(The Root) — They know we can't prove it. We can deduce and infer from their actions, statements and policies. But we can't confirm that congressional Republicans, a bloc of nearly unbroken whiteness, and their media hatchet people are stealthily deploying race — blackness — to obstruct President Barack Obama at every turn.
But obstructionists seldom give us concrete, irrefutable proof of gutbucket prejudice. When we think we have them cold, they'll use the I'm-rubber-you're-glue strategy. You're playing the race card, they'll say. In fact, you're the racists for bringing it up. It's the "nyah, nyah, nyah" of savvy — or at least well-trained — political machinists. These are men and women who have studied the playbook for Republican race-baiting drafted by party strategist and consigliere Lee Atwater.
"By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you. Backfires," said Atwater in 1981, quoted years later by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. "So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff."
Right-wing pols continually update the Atwater script. During the president's first term and the campaign that preceded it, Barack Obama was cast as a Kenyan, Muslim, socialist, Nazi witch doctor. Tea Partiers, Birthers and Republican backbenchers were the nasty tip of the spear of a full-on assault, but the big boys pitched in, too, usually in ways that kept them from getting hit by shrapnel from the vilest attacks.
Chris Matthews called out congressional Republicans on air, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2012, for what he deemed thinly veiled racism. Specifically, he cited Oklahoma's Tom Coburn's accusation that "unlawful acts" and "incompetence" by the administration came "perilously close" to "high crimes and misdemeanors" and would warrant the impeachment of the president.
"They never say their problem with Obama is that he is black, but look at the pattern," Matthews said to an incredulous co-anchor. "The pattern is rejection of his legitimacy at the first point, saying he is not really here legally."
This wasn't a one-off. In a different segment, Matthews hammered Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus for Mitt Romney's campaign quip, "No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate." But he also took him to task for the candidate's substantive statements, like saying that Obama had "a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements," which wasn't true.
"You are playing that little ethnic card there," said Matthews to a momentarily abashed Priebus. "You can play your games and giggle about it, but the fact is, your side is playing that card. When you start talking about work requirements, we know what game you're playing."
Powerful stuff, which hit a wall of deflections and pooh-poohing from the other members of the all-white MSNBC panel. Google this event to see the national s—tstorm of denial that followed Matthew's comments.
Moments like these offer black folks a dash of vindication. But in a society that doesn't want to acknowledge the obvious — the persistence of racism — and is wedded to its own myths of egalitarianism, they don't really change much.
On specific issues, congressional Republican obstructers will say things like, We have policy differences with the president. These are matters of principle. That's why we fight the president on damn near everything: health care, nominations, Libya, income-assistance programs, gun control, the debt limit and budget; that's why we're on the brink of shutting down the Federal government.
And yet House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, et al., will pretzel-ize themselves into the oddest, most contradictory and self-denying positions just to be anti-Obama. They loved corporate tax cuts until the president, previously a socialist income redistributor, agreed to them. Instantly, such cuts were the work of Wall Street's lapdog-in-chief.
House Republicans pulled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) out of its customary place in the Farm Bill so they could kill it. A simple policy difference?
Killing SNAP — rather, replacing it with a plan from Cantor that would increase work requirements irrespective of local unemployment levels — isn't sound economic policy if one believes the Department of Agriculture. SNAP, says the USDA, "provides assistance to more low-income households during an economic downturn or recession and to fewer households during an economic expansion. The rise in SNAP participation during an economic downturn results in greater SNAP expenditures, which, in turn, stimulate the economy."
Isn't that what Republicans say they're all about — economic growth? Interestingly, 15 Republicans defected from the fold on Cantor's plan. "I just felt the cuts were a little too steep, especially because right now, I have a lot of Sandy victims who have never been on assistance ever in their life," New York Rep. Michael Grimm told The Hill. "And a lot of these hardworking families have lost everything, and for the first time, they're needing food stamps. So I didn't want to affect those Sandy victims."
Before Sandy — and the genuine distress of the citizens of his district, Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn — Grimm didn't think income assistance was such a great idea. He supported Paul Ryan's budget plan that would have slashed Medicare benefits, welfare and food stamps. A whole lot of "hardworking" people would have been hobbled by Ryan's plan.
But here again is our helpful guide, history. Republicans have successfully linked income-assistance programs to the duskier "special interests" folks Ronald Reagan called "welfare queens." More recently, Newt Gingrich labeled Obama "the food stamp president."
From Capitol Hill obstruction to public finger-wagging (see Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer), the campaign to diminish, neuter, humiliate and defeat the nation's first African-American president is but one battle in the larger war to preserve the last vestiges of white power and privilege in the face of a browning America. In other words, this is existential, strategic opposition with a profound racial component.
"Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards," Attorney General Eric Holder remarked with rather surprising candor at an African-American history event in 2009. His prescription for change: more candid talk about race.
I take issue with Holder's national sweep, but I agree with the spirit of his comment.
For us to get beyond race, we — and by "we," I mean people who are consistently targeted by this white power bloc — need to name race. And not just ours, but theirs, too.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote to John McCain.
Brian Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.