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Conservatives say it’s their turn for empowerment

Last weekend, Cindy Wilkerson, a 44-year-old former social worker, helped organize three busloads of protesters who rode from Mississippi to Washington for the big protest targeting President Obama and his policies. The passengers, all white, wore T-shirts identifying themselves without irony as “Freedom Riders.”

Decades ago, that phrase evoked something quite different. It was bestowed on the predominantly black and white activists who traveled to the Deep South to challenge segregation -- and were sometimes met with hostility and violence.

“We were riding for freedom,” said Wilkerson. “For the freedom of Mississippians and all Americans. . . . The consensus is that this is not a left-wing government, but that this is more of a Marxist [government], you know?”

The Age of Obama has brought many things to the American scene -- none more important than the proof that skin color is no barrier to success. But for some white Americans, it has also helped crystallize a sense of dislocation, anger and powerlessness.

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Some, like Wilkerson’s group, have even adopted the language and techniques used by blacks, women, Latinos and gays in their civil rights struggles. But some analysts ask: Is this white victimhood? Strident TV host Glenn Beck of Fox News Channel tapped into the feeling this summer when he accused Obama of having “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

For some, it was reinforced by the sight of a New Haven, Conn., firefighter telling senators that the Latina judge Obama had nominated to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, had discriminated against him in an appellate case because he is white. Or Obama condemning the arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer.

“White America needs to be heard from, not just lectured to,” wrote commentator Patrick J. Buchanan in response to Obama’s speech on race during the 2008 campaign. “This time, the Silent Majority needs to have its convictions, grievances and demands heard.” Among the grievances: affirmative action provisions that “advance black applicants over white applicants.”

Wilkerson complained that Saturday’s protest did not win sufficient media coverage. “It’s like we are the forgotten people,” she said. She says she believes the movement is not about race -- a black man, she said, helped design the Freedom Riders T-shirt -- nor victimization, but about legitimate disagreements with Obama’s policies.

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Ron Walters, an emeritus professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland who was a campaign manager for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1980s presidential bids, has written that today’s anti-tax “tea party” protests and heated town hall rhetoric are reminiscent of the conservative resurgence of the 1970s. That movement was driven in part by racial hostility and the ability of its leaders to convince white followers that they were victims. (The years after the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act saw court-ordered integration of schools and the adoption of affirmative action programs.)

“Now that’s precisely what we have today,” Walters said Wednesday. “In terms of many people who lost the election feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. The movement of conservatism is dethroned. People are feeling, therefore, resentful about that and determined to demonstrate that resentment in ways that intimidate people, quite frankly.”

The fact that Obama is not just liberal, but black, said Walters, adds to the resentment.

But Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said that people like Walters “are reading the memo that came out of Washington to pull the race card out.”

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In recent months, Woodhouse has organized more than 35 town hall meetings around North Carolina for people opposed to Democratic healthcare proposals. The people, most of them white, are not acting out some pantomime of victimization, he said, but out of genuine concern.

“It’s not about race,” he said. “It’s about socialism. . . . I think it’s actually the policies that are scaring people.”

But Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University who has worked for Democrats, said feelings of victimhood were stoked by Republicans during Senate hearings for Sotomayor. “They attacked her as a racist, and where they scored points is with a lot of Americans -- not only with conservatives, but a lot of Democratic white males -- who have been on the losing end of affirmative action,” he said.

In Westen’s view, Republicans were able “to make the case that whites are getting a bad deal.”

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Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” put his comedian’s finger on this phenomenon Tuesday when he showed the Web page of the Drudge Report, which bannered a story about a white high school student beaten up on a school bus by black students. (Police later said the fight was over a seat, not race.)

“Now Drudge won’t say this, but I will,” said Stewart with mock gravity. “Because Barack Obama is president it is now open season on white children . . . and black people are now allowed to hit them.”

On Wednesday, former President Carter entered the fray. The lifelong Georgia resident told NBC’s Brian Williams that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.”

At an Atlanta town hall meeting the day before, Carter said that racism was behind Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst when he shouted, “You lie!” as Obama addressed Congress last week.

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Jared Taylor, a controversial writer who calls himself a “race realist” but has been described by one civil rights activist as “the cultivated, cosmopolitan face of white supremacy,” said the enormous demographic changes of the last few decades fuel the idea that whites are losing ground.

“To the extent that white people in some inchoate way see Obama as a symbol of their dispossession, it’s only that they have not been seeing what has been going on for years,” said Taylor.

The Census Bureau estimates that whites will become a minority in 2042. Citing that fact, Taylor added, “No other people in the history of the world has given up numerical and cultural dominance willingly. The majority of whites did not vote for Barack Obama.” (Obama received 43% of the white vote.)

For all the sense of disempowerment, whites still surpass other groups by many measures. Eighty percent of the Senate is white male. Seventy-four percent of white, non-Latino households own their homes, compared with 48% for blacks and Latinos.

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Mark Potok, who directs the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project -- and the activist who called Taylor a white supremacist -- agreed with Taylor that changing demographics are stoking fear. “Obama’s election simply makes visceral what was already occurring, which is a very major changeover from a society that really has been dominated by white people to a society that is generally multiracial,” Potok said.

American political discourse has always contained an angry fringe, and the emotional rallies and occasionally ugly rhetoric of Obama’s opponents are neither new nor especially extreme, according to political scientists. Courting white voters’ sense of victimhood is nothing new, either.

President Nixon famously appealed to disgruntled Southern whites by exploiting concerns about civil rights reforms and the cultural upheaval of the times. And in 1988, George H.W. Bush used a TV political ad that featured a menacing mug shot of Willie Horton, a black convicted murderer, in his successful drive to beat Michael S. Dukakis for the presidency.

“Those were openly racial appeals,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, head of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’re not seeing that now.”

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Jim Leggette, an economics professor and conservative talk show host on a Meridian, Miss., radio station, has been cheering the anti-Obama movement from the sidelines. Leggette, 51, said that a feeling of victimization “may be part of it.” And he acknowledged that some of the tactics were probably borrowed from the left.

“The folks who launched the tea party movement saw how those various groups -- blacks and Latinos and such -- organized at the grass roots and said, ‘Hey, we need to adopt some of those tactics.’ ”

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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kate.linthicum@latimes.com

richard.fausset@latimes.com

Bob Drogin in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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