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Thu Jan 25 14:15:15 MST 2001
The San Francisco Bay Guardian January 23, 2001
The Triumph of Neoracism: What John Ashcroft Learned from David Duke
by Martin A. Lee
A specter is haunting America - the specter of neoracism. Don't be fooled
by the president's roster of cabinet choices. Yes, he has appointed a
diverse group of blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and women, along with
six white male nominees who are not, by themselves, a majority.
Does this prove that Boy George really is a broad-minded fellow? I don't
If Bush's cabinet selections tell us anything, it's that racial politics
has gotten a lot more complicated lately. Civil rights advocates have been
put on the defensive by a new breed of right- wing radicals who are adept
at disguising old hatreds with deceptive rhetoric.
Utilizing the seductive verbiage of neoracism, smooth-talking zealots have
learned to camouflage their ideology and mainstream their message. Within
these circles, crude racialist formulations are downplayed as a first step
toward articulating a less abrasive political discourse, one that
emphasizes "heritage" and "cultural differences" rather than genetics or
While some contemporary enthusiasts for white supremacy still prefer to
dress up and parade around in uniforms, such obvious displays of racism are
eschewed by the more sophisticated fanatics who realize that it's best not
to advertise their allegiance to the creed.
John Ashcroft, our mild-mannered attorney general-designate, swears he's
not a racist. "I believe racism is wrong. I repudiate racist organizations
... I reject them," Ashcroft proclaimed at his confirmation hearings.
Black Americans, along with many others, are not overly impressed by
Ashcroft's road-to-Damascus conversion to the cause of civil rights.
"Policy-wise, John Ashcroft represents the extreme right-wing in American
politics [that defended] racial discrimination," says David Bositis, an
expert on African American issues at the Washington-based Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies. "He's as repugnant to blacks as Kurt
Waldheim [the ex-United Nations secretary general who fought in a Nazi
World War II regiment] is to the Jews," Bositis explains.
But apparently the all-white Senate does not find Ashcroft, a former
member, to be all that repugnant. After the hearings, Democrats and
Republicans alike said they expected him to be confirmed as attorney
general, even though he clearly lied about his record as governor of
Missouri. Contrary to Ashcroft's contention that he did not try to block
school desegregation in St. Louis, a federal court had ruled that the state
of Missouri, while he held sway as governor, was the "primary
constitutional wrongdoer" in efforts to prevent the integration of public
To make the case that he's not a racist, Ashcroft publicly distanced
himself from Southern Partisan, a shrill, neo-Confederate journal, which
decries race-mixing and glorifies the legacy of slavery. Ashcroft testified
that he was not aware of the magazine's controversial positions when he
granted Southern Partisan an interview in 1998.
That seemed to satisfy a majority of senators, who tread lightly over the
fact that Ashcroft had explicitly acknowledged in this interview that he
knew Southern Partisan celebrated the Confederacy. Then-Senator Ashcroft
went so far as to thank the journal for helping to "set the record
straight." In particular, he praised the magazine's defense of "Southern
patriots like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis."
OK, so a few white lies here and there and some lingering fondness for old
Dixie - that's not unusual for an American politician. While Attorney
General-designee Ashcroft was busy mouthing all the requisite pro-civil
rights incantations, Democrats searched in vain to find a "smoking gun"
that would show without a doubt that he is a certifiable, unreconstructed
But Ashcroft has never boasted a proclivity for wearing white hoods or
divining Aryan runes. When he speaks in tongues, as is his wont, he does
not spout the uncouth ?ber alles idiom of biological pseudoscience.
Instead, he invokes a slippery, neoracist vernacular about "colorblindness"
and "reverse discrimination," while the befuddled Democrats remain mired in
a perpetual torpor. "You can't undervalue Ashcroft's mastery of that white
supremacist code," says John Hickey, director of the Missouri Citizen
Although Ashcroft might not crow about it, he and other Republican
spear-carriers have lifted a rhetorical page from former Ku Klux Klan
leader David Duke, who was praised by Southern Partisan as "a populist
spokesperson for a recapturing of the American ideal." Duke currently
hobnobs with neo-Nazis in the U.S. and Russia, while also serving as the
elected chairman of a GOP Executive Committee in a Louisiana parish.
Keep in mind that Senator Ashcroft got a 100 percent approval rating from
Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, the prominent religious-right lobby,
which had supported Duke's 1990 gubernatorial bid in Louisiana. "There's
nothing wrong with black people being proud of their heritage and their
race. There's nothing wrong with white people being proud of theirs," said
Duke, who succeeded in giving racism a positive, people-loving spin en
route to gaining a majority of the white vote in his unsuccessful run for
Of course, if he mouthed master-race slogans, Duke would have alienated
many of his supporters who could identify extremism when garbed in Nazi or
Klan regalia, but not when it hides behind the softer, more euphemistic
vocabulary used by right-wing politicians to attack welfare, immigration,
and other racially charged issues.
Thus, Ashcroft and like-minded ideologues do not oppose affirmative action
because Negroes are hopelessly inferior. Good heavens, no. So-called
compassionate conservatives reject affirmative action because they care so
deeply about African Americans and do not want them to suffer from the
tragic stigma of going through life filled with guilt, knowing that they
were unfairly assisted by preferential programs that discriminate against
white males. Such is the twisted rationale of neoracism. Neofascist leaders
in Europe also understand that the white supremacist game can be played in
a variety of ways. Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the French National Front,
launched his political party 25 years ago while selling recordings of
Hitler's speeches. After languishing on the political margins for many
years, Le Pen trimmed his sails to suit the moment by recasting his
prejudice as pluralistic pride. Duke underwent a similar makeover when he
decided to seek public office in Louisiana.
These days, Le Pen feigns concern for the best interests of those who bear
the brunt of his racist tirades. "I love North Africans, but their place is
in North Africa," he declares. Under the guise of promoting ethnic
pluralism and "the right to difference," Le Pen insists that French natives
must protect their unique cultural heritage and Arab immigrants must
preserve their own traditions, as well. The only way to do this, Le Pen
argues, is to send all swarthy interlopers back to where they came from.
"Every people has the right to its own identity. Whoever violates this
right is playing with fire," warns Nation Europa, a German neo- Nazi
publication. Invoked in such a manner, "the right to difference" seems to
vindicate race-mixing phobias and demands for exclusion. It also
underscores the paradox of contemporary racism, which can be expressed
either in terms of denying or affirming the identity of another group or
Should Ashcroft be confirmed as the next attorney general, it will
constitute a major victory for the extreme right and a serious setback for
social justice in the United States. It will also signal the triumph of
neoracism. Cloaked in lingo that appears to favor diversity and equal
rights for all, this kinder, gentler form of hatred is far more palatable,
and therefore more pernicious, than the discredited white supremacist
ideologies of old.
Martin A. Lee (martin at sfbg.com) is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast
Reawakens, a book about neofascism. His column, Reality Bites, appears in
the San Fancisco Bay Guardian every Monday.
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