How the Cow Ate the Cabbage*
By Charles Cinque Fulwood
“You start out in 1954 saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger’. By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’---that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.----Lee Atwater, Republican Strategist
My granddaddy always did look like he was somebody. Regal and impeccable in speech and presence, the men anointed him a “gentlemen and a scholar.” To the women, he was a “pretty man.” He bought 500 acres of land in 1917, farmed abundant crops of tobacco, cotton, rice, and soybeans, and with his wife Leila, raised eight children. He was respected as a standard bearer of the community, an upright, foot-stomping Elder in the AME church. But in old ugly South Carolina, home of the late Strom Thurmond and Lee Atwater, all of that counted for naught.
When granddaddy left town on the glory train in his 90s, he had never cast a vote in any election. The segregationists of that era had blocked the door to the voting booth to granddaddy and his contemporaries, with a vow that the wall would stand against ascendant generations as well. Strom Thurmond symbolized this obstruction when he waged the longest filibuster ever conducted by a single U.S. Senator, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an attempt to derail the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
The segregationist scheme was designed to sustain a permanent state of black servitude, paralyzing African Americans in a state of powerlessness, subject to the caprice of a twisted Apartheid democracy. That was a long time ago. But not that long ago.
Morning in America
This same premeditated spirit of 1957 intent upon disenfranchising black voters has been refreshened for the 21st century. That dreaded ghost of the past speaks in a new coded language, new frames for old messages, and with a new generation of James and Jane Crows, Esquire.
A high-tech synergy has emerged with a new political lexicon, a mainstream media that acts as an echo chamber for right-wing propaganda, and a Über Republican strategy for voter suppression.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan kicked off his general campaign for president of the United States in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the crime scene of the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, declaring at the annual county fair, "I believe in states’ rights.” The crowd roared with approval. Every shuteye ain’t asleep, and anyone with a functioning brain knew precisely what Reagan meant. This transparent signal was unmistakable in its meaning to African Americans, to “conservative” Southern whites, to anti-Great Society business elites, and to the congenital racists of the KKK.
Richard Nixon had engineered the Southern Strategy years earlier in a more sophisticated but no less obvious shell game, but Reagan’s choice of venue signaled an explicit appeal to racism, a discarding of any pretense of support for civil rights and democracy for African Americans. Indeed, the stage was set for a new era of in-your-face attempts to discredit the very legitimacy of black grievance, the very idea of black political power, the very legality of enabling, counting and respecting every vote.
After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson was prophetic when he remarked to an aide, “We have just lost the South for a generation.” But Johnson’s prediction missed the fact that following his defeat of Barry Goldwater, the right-wing in the Republican and Democratic parties had already gone to the mattresses to plot a strategy for “re-alignment.”
The conservative mission was to develop a new narrative and intellectual frame for old goals, to create the strategy, institutions, infrastructure, operatives, and message to strangle the pace of social change---indeed, to reverse it.
News flash: The civil rights movement was the modern nexus and brand of social change. Logically it would be the bull’s-eye for right-wing attacks, a stand-in for every increment of social change, not just for blacks but also for others in America as well.
Corporate tycoons and right-wing philanthropists opened their checkbooks, funneling a steady stream of money to create research institutes, magazines, radio stations, campaign training schools, think tanks, communications centers, religious institutions, endowments for academics, and grants to journalists and freelance writers.
Scholarship grants and stipends were established for college students to attend conferences and training events, along with internships in various institutions and companies. Mentors kept track of emerging young stars, guiding them to opportunities, grooming them for bigger leadership roles.
Market and focus group research was launched to inform media messages, identify trigger points and hot button issues of white voters---both loyal Republicans and disgruntled Democrats---and to re-frame the terms of political discourse.
The long-range goal was not only to discredit the notion of equal opportunity and an equitable society for African Americans and others, but also to ultimately dismantle the New Deal and its detested offsprings.
