Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mau Maus and Madrassases: Huckabee's (Deliberate and Racist) Slip of the Tongue

I'm fascinated by a conversation that has developed at several blog sites in the past day or so, about what Mike Huckabee meant when he recently made what he is calling a verbal gaffe as he stated that President Obama grew up in Kenya.  In particular, I'm intrigued by Huckabee's reference to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and the possible involvement of Obama's father's family in that event.

After Mollie Wilson O'Reilly posted her reflections about Huckabee's comments at the Commonweal blog site, an interesting conversation developed in which one poster, unagidon, pointed out that if you google the phrases "What’s wrong with Kansas" and "Mau Mau," you get about 7,800 hits.  That remark (and a bizarre attack of another commenter on Attorney General Eric Holder re: DOMA in the same thread) led me to google the phrases "Eric Holder" and "Mau Mau."

Whereupon I discovered some 4,340 hits, one pointing to a Facebook site called "President Obama making a big mistake" that contains a reference to "Mau Mau Holder," and others speaking of "Oba-mau-mau" and "mau-mau-er Al Sharpton."  There seems to be a whole demi-monde out there of barely concealed racist discourse on right-wing political internet sites, in which the term "Mau Mau" is being used as a  nasty slur term for people of color, akin to the term "macaca," which Virginia Republican senate candidate George Allen let slip in 2006.

Because I grew up in Arkansas and live here now, and have watched Rev. Huckabee at close range in the political life of my state, I find it difficult to imagine that he did not use the term "Mau Mau" in connection with the president and his family without malice aforethought.  And without knowledge of the racist way in which this term is now being applied on many anti-Obama and right-wing political websites in the U.S.

And I'm now discovering I'm far from the only person who's suggesting this.  Here's the analysis of Jim Jenkins in the Commonweal thread to which I pointed readers above:

This is out-and-out blatantly pandering to the most racist elements in American politics. Huckabee and his fellow Republicans and “birthers” know it. They all speak in code.

To the ears of anyone who grew up in the south like I did, when Joe Wilson shouted at President Obama during a joint session of the Congress, we know that Wilson cut short his remark [he's not that stupid]. We know what he was really saying was, “You lie, n—-r!”

I first heard this phrase while playing as a child at a neighbor’s house shouted at a TV screen when Martin Luther King was being interviewed. I remember this because after reporting it to my parents at the dinner table that night, there was no more playing after school at that neighbor’s house.

I think Jim Jenkins is right.  I'm convinced that Huckabee's use of the term "Mau Mau" and his attempt to connect it to the president and his family in a completely false and manufactured parable about Obama's upbringing that we're being told is a slip of the tongue was deliberate.  And I believe it's deliberate race-baiting.

It's race-baiting designed to appeal to the solid white base of the Republican party in the South, among whom Huckabee is now the front-runner among GOP candidates.  The stronghold of the religious right, which is where Huckabee's support is primarily situated, is in the part of the nation that became solidly Republican in the period following Nixon's Southern strategy, which was designed to herd disaffected Southern Democrats into the Republican party after Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights act.

And I find that Jim Jenkins and I aren't the only ones proposing such a reading of Huckabee's slip of the tongue the other day.  At his Daily Dish site yesterday, Andrew Sullivan reports a note from a reader of Sullivan's blog, who says that he grew up Southern Baptist (the denomination in which Huckabee is ordained), and remembers frequently hearing the term "Mau Mau" in connection with David Wilkerson's book The Cross and the Switchblade as he grew up. The book featured an inner-city (New York City) gang of youths named the Mau Maus.  Sullivan's reader concludes, 

That is still what I think of when I hear the term, and I would be willing to bet that SoBap Huckabee has more than a passing acquaintance with the book. So it’s not just about blackness, it’s about rampaging big-city gangs.... (The lead Mau-Mau was Nicky Cruz, a Puerto Rican.)

These comments, however, and his subsequent lie that he really meant Indonesia not Kenya, really show a demented, perverse sensibility, and they demonstrate some of the ugliness at the heart of Obama hatred.

I'm talking about the Mau Mau comment, especially. When I was growing up, Mau Mau was shorthand for: Extremely Scary Black People. The brutality of the Mau Mau rebellion was legendary (and, who knows, perhaps even accurate). It became a term of art in the sixties: to mau-mau was to intimidate white people. (As a young reporter in Boston, I covered a would-be black militant group that called itself, with brilliant irony, De Mau Mau.) To associate Barack Obama with the Mau Mau rebellion is to feed all the worst, paranoid fears of Glenn Beck's America--and, as any sane person knows, completely ridiculous.

In using the racially loaded term "Mau Mau," which floats through the sewers of some of the most virulently racist anti-Obama sites on the internet and therefore has charged significance for a sizable sector of the political right in the U.S., Mike Huckabee is playing an ugly racial game.  He's appealing to the longstanding racist and nativist sentiment of the American heartland, which has been in full reaction mode from the time an African-American presidential candidate with a Kenyan father appeared on the scene, and which went into hyperdrive when Obama was elected.

And, adding insult to injury, Huckabee is now slinging the term "madrassas" around, as Steve Kornacki reports yesterday at Salon.  Mau Maus and madrassases: we can, I fully expect, look for more of this filth--more of this attempt to employ fetishized terms loaded with racist and nativist significance--to fly around as the Republican candidates gear up for the 2012 elections.  Huckabee almost has to go the racist route, in order to build his base in the religious right of the Southeast.

Will Gingrich and Santorum compete by trying to stir and play to a racism that is never far beneath the surface among some of the ethnic Catholic enclaves of the Northeast and urban centers of the heartland to whom they're making a pitch?  I wouldn't be surprised.

This is going to be an ugly campaign.  And the worst dirt of all is going to be thrown around by the candidates who most loudly proclaim themselves to be advocates of good, old-fashioned Christian morality and traditional values.

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