In her new book, the former Alaska governor questions the patriotism of African Americans who point out the country’s imperfections.
As if a new reality show, Fox News commentaries and daughter Bristol’s Dancing With the Stars spin weren’t enough, Sarah Palin is back with another book: America by Heart: Reflections on Faith, Family and Flag, which was released on Tuesday. In it, the half-term governor and full-time Republican enigma shares her increasingly extremist worldview on everything from the legacy of JFK to her conflicted feelings about abortion to her commitment to giving up chocolate for a year.
Her most unflinching comments, however, center on race — specifically, the racial dynamics surrounding the Obama presidency and the increasing suspicion by many progressives that Palin, the Tea Partiers and the entire anti-Obama establishment are motivated by racism.
Palin clearly thinks not. In fact, on Planet Palin, racism essentially does not exist but is merely a misanthropic by-product of African Americans’ refusal to shut up, toughen up and truly become American patriots. This question of patriotism versus racism has been tackled by both white and black leaders since before the Civil War.
Back then, Frederick Douglass rightfully asked, “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” during his legendary Independence Day speech of 1852. More than 150 years later, Douglass’ desire to rectify the triumphs of American history with the tragedies of African-American history still resonate for many descendants of his enslaved brethren.
Yet in the prose of Palin, any race-based frustration expressed by African Americans is proof positive of dubious patriotism and questionable allegiance. Racism is a ploy, a canard, a smoke screen by “opponents of this new American awakening” to impede intellectual debate and castigate conservatives as “evil … [and] just bad people.”
The real “bad people,” however, are Palin’s anti-patriots, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, whose now infamous 2008 quote, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country,” is resurrected yet again in America by Heart. This is Palin’s “Gotcha!” moment, confirmation that the Obamas “think America — at least America as it currently exists — is a fundamentally unjust and unequal country.”
I suspect that this thought may have crossed the minds of both Obamas — much as it has millions of Americans of every color, every day. Indeed, at a time when increasing poverty on Main Street contrasts with stratospheric salaries on Wall Street, how could it not? And why not?
Demanding justice by refuting the status quo has been a hallmark of American politics ever since those original Tea Partiers were polluting Boston Harbor. Acknowledging fundamental injustices and inequalities has been the first step in every American civil rights movement — from ending slavery and enshrining women’s suffrage to establishing worker-protection laws, as well as current efforts to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
But back to those black people. Mindful of the minefield she’s conspicuously crossing, Palin is clever enough to trade “liberal” for “African American” in much of America by Heart. But her message is abundantly clear, and it’s an offensive one — in every sense of the word.
Already dancing as the Republican star of the 2012 presidential campaign, Palin is using race as a first-mover advantage. And she deserves some props in the process. By framing racism in terms of patriotism, Palin is brazenly declaring race an equal-opportunity topic — one that she’s willing to exploit by any means necessary.
The challenge for African Americans — indeed, all rational Americans — is to respond to Palin’s posturing in kind and in time. And they should. It’s the same MO employed by most minority groups to defend their constituents from bigotry.
Take the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBT advocacy group. Just last week, it issued two communiqués demanding that Palin account for her daughter Willow’s homophobic Facebook rants. Yet as it rightfully rallied for justice and accountability, there were no cries against the HRC as “unpatriotic.”
Nor do critics openly question the patriotism of the Anti-Defamation League, whose well-oiled machine cites and fights anti-Semitism — even in Israel, a foreign nation. In fact, any effort to depict Zionism as unpatriotic would likely be discounted as anti-Semitic.
Despite the backlash from July’s Tea Party condemnation, the NAACP must remain unwavering in its intolerance of right-wing racism. Anything less would fuel Palin’s dismissal of racism — both within her own political base and for the entire 2012 election cycle. It would also enable Palin’s patriot game-playing by setting a higher standard for black “loyalty” than for other American minority groups.
Two years after she first appeared on the national stage, Sarah Palin has gone from political curiosity to a bona fide politician. Along the way, she’s created a platform that touts unity while spouting divisiveness. As her new book arrives in stores, Palin is nothing if not prescient in attacking the Obamas where it clearly hurts most. But her efforts do not merely dis the first family; they’re an affront to the very American ideals that Palin claims to uphold.
“Fighting against injustice is one of the highest forms of patriotism citizens can carve out for themselves,” says George Mason University professor Roger Wilkins, author of the 2002 book Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism. “For Governor Palin to say otherwise … suggests her ignorance and fantasy about the history of race in this country.”
David Kaufman is a New York-based writer who regularly contributes to the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Time and Monocle.