John Aravosis noted a few days ago that a phrase used many times by Mitt Romney on the campaign trail — “keep America American” — was a slogan used by the KKK in the 1920s. He shows many examples of Romney using it and many examples of KKK literature using it.
In an era in which it’s apparently okay for Republicans to accuse President Obama of being a socialist, I guess we now need to ask if Mitt Romney is a Ku Klux Klansman. Not whether Romney inadvertently is using the KKK’s number one slogan from the 1920s on the stump, no, the Republicans would say, if this were a Democrat, that clearly the candidate was a closet member of the KKK. So, is Mitt Romney a closet member of the KKK? Keep in mind, that even Romney is now claiming, between the lines, that President Obama is a socialist. So why shouldnt’ America be asking if Mitt Romney is a Klansman?
I think he’s both wrong and right here. He’s wrong in arguing that “we” should be acting like the right does in making outlandish charges like this. That’s just shallow thinking and he focuses on the sensationalist accusation instead of on the more serious, substantive issues raised by this fact. Is Romney a closet member of the KKK? Of course not. And I’ve never seen anything to suggest that he’s a racist. But the coincidence should prompt discussion of two relevant issues.
First, because Romney’s church has a long and sordid history of racism. Most churches do, of course, but the Mormon church is worse than most and kept it up longer than most. For nearly a century and a half, the church forbid black people from becoming ministers and from being involved in most of the church’s most important sacraments. Brigham Young was a virulent racist who preached the ridiculous “mark of Cain” notion that the descendants of Cain were cursed by being made black:
“You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind …. Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race—that they should be the ‘servant of servants’; and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree.”
“If the White man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain (those with dark skin), the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”
The LDS church did not reverse its officially racist policies until 1978, well into adulthood for Romney (and it did so by declaring a new revelation from their supposedly eternal, unchanging God). Is this a fair issue to raise in a campaign? Absolutely.
But there’s a second reason why pointing out this coincidence is reasonable and that is its inherently xenophobic nature. Romney may not be in the KKK and he may not personally be a racist, but phrases like “keep America American” appeal explicitly to American xenophobia and prejudice. It’s the kind of anti-immigration sentiment that has justified a wide range of oppressive policies over the past two centuries, aimed at pretty much every group that settled here — including white Europeans like the Irish. So racism is only part of the problem of tribalistic bigotry, and that is the kind of fearmongering being exploited by Romney’s use of that phrase.
There is nothing more American than immigration and the blending of different races, ethnicities and religions. That is the quintessential element of American life. Sadly, there have always been pockets of resistance to that idea. In every age, the immigrant is demonized and targeted by rhetoric like “keep America American.” And Romney should be held to account for trying to tap that vein of bigotry for political gain.