The ultimate conservative dream was to restore the Gilded Age when corporations were virtually unregulated and excess of wealth, greed, and predatory financial practices were celebrated as the magic of productivity and free enterprise. Ordinary people would be on their own. And certainly African Americans and other people of color would be marginalized if not rendered invisible---but for the few slave cabin Republicans willing to act as media surrogates, sock puppets, and hood ornaments for a brand so abhorrent to African Americans, some semblance of cover was necessary. True to both their cultural incompetence and contempt for African Americans, this effort to give a black face to this pernicious racism was recognized as a grotesque sham—except for the mainstream media, which eagerly furnished a platform for black Republicans lip-syncing right-wing gibberish.
Out of this decades-long incubation and scheming emerged a specious language of reverse discrimination, preferential treatment, protected classes, identity politics, civil rights hustlers, tax-and-spend liberals, big government, victimhood, color blind society, school choice, faith-base initiatives, the opportunity society, and other Orwellian phrases that turned the national discourse on racial injustice upside down.
Affirmative action and liberal became dirty words. One right-wing author brazenly wrote a book with the title, The End of Racism, and declared it so. Declarations also proliferated that America was now in a “post-Civil Rights era.” Even Dr. King’s quote about the primacy of the content of character over the color of skin was reduced to a disingenuous talking point, ignoring his warning about the bad check that America had written to African Americans. Even more egregious, the new right-wing lexicon facilitated an audacious attack on African Americans, claiming with a straight-face---indeed, with a bold sense of self-righteous arrogance---that the inequities endured by African Americans could not be blamed on discrimination and racism, but rather on the pathologies of black culture, and its alleged lack of a strong work ethic and traditional family values.
When veteran civil rights leaders demolished these propaganda messages, conservatives smeared them with outlandish charges of opportunism: that traditional civil rights leadership only wanted black people to adopt and nurture a victims’ mentality. If African Americans asserted grievance, the narrative went, it was not a legitimate right of democracy, but rather another pathetic and opportunistic plea for victimhood. After all, if there are no real victims, there are no real victimizers, and thus no accountability for injustice.
Further, conservative propaganda advocated a notion that the post-civil rights era characterized Sell-By-This-Date black leaders as irrelevant, out of touch with a new and changed society. When these attacks failed to gain traction among African Americans and others, progressive African American leaders were disappeared from the television screens of news and talk shows, newspapers, magazines, and radio.
Almost overnight, a cottage industry of obscure black surrogates replaced them, vigorously defending a perverse and sinister Republican message, eagerly attacking traditional civil rights leadership and institutions. As the old people use to say, “They were talking all out they heads.”
Indeed, these absurd attacks were made on the overwhelming body of African American public opinion and values, a frontal assault on the credibility and basic standing of African Americans in the nation.
Fruit of the Poison Tree
The macr0 result of this 30-year propaganda campaign has been a seismic shift in public opinion, voter attitudes, media content, elections, and government policy. Attitudes on race and government once hidden in the dark corners of American society have now sprouted like kudzu in the daylight of mainstream public discourse. In fact, they are enshrined in current public policy.
From public education to health care to social security to criminal justice to voting rights to equal representation, government policy has institutionalized the attempt to discredit the reality of past and current discrimination, to arbitrarily dismiss deliberately created racial disparities in every facet of American life as mere exaggerations.
That is to say the entire society, including the elite powers of the Democratic Party, has been pushed farther to the right. As an example, issues related to the urban centers of this country, where 80% of the population lives, have received scant mention in Republican or Democratic debates. Even Democratic centrists are fond of speaking of “third way” politics, moving on, and the so-called post-civil rights era.
You Never Call
Despite the fact that African Americans are the most loyal constituency for the Democratic Party, black voters are not only taken for granted, their interests are treated as political liabilities. At the risk of overstatement, it often seems that black people themselves are marginalized as liabilities. Hush up. Sit down. Be still. Make yourself scarce. (Take care of you later.)
Both Republican and Democratic parties frame black voter interests pejoratively as “special interests, ” as if only other sectors and voter segments reflect authentic common interests.
