state governments already provide much-appreciated public services for the common good – public education, fire departments, Medicare, and so forth.

But this reaction is inadequate. It takes the cry of "socialism!" literally, whereas it should be read as representing a more complex set of political feelings. It fails to take full historical account of the xenophobic, hypernationalistic, and, yes, racist uses of this expression.

When Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, among other Southern politicians, voiced criticism of Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists, they did so not on racist grounds, but on anticommunist grounds – a more publicly acceptable stance given the cold war climate of the time. But in hindsight we can easily connect the dots, if there were any doubts about their shared sense of white racial entitlement.

Understanding this history also informs the present. The passion surrounding the expression "socialism" has less to do with the actual meaning of the word, than its associations with foreignness, anti-Americanism, and racial difference. If its reemergence and use sound antiquated and anachronistic, the motivations for its revival become clearer when placed in a context of latent white anxiety toward a black president. The "birther" movement and its concern over Mr. Obama's origins were but an earlier sign of these race-based, xenophobic sentiments held by some.

To his credit, Mr. Obama has sought to defuse the situation by stating that he believes the drive of his harshest critics is not racist in orientation, going so far as to distance himself from comments by former President Jimmy Carter that reinforced this perspective. But this quick resolution risks overlooking a historical pattern of how black leaders have been viewed and treated, and passing, yet again, on a more meaningful conversation about race in America.

Now that President Obama finds himself once more in the rare company of King and Mandela, albeit in the more auspicious setting of the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps he will embrace the political courage to address racism more thoroughly as a social issue as they did – beyond beverage socials and one-time campaign speeches.

The persistence of racism cannot be attributed alone to such blatant acts as a white cop unfairly arresting a black man. The intersection of Jim Crow and Joseph McCarthy needs to be better understood.

Christopher J. Lee is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he teaches courses on the history of race and racism.

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