Race-ing to the Bottom: Mitt Romney & the Anglo-Saxon Comment

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to reporters outside 10 Downing Street after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in central London today. | Photo: CARL COURT/AFP/GettyImages

My head hurts. The latest racial below-the-belt jab aimed at President Obama (but aimed at all of us, really) by the Romney campaign is so unsubtle, so embarrassingly unstatesman-like and so patently desparate in its attempt to circle the wagons and make that black-man "other" tag stick to Obama like a felony record, I'm actually starting to worry about the supposedly respectable white folks in this country.

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Politics is politics, of course. It's a dirty business, especially campaign and/election-year politics. And yes, we've seen and heard some nakedly racist sentiments coming from the right for years now, ever since this historically majority-white country elected a black head of state. Understood.

But for someone in the Mitt Romney campaign to say to the Daily Telegraph that Obama and his administration doesn't get the common Anglo-Saxon heritage of Britain and the U.S. is a new low for mainstream political discourse; Republicans are no longer even pretending that this is a country made great by ideals of diversity and inclusion. I know "Anglo-Saxon" has specific history tied to the Norman conquest and such, but on this side of the Atlantic it's mostly code language for white supremacy, a more romanticized term for the all-encompassing idea of "the white man."

It's a term favored by white supremacist groups, starting with but hardly limited to the Ku Klux Klan (Google it and see what you get.) What Romney's aide was getting at is that Obama as a black man, especially one with an African father, cannot possibly empathize properly with white people, no matter how hard he tries or how many conservative policies he supports (and no matter how often he refers to his white mother). He's just not in the Anglo-Saxon tribe and never will be. For the Romney camp -- and for lots of other disaffected white voters -- this is not an issue of character anymore, it's an issue of genetics.

Racist in the most fundamental way. And ironic. Remember back in 2008, when Obama was heralded as a new kind of black person because his Kenyan father and white Kansas heartland mother made him allegedly free of the black American heritage that make all of us common blacks sullen, stupid, dangerous, un-American, etc.? Obama was exotic back then, a new bill of racial goods. What we've seen since is a total reversion to the cloud of suspicion under which all people of color labor, whatever corner of the world they live in or come from, whatever job they perform. Racism is global -- thanks to the colonizing practiced by Anglo-Saxons, among others -- and Obama is not exempt from it.

So while we spent that first campaign season wondering if he was black enough for black voters, the real question our media was always too uncomfortable to pose is, is he white enough for white voters? The answer so far is a resounding no. Yet American mainstream journalists, trained to believe that race is no longer a viable way to frame important political issues, back away from this conclusion like a lit firecracker. Which means Romney and others get to keep lighting the fuse. Romney denounced the remark by the unnamed aide -- of course -- but still maintained that America and Britain have a special connection due in part to the Anglo-Saxon thing. This is the cowardly and disingenuous way America practices its racism now.

One discussion I heard on an erudite NPR show about the Anglo-Saxon remark wound up being empty speculation about who would staff Romney's foreign policy team if he were elected. Nothing at all about the profound implications of the remark itself and what, and who, it was speaking to. To me, it was an insult. To the "other" America -- and I don't mean me -- it seemed to be business as usual.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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Your head hurts? Mine is about to explode from the news, both liberal and conservative, filling the 24 hour news cycle with infantile whinings about a word or phrase the opposition said.
Every election is important. Please don't try to reduce it to elementary school insults.