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By any other name…

4/7/2010, 9:52 a.m.

By any other name…

“Oh my God, those ruffians are giving tea parties a bad name.”

A state of euphoria gripped America when Barack Obama was elected president. Many Americans were elated that this nation had finally rejected the hateful legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. Most people knew, however, that the beast was not totally dead, just mortally wounded.

Much to his credit, Obama never played the race card when commenting on the political opposition to his policies. That was indeed the wise approach. To do otherwise would suggest that he was not the president of all Americans – those who support him as well as those who don’t. Such a stance would weaken his presidency.

Americans eager for an end to racial bigotry spoke enthusiastically about post-Obama America, as though the nation’s great failing had suddenly been cured. Blacks were aware, however, that while it was no longer socially acceptable to publicly espouse support for racial discrimination, such ideas had gone underground. They would appear occasionally disguised as legitimate political issues.

Passage of the Health Reform Act proved to be too much for the closet bigots. New York Times columnist Frank Rich, in his March 28 column “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” provided a historically valid analysis of the violent opposition as being racially motivated. Appropriately, Rich began his analysis by comparing the stoning of office windows of congressional supporters of the health care bill to Kristallnacht, the 1938 Nazi assault on Jewish shops in Austria.

Rich points out that the opposition to the so-called “Obamacare” is greater than the public outcry over Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965. However, he cites the reaction to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as being somewhat analogous. The violent opposition occurred then, according to Rich, because “it signaled an inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of America, not just its governance.”

Obamacare became the focus of hostility that had been developing for one year since Obama’s election. The cry to “take our country back” means to remove blacks, Latinos and homosexuals from positions of power. In compliance with the social dictate against overt racism, the bigots gave their opposition sanitized names, such as the “Tea Party.”

That is an old American trick — to change the name, not the practice. Slavery officially ended with passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, but many large plantation owners had no intention of relinquishing their free labor. Douglas A. Blackmon, in his book “Slavery by Another Name,” provides a well-researched account of how neo-slavery continued in the United States until World War II.

Penniless freed slaves were turned away from plantations and were peremptorily arrested for vagrancy. With no funds and no jobs they were convicted and imprisoned. They went from being slaves to being convicts. Rather than the state bearing the expense of their imprisonment, they were leased out as laborers until the end of their sentences.

Throughout the South, black leased prisoners worked on plantations and in coal mines, railroads, brickyards and iron and steel mills. This practice was so profitable that, in 1889, Alabama earned $120,000 for leased convicts when the total state budget barely exceeded $1 million. Many black men, many of whom were innocent, were convicted for petty offenses in order for the government to generate the revenue from leasing their labor.

President Obama has demonstrated the wisdom of starving the beast, rather than energizing it by confrontation on its terms. And Frank Rich and Douglas Blackmon have shown it is wise to avoid being deceived by misleading names and titles that conceal evil intentions.