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‘Racial Terror in America’: The Racist Roots of Ron Paul’s Anti-Imperialism

by Benjamin Balthaser
2 Jul 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.1] | Commons

There’s been a great deal of confusion over the recent revelation that Ron Paul, the only candidate in either party running on an anti-imperialist platform and who favors an end to the police state, is also a virulent racist. blogger Glenn Greenwald received serious heat for suggesting that, in effect, Obama’s policies in the Middle East may actually have a greater racial impact than Paul’s racist tirades. And even if there’s something a little strange in Greenwald’s approach – suggesting that views between candidates can be lined up and compared like batting averages or points in a derivatives trade, Greenwald has a point. Not that Obama is worse than Paul or that Paul should be listened to for his good arguments or ignored for his poor ones – rather that there is a continuity between Obama and Paul in the long arc of U.S. imperial history. Without explicitly addressing the genesis of his positions, Paul occupies a long-held tradition of racially motivated anti-imperialist politics, just in the same way that Obama occupies a position of liberal expansionism.  While Obama is occasionally compared to a Kennedy or to a Wilson, the source of Paul’s inspiration unfortunately goes unnoticed.

It’s largely forgotten now that U.S. imperialism was even debated among elected representatives, and when it is these days, it often trades under the euphemism of “war,” somehow suggesting that one opposes the invasion of Iraq or the occupation of Afghanistan on pacifistic or moral grounds — a discourse that speaks to personal morality rather than geopolitical power. In the 19th century, there were fierce debates in among Congress, labor unions and major business interests about the merits of the U.S. becoming a continental and ultimately a world empire. And yet the battle lines in these debates often did not line up neatly with contemporary political divides: today, one assumes that those who oppose U.S. imperialism (or “war”) identify with the liberal-left and those who are in favor of U.S. imperialism (or “war”) identify with the conservative- right. And of course, this is what has so many progressives scratching their heads about Paul, and even Obama – how can an ostensible racist be against an imperial project based on assumptions of white racial superiority; how can a candidate elected on a platform of racial justice be administering – even expanding – an imperial project that targets brown men and women abroad?

It often comes as a surprise to Americans to learn that many of the most vocal opponents U.S. imperialism in the 19th century were also the most vocal racists. They were not concerned with the rights of what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as “the darker races,” but rather that such conquest and incorporation would ultimately contaminate U.S. institutions by diluting what they felt was the unique Anglo-Saxon mission of self- government. As James T.L. Love writes in his masterful study, Race over Empire, “…so fierce was the opposition by many of the early founders of the Republic to the incorporation of non-whites into the polity” that the Louisiana Purchase “they feared “would allow ‘two votes in the Senate’ for ‘Creole ignorance’ as ‘incapable of self- government as children.’”[1] And while Whig papers simmered over Jefferson’s purchase of French Territory, the debate about the racial nature of the Republic exploded at the prospect of annexing part or all of Mexico in the aftermath of the U.S.-Mexico War.[2]

Georgia Senator John C. Calhoun, one of the most pugnacious champions of expanding slavery, recoiled in horror at the prospect of annexing territory from Mexico. “Ours is the government of the white man,” he railed, “the great misfortune of what was formerly Spanish America is to be traced to the fatal error of placing the colored race on an equality with white.”[3] Of course, this did not include territory inhabited by Native Americans.  ”Conquering many of the neighboring tribes of Indians” Calhoun clarified, is not the same as “holding them in subjection, or of incorporating them into our Union.” Mexicans were far too numerous – an far too Europeanized – to be exterminated in Calhoun’s view, but not so white as be to fit subjects for incorporation, even as subordinates.

Lest we imagine that Calhoun is simply a lone kook, Senator Charles Sumner regarded the proposition to annex the Dominican Republic in 1870 with an equally racialized sense of horror and outrage. Writing in the New York Herald, Sumner argued against the seizure of the island on the basis of who lived there:  the residents of the Dominican Republic are a “turbulent” and “treacherous race” he wrote for the newspaper. The Herald later noted with a sense of understatement that Sumner “did not appear to have so high opinion of the sable humanity found in these regions.”[4] Declaring the United States an “Anglo-Saxon republic” that can only “remain so by a preponderance of that race,” Sumner nearly single-handedly defeated President Grant’s attempt to annex the island nation, and in doing so, slowed the growth of the U.S. overseas empire for decades. It should be clear that what Sumner objected to was not economic domination over the island, but rather that the “filthy looking Negroes” should be considered citizens of the United States by law.[5]

It must be remembered that the man who coined the phrase Manifest Destiny, John L. Sullivan, was actually far less racist than many of his white contemporaries (although this by any objective standard would be a fairly dubious point of comparison). As with many Enlightenment thinkers, Sullivan believed in universal human development, thus looked without fear at the incorporation of people whom he deemed less civilized.[6] Indeed, one of the most vocal advocates and key architects of an expansionist U.S. empire was William Seward, secretary of state under Lincoln. Seward’s plans were ambitious, envisioning the transcontinental railroad as only the beginning of a continuous imperial archipelago across the Pacific, acquiring Hawaii, the Philippines, opening China and Korea to U.S. markets and U.S. foreign investment, before gobbling up the islands of the Caribbean. Seward imagined the continental empire eventually incorporating all of Canada, finally bringing Mexico in as a U.S. state. Seward, a prominent abolitionist, opposed slavery for making the task of U.S. expansion “impossible.”[7] Not only did slavery weaken the United States, it would make the U.S. incorporation of lands in the global south unpalatable at home, and spark resistance abroad.  For Seward, there was no contradiction between opposing racism at home and projecting U.S. power across the world, for with slavery abolished, America would be an “empire of liberty.” Indeed, Seward opposed the southern “black codes” as well as the Chinese exclusion acts on the grounds that they hurt America’s position as a global power.  Imperialism in short, was another name for abolitionism.

