The conservative reaction to Barack Obama’s speech on the Zimmerman case was immediately hysterical, hyperbolic and all too predictable. Pundits on the right launched into quick attacks accusing Obama of promoting divisiveness and discord. The defenders of white privilege, who seem to believe racism is dead unless it is people of color attacking white people, doubled down on charges of “reverse racism” with clueless comments that could only come from people who are willfully ignorant of American history.
White victimhood has become the cause du jour for many on the political right and nowhere was it more evident than in a tweet from influential conservative blogger Dan Riehl who tweeted “If you ever had any doubts, Obama is the first Racist in Chief.” In the delusional white mind of Mr. Riehl no president in our history has ever been as racist as Mr. Obama whose apparent verbal hate crime is that he had the temerity to point out that 35 years ago he was a black teenager. Wow, has any President ever done anything so racist in the history of our nation? Well, actually yes. Worse even. Much worse.
Perhaps Mr. Riehl maybe has not heard of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk or Zachary Taylor. All eight of these men owned black slaves while they were President. However, in Riehl’s world maybe there is nothing racist about owning people as chattel property based on the color of their skin. Maybe Mr. Riehl is also oblivious to presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren forcibly removing 15,000 American Indians from their homes in the Trail of Tears.
In addition, Dan Riehl is no doubt unaware that Woodrow Wilson screened the pro Ku Klux Klan movie “Birth of the Nation” at the White House and gave it enthusiastic reviews. Two thumbs up from the then Racist in Chief. Maybe Dan also forgot that FDR signed an executive order to put Japanese Americans in internment camps. I suppose Mr. Riehl has been so isolated from access to historical documents that he also never heard Richard Nixon on tape spewing racist venom.
And let us not leave out Dan Riehl’s presidential hero, Ronald Reagan who stereotyped black “welfare queens” to rally aggrieved racist white voters to embrace his campaign. Prior to becoming President, Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, calling them “humiliating” to the South. According to Lisa Mcgirr, in the book Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, when Reagan campaigned for governor of California in 1966 he vowed to eliminate the state’s Fair Housing Act proclaiming that “if an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has a right to do so.”
In his run for president in 1980, Reagan visited a county fair in Neshoba, Mississippi, near where three civil rights workers had been murdered by members of the KKK in 1964, and in front of a cheering crowd of white folks declared: “I believe in states’ rights”. His choice of location and his words were no accident. While in the White House, Reagan’s justice department supported Bob Jones University in its case seeking federal funds for institutions even if they discriminated on the basis of race. In 1983, when the supreme court ruled against the University, Reagan responded by de-fanging the Civil Rights Commission.
Apparently Dan Riehl and many of his fellow white conservatives have never recognized the racism of past presidents because the racial animus has never been directed at pale-faced people like him. Yes, the founding fathers and the faces that grace Mr. Rushmore were racists. Sure they lived in different times, but this does not somehow magically erase the racist label from their complex personal histories, just because many of their contemporaries were racist as well. What Riehl perhaps does not understand is that when you are wrapped in a cocoon of white privilege maybe you fail to see that owning slaves, forcing people off of their land at gunpoint and putting people in internment camps because of their race is racist even though the people being victimized are not the same color as Mr. Riehl. Dan may think that Barack Obama is the first “Racist in Chief”, but it is only because he is incapable of comprehending the forty-three white presidents who preceded Barack Obama as racist because their form of racism is identical to his.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.