Yet, the equivocating Democrats are symptom carriers of a larger disease. The Republican Party---the new Dixiecrats---and its phalanx of anti-democracy, right-wing extremists are strategic and highly effective in their use of power. Compromise is greeted as a mortal enemy by their vision of a pre-civil rights, pre-voting rights, pre-New Deal, pre-Great Society America. Worse, the efficiency of their machine and messaging, along with the deep complicity of mainstream media, has had a viral effect on the body politic.
Fog of Media
The ugly litany of voter suppression and a stolen election were witnessed by the world in 2000, when systematic chicanery resulted in disenfranchising thousands of African Americans in Florida, as well in other parts of the country. That George W. Bush was handed the presidency by the U.S. Supreme Court in the aftermath of this spectacle has been relegated to a mere footnote in media reporting and commentary.
Despite overwhelming public evidence of a calculated strategy to disenfranchise black voters, mainstream media has responded with a landfill of distortion, covering the story as if it were merely a rowdy, contested football game.
In 20o4, black voters in Ohio were subjected to a systematic campaign of dirty tricks and disenfranchisement, suppressing some 350,000 votes. Again, the media failed its public responsibility and moved on to celebrate the “brilliance” of Karl Rove and the “undisputed legitimacy” of Bush’s re-election.
Like chickens running toward thrown chicken feed, mainstream media enthusiastically reported right-wing distortions, dispensing with legitimate charges and evidence of intimidation, obstruction, fraud, and other voter suppression tactics, cooing over Bush’s post-election boast: “I’ve earned the political capital, and I now intend to spend it.” Move along people, nothing to see here.
The colossal failure of mainstream media to report accurately, to adhere to professional ethics of journalism, to fulfill its responsibilities to the public, to investigate credible charges, gave a cowardly and corrupt pass to the Republican machine.
To be sure, the historic achievements of the Republican Party and its allies could not have been nearly as effective without mainstream media’s complicity. With its daily panels of exquisite liars, too often it is barely possible to distinguish a media reporter or commentator from a Republican Party or White House official, or right-wing pundit.
In this toxic climate, it is no wonder that the Bush Department of Justice publicly declared that its emphasis is no longer on enforcement of voting rights, but rather on the fiction of black voter fraud. It is no wonder that Georgia Republicans would attempt to erect the anti-democratic tool of Voter IDs, a throwback to the old Apartheid days of poll taxes. And again, mainstream media reported these stories as matters of fact, without context or balance, dominated by Republican and conservative sources. Reporting and commentary were framed as “politics as usual,” a routine ritual of Democrats fighting Republicans. Crying wolf and sour grapes.
Taxation Without Representation Redux
This past September, Washington, D.C. residents, a majority black population, were near winning the battle to get a voting member of Congress to represent them, a goal pursued for decades.
The House had approved the bill, and 57 Senators favored it as well. The Republicans, however, obstructed a pivotal motion from receiving 60 votes required to pass the Senate, which killed the bill. Beyond local Washington, D.C. media, the story was hardly covered, as if it was unworthy of significant comment, of no news value.
As if this insult was not enough, the major Republican candidates for president snubbed the long-scheduled, nationally televised debate at Morgan State, created to focus on issues vital to African Americans and other people of color. Again, the media pack raced pass the fact of this contemptuous affront to black voters, framing the story with Republican wedge talking points that since “Blacks don’t vote Republican anyway, why should the candidates attend.”
As a minority political party, a part of the Republican playbook for winning elections is to feed the political catnip of fear and racism to their base (which apparently is the winning technique to get otherwise intelligent people to vote against their own economic interests), wage campaigns of extreme negativity to drive "moderates" from the polls in disgust, and launch stealth voter suppression and disinformation schemes in African American precincts. That the Republicans may lose a substantial portion of the Hispanic vote in 2008, due to its crude and racist attacks on immigrants, is likely to intensify the drive to disenfranchise Hispanics as well as African American voters.
