Using the Politics of Race Patriotism against President Obama

The term race patriotism is not one that is used directly in race-related conversations. Nevertheless, conservative politicians and their supporters have been using it indirectly against President Obama from early into his first term.  The way they do this is to say, “He does not love America,” “He does not share our values,” or “He is un-American.”

The latest reference to making President Obama “the other” or an outsider came from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.  Last Wednesday, at a private dinner to promote Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker’s presidential prospects, Mr. Giuliani made comments about the president that can be summed up as race patriotism.  This is what he said,

I do not believe—and I know this is a horrible thing to say—but I do not believe that the president loves America.  He doesn’t love you and he doesn’t love me.  He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

What exactly is race patriotism? A simple definition is loyalty to one’s race or an undying love of one’s race.  Based on this definition and Mr. Giuliani’s comments, President Obama does not have race patriotism for white culture because he is not white and therefore cannot be loyal or have undying love for the white race.

Race patriotism although not talked about like other race-related problems, helps make American whites a cohesive group.  During the Jim Crow era and during the-civil rights struggles of the 60s, whites who dared to step outside the boundaries of white society to support or show sympathy for blacks were denounced by being labeled as “Nigger lovers.”  This was a crude form of race patriotism in action.

The British Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour (1902-05) and foreign secretary (1916-19), was a conservative, and the first person to use the term race patriotism.  As foreign secretary, he was concerned about British Jews and their allegiance to Britain.  Jason Tomes in his book, Balfour and Foreign Policy, writes,

The concept of race patriotism loomed large in Balfour’s thinking.  Jews were as much subject to it as Anglo Saxons. In deference to the sensibilities of assimilated Jews in wartime, he heeded advice to refrain from drawing the distinction between race patriotism and State patriotism in public, but he believed it to exist.

For Balfour, race patriotism embodied the explanation given by Tomes as follows,

The patriotisms of a Gentile Englishman formed a congruent hierarchy – loyalty to England, to Britain, to the British Empire, to the Anglo-Saxon race, to Western civilisation, to humanity.

This is the same type of race patriotism that conservative politicians like Mr. Giuliani are using on President Obama.  When conservative politicians say that the president is not patriotic and does not love America, they are not talking about whether he genuinely loves America.  What they are talking about is that he is not white, and therefore he does not share their values. This is a cultural and racial comment and it is not new as it is part of the stereotypical view that African Americans are not patriotic because of their cultural and racial differences.

Mr. Giuliani’s race patriotism comments about the president seem hypocritical because he is a third generation Italian.  White Anglo-Saxon culture did not assimilate Italian immigrants back then.  They would have encountered ridicule and called WOPs (an acronym meaning without papers that alluded to some Italian immigrants not having the proper immigration document when they disembarked at Ellis Island).

I mentioned Mr. Giuliani’s immigrant grandparents and second generation parents because the negative treatment of Italian immigrants or people of Italian descent were common then.  It is possible he could have heard his parents or grandparents say things about America and white Anglo-Saxon society that were not complimentary.  If this is the case, then it seems Mr. Giuliani has conveniently forgotten history now that he is assimilated in the Anglo-Saxon culture.

In 1981, a young Polish coworker told me that he hated America.  I was somewhat surprised to hear a white person say such a thing.  Perhaps my surprise was because I was relatively new in the US and a little naïve about American racial and cultural issues.  It was not until later that I realized that the Polish immigrants like Italians, and, Irish endured ridicule and ethnic jokes, might have prompted my coworker to make his comments.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Giuliani and others who have connections to a cultural heritage that was once marginalized or ridiculed should raise race patriotism issues to the man who holds the highest office in the land.  Such behavior sends the wrong message to the world by telling them that America has not reconciled their racial past.

When Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, we did not see white South Africans treating him with blatant disrespect, demonizing him, and using racial innuendos against him, as they do here to President Obama.  Perhaps the difference here is that South Africa made a genuine attempt to reconcile their racial differences – The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

President Obama’s election as the first black President in 2008 raised the hopes of well thinking Americans and the world that America was coming to terms with racism and its racial past.  How ironic that the president who gave us this hope has become a lightning rod for the regression of some people to the past.  Unfortunately, conservative politicians and their supporters have not been able to transcend their negative racial mindset.