The Right-Wing Backlash Against Advancing Minority Rights

Simon Maloy

By Simon Maloy

The past week has been a significant one for justice, fairness, and tolerance in American society. Issues of minority rights dominated the news and the legislative agenda as President Obama signed into the law the Pigford II and Cobell settlements, and Congress took up Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal and the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act, which opens paths to citizenship for undocumented minors, has already passed the House, but still awaits Senate action. It’s still unclear whether the votes are there for passage. DADT repeal was included in a defense authorization bill that failed to break through a Republican filibuster on what the New York Times editorial board called "[o]ne of the most shameful days in the modern history of the Senate."

Proponents of these bills are letting their passion show. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), who has been pushing the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform for years, sees parallels between those causes and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and has suggested there will be modern protests in the spirit of those led by Martin Luther King. Speaking on the Senate floor in favor of repealing DADT, which would allow gay service members to serve openly, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) choked up as he told the story of one of his USO tours and the warm reception he received after mocking the discriminatory policy.

Standing in the way of the legislative push for justice and equality is a conservative movement that bases its opposition on falsehoods and no longer cares to mask its racially divisive rhetoric. The dog whistles are being traded in for sousaphones.

Many in the conservative media are trying to block the DREAM Act by driving a wedge between Hispanics and white Americans. That, at least, is how Glenn Beck is doing it. "If you are white, or you’re an American citizen, or a white American citizen, you are pretty much toast," Beck observed, as he joked with a caller who sarcastically suggested he would need to pretend to be an "illegal alien" in order to qualify for in-state tuition for his MBA program. Rush Limbaugh theorized that the legislation was Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) way of "thanking Hispanics for stealing the election for him."

Elsewhere in the right-wing press, pundits are asking whether a bill aimed at assisting Hispanics will be a "nightmare for hard-working Americans," calling the bill "shamnesty," and raising the specter of criminality, calling it "reckless illegal alien amnesty" and that "incentivizes illegality." Fox News contributor Mike Gallagher even compared the beneficiaries of the bill to bank robbers.

This is a reflection of what the American Prospect‘s Adam Serwer pegged as "the widely held conservative view that minorities and whites in America are in a zero-sum competition for scarce resources." Essentially, if the government does something to benefit minorities, it must be at the expense of white people. It’s not true, of course, but that’s not the point — it’s all about capitalizing on racial resentment.

While we’re on the topic of racial resentment, let’s talk Pigford. The Pigford settlement will award $1.15 billion to African American farmers who were unfairly denied loans by the Department of Agriculture in the 1980s and 1990s. The farmers were found to have been discriminated against and are being compensated financially. But because the settlement involves federal money being paid to African Americans, the right-wing is calling it "reparations."

Actually, a policy need not exclusively benefit African Americans to earn the "reparations" tag. It only needs to be associated with Obama. Just look at the reprehensible behavior of Rush Limbaugh, for whom every Obama-endorsed policy — whether it be health care reformexpanded unemployment benefits, or his "entire economic program" — is some form of "reparations."

But it doesn’t matter that the farmers were discriminated against. It doesn’t matter that Pigford legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support going back to the days of Speaker Newt Gingrich. What matters is the perception — both utterly false and politically potent — that America’s first black president is implementing some form of punitive racial justice, to the benefit of African Americans and at the expense of whites.

Meanwhile, the fight over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has entered the realm of the surreal. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell persists despite the fact that the American public is overwhelmingly against the policy, and a major Pentagon report concluded that repealing DADT "would present only a low risk to the armed forces’ ability to carry out their missions." And though the measure remains in place after Thursday’s vote, a standalone bill to repeal it was introduced today. You’d be hard-pressed to find a less popular policy, or one recognized to be more ineffective.

Regardless, the right-wing media are defending DADT, going so far as to lie about the Pentagon’s review of the policy and falsely accuse the Department of Defense of purposefully acting against the wishes of active-duty soldiers. On Fox News, the push for repeal was mentioned in a segment asking whether the "media [has] a gay agenda." Tucker Carlson thinks DADT repeal is just a "stupid issue," and the Fox News morning hosts find the claim that people are being discharged based on their sexual orientation quite risible.

The right’s arguments against DADT repeal are part of a gay-bashing undercurrent that also leads them to blame the WikiLeaks scandal on gays and promoted "research" into how "homosexual behavior is harmful."

There’s an insidiousness to all this that goes beyond the ugliness on display, and to understand it you have to go back to last July, right after Glenn Beck accused the "racist" President Obama of harboring "a deep-seated hatred for white people." At the time, NBC News’ First Read responded to Beck’s rant by noting that "[t]here was a time when outrageous rants like this would actually cost the ranters their jobs. But not anymore; if anything, it’s now encouraged."

In the last two years, the racially divisive rhetoric coming out of the conservative media has grown more and more explicit. We now almost expect right-wing pundits to just come out and say that Obama is acting contrary to the interests of white people. When it happens, it’s barely noticed by the rest of the media.

While that doesn’t bode well for the future of journalism, it’s even more destructive for the minority groups that find themselves the targets of these attacks. The promise of America is that the rights of the minority and the rights of the majority are one and the same. The right-wing media’s destructive and discriminatory rhetoric is meant to ensure that that equality is never realized.