Truth or Consequences
At this point, media coverage of the presidential campaign resembles a pantomime, candidates going through the motions with their stump speeches and sound bites, scoring points to distinguish themselves from their opponents, making the obligatory, repetitious appearances, feeding the media with its daily meal of bites and bumper sticker slogans.
The presidential debates have been covered like game shows (All in favor of God Bless America, raise your hand.) Media obsession with tactics, trivia, the campaign as a horse race, coupled with its cookie cutter formats, prevents meaningful debate of public policy that have real impact on ordinary people, especially those that harbor disproportionate consequences for African Americans. But after Iowa and New Hampshire, where mention of discrimination and inequities has been virtually silent (except the immigrant issue and its subtext of color), the issue of race will invariably surface.
The Great Palmetto State
The stop in the South Carolina forecasts an intense battleground for the black vote among the Democrats. The Clinton and Obama contest promises to be particularly fierce. Inevitably, we can expect marathon campaign journeys on the black church circuit, candidate preaching, gospel choirs, and the high holy.
South Carolina, the home of Bob Jones University and a strong conservative base that loves Jesus more than you, will offer Republicans a big platform for protecting the Homeland, a more “muscular” foreign policy, family values, a sanctification of torture, America as a Christian nation, and the Confederate flag. No doubt, immigration will have a ubiquitous and loud presence. And shadowy push polling that spread the 2004 lie that John McCain had fathered “an illegitimate black child ” as if that alone would disqualify him for the presidency. (What would Strom Thurmond do?)
Wish for a Perfect Storm
If the media’s conduct in 2000 and 2004 is any indicator for the future, we should expect the worse, and prepare to challenge it at the local, state, and national levels.
The astonishing success of the mobilization to Jena was accomplished by the use of the Internet and to some degree, black radio. Mainstream media had ignored the Jena story for months. CNN and others joined the bandwagon virtually at the last minute.
Mainstream media should be held accountable for biased and false coverage through demands for editorial board meetings, letters to the editor, guest opinion editorials, media briefings, rapid response to reporters via email, monitoring coverage patterns, and contact with its advertisers.
We have a powerful technological tool in the Internet. We should use it for the goal of strategic communications and getting our message out to target audiences and the mainstream media as well. We are a long way from mimeograph machines and passing out leaflets. We can reach thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people in real-time through email, electronic bulletin boards, networks, workgroups, conference call coalitions, blogs, websites, and links to other electronic information and news sources.
A Cloud Coming Up
Before Lee Atwater left town, he apologized from his sickbed for the racist tactics he modernized and perfected. However, there has been no such remorse expressed in word or deed by the Republican Party, its minions, or the operatives and candidates he trained and mentored.
Lee Atwater is dead and gone, but his legacy is alive and very well. Atwater’s strategic model of synergy between voter suppression, fraudulent messaging, and the use of racism as a political tool for winning elections is the brand of the Republican Party.
That the Republican Party and its right-wing mimes have become virtual ventriloquists for mainstream media is something for which Atwater could have only dream. But now it’s our nightmare.
Our parents and grandparents and generations of ancestors endured far worse nightmares. The flat earthers and carnival barkers for slavery, lynchings, segregation, discrimination, and the Good Ole Days of the Gilded Age have always been around, re-inventing themselves each generation.
To be sure, there is no yellow brick road, but legions of flying monkeys plague the path ahead. We have been here before, yet we have also prevailed before.
We must now, again, take the challenge to those that are determined to turn back the clock not only on us, but our children, grandchildren, and generations unborn. We are compelled to move forward, and not one step backwards.
And that’s just how the cow ate the cabbage. See ya’ll in the streets!
*An expression to indicate the speaker is being blunt and straightforward. The expression has its roots in a story about an elephant that escaped from the zoo and wandered into a woman's cabbage patch. The woman observed the elephant pulling up her cabbages with its trunk and eating them. She called the police to report that there was a cow in her cabbage patch pulling up cabbages with its tail. When the surprised police officer inquired as to what the cow was doing with the cabbages, the woman replied, 'You wouldn't believe me if I told you!'"