Repeatedly in our country's history, economic troubles have created conditions that are ripe for demagogues and hatemongers to whip up public anger against minorities and recent immigrants.
During the farm crisis of the 1980s, a militant, antigovernment movement in the Midwest arose and gained traction by falsely blaming Jews for the economic woes of farmers.
A century earlier, during widespread social unrest in the 1870s, Chinese immigrants bore the brunt of blame for economic calamity that ushered in a long, post-Civil War depression. The public anger led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, suspending Chinese immigration.
Decades earlier, in the 1830s, Irish Catholic immigrants endured violent public condemnation for the nation's financial woes.
Now, we're in the grip of the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, and some commentators and politicians on the right are pinning the blame on poor minorities.
That's right. We're supposed to believe that impoverished blacks and Latinos across our country brought down the titans of Wall Street with their wild-eyed dreams of owning their own homes, taking out mortgages they couldn't afford. We're supposed to believe that's why stock markets are plummeting and the global banking system is collapsing like a house of cards.
Do Americans really buy this kind of nonsense?
Unfortunately, many do, especially when they hear the lie repeated over and over again by politicians and supposedly mainstream pundits like Fox News' Neil Cavuto. In a recent exchange with a Democratic congressman from California, Cavuto said, "I'm just saying, I don't remember a clarion call that said, 'Fannie and Freddie are a disaster. Loaning to minorities and risky folks is a disaster.'"
People who are down and out, who are buffeted by global events beyond their control, want to understand what has happened to them. Some will look for scapegoats in all the wrong places. And some will be seduced by the rhetoric of hate.
These are the conditions relished by those who thrive by stoking fear and division in America, from the cross-burning Klansmen to the loudmouths of right-wing talk radio to the suit-wearing academics who cloak their bigotry in pseudo-scientific research.
Because of the rancorous immigration debate, we've already seen a surge in the number of hate groups operating in the United States. We're now tracking 888 hate groups, a rise of almost 50 percent since 2000. And hundreds more nativist groups have sprung up in recent years to harass immigrants. It's no surprise, then, that hate crimes against Latinos are growing, especially in places like California. It's against this combustible backdrop that the economic meltdown is occurring.
We do have reason for optimism about race relations in our country, however.
The pre-election polling data appear to indicate that the majority of Americans are willing to judge Barack Obama on factors other than his skin color. That's real progress. Regardless of who our next president is, this should give us all hope that we've turned a corner and that overt racism as a major force in our country will continue to fade into the dustbin of history.
We're not there yet, though, by any stretch. Despite Obama's broad acceptance, racist passions are clearly evident during the campaign. And it's clear that some in politics have no qualms about playing the race card if they think it will help them get elected. As long as that strategy works, it will be employed.
More importantly, the deep scars of racism — unequal opportunities, poverty, discrimination and more — will linger long after the bigotry that caused them has dissipated.
We're entering uncertain times, perhaps even a lengthy recession. If past is prologue, as Shakespeare wrote, we can expect more scapegoating of the least powerful among us.