One of the 19th century’s most eloquent voices for an inclusionary, diverse America was, in the 1840s, a young reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, Walt Whitman – who also saw no contradiction in vocally supporting abolition and the invasion of Mexico.  He branded the president of Mexico a “tyrant” and the invasion of Mexico a war for “liberty,” and bridled with indignity that the “southern border of the United States should end at the Nueces.”[8] The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo is often remembered as a compromise, but the compromise had little to do with Mexican needs, and everything to do with the racial prejudices of the United States. The land that was finally acquired was decided upon for no other reason that it included few Mexicans – California, Utah, and Colorado only counting a Mexican population of 10,000, thus calming the fear that the military victory over Mexico would lead to racial suicide.  Indeed, the fiercest wrangling occurred over the incorporation of Alto Mexico’s most populous state, New Mexico, and it’s long been held that New Mexico’s delayed incorporation as a state into the Union was solely on racial grounds, and wasn’t incorporated into statehood until it became a white- majority territory in the early 20th century.

As Immanuel Wallerstein reminds us, racism is not as it’s usually framed, a system of exclusion, dislike, or aversion.  It is often rather, a system of inclusion and incorporation.[9] Or one could say, the United States has long been constituted by competing racisms.  The genocidal and exclusionary white nationalism of a Calhoun or an Andrew Jackson, and the cosmopolitan and inclusionary racism of a William Seward or even Walt Whitman. If the primary figure of the former kind of racism is the Indian killer and slave-master of ante-bellum American, the latter is the Uncle Sam and the white school mistress of the U.S.’s grand imperial age.  As Love points out, the dominant image to emerge in cartoons of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines was not the solider, but rather the white school teacher, the hero of the abolitionist literacy crusades after the Civil War.  The fact that the imagery of abolition was refashioned into the gunboats of expansionism is not a simple act of cooptation, as many of the abolitionists were themselves all too ready to spread the social gospel of uplift, literacy, and liberty to the “savage” peoples of the U.S. south, and the global south.  ”Tutelage” of the inferior races is as much a part of the colonial dream as is their extermination.

It’s worth noting in this context that the racism of Ron Paul’s columns have a single thematic bent, that African-Americans are fundamentally unfit for civilization. This marks a radical departure from the racism of the American Enterprise Institute or even Newt Gingrinch, who often begin and end with the claim that African-Americans are to blame for their own problems, and need more punitive measures to learn “responsibility,” as in Gingrinch’s plan to teach black children the “work ethic” through forced labor. This implies, however venally, that Gringrich believes African-Americans are at least capable of learning, of “uplift” into his despotic civilizational model. In one of Paul’s longer and more theoretical pieces “Racial Terrorism in America,” he argues the1992 LA riots “marked a new era in American cultural, political, and economic life…we are under assault from thugs and revolutionaries who hate Euro-American civilization and everything it stands for:  private property, material success for those who earn it, and Christian morality.” These “thugs” and “revolutionaries” who hate Western civilization are decidedly racial enemies, “blacks who reject all that is Eurocentric.”[10] And it is not only an issue of class, as the violence following the acquittal of the white police officers who brutalized Rodney King “came not from the underclass, but middle-class blacks….who held opinions not markedly different from the Crips and the Bloods.”[11] This point is crucial, as it suggests that African-Americans, no matter their middle-class trappings are appearance of lace-curtain probity, are at core at odds with the entire project of Western liberal democracy and the rule of law.

Paul deployment of the language of colonial counter-insurgency is thus far from incidental.  He refers to the rioters as engaging in “guerrilla violence,” that U.S. cities with large black populations are “terror zones,” and the federal government’s promise to increase funding to head-start and other programs in the wake of the riot as “capitulation to terrorist demands.”[12] The implication of this language is clear – that African-Americans should not be considered citizens so much as a foreign presence, a kind of smoldering guerrilla army that can be called into action by “revolutionaries and thugs” at a moment’s notice.[13]  Paul even evokes the 19th century colonial rhetoric of “savagery,” suggesting that the “reason for the riots” is “plain:  barbarism,” with its supposed binary or opposite, the civilization.[14]  What’s at stake is the fundamental question of who deserves to be considered a citizen of the United States, and who is deemed a colonial, dependent subject, only ruled by naked force.  Given that riots and federal largesse are the cost of diluting the white republic, one can see that, like Calhoun and Sumner, Paul’s appetite for the incorporation of more undesirables would be understandably low.

Paul’s anti-imperialism is not despite or even undermined by his racism; rather Paul’s committed politics of dismantling the U.S. empire is an expression of his fundamental racialist view of the world.  The one advertisement that has solidified Paul’s stance as an anti-imperialist asks us to imagine a foreign invasion force on U.S. soil.  In one sense, it is exactly the kind of intellectual and political exercise that anyone with internationalist politics would ask of the public:  to imagine oneself literally and figuratively in the shoes of the people whose country U.S. forces currently occupy.[15] As a question of aesthetics, it’s actually striking and provocatively executed – instead of relying on sentimental, sensational or even Orientalist footage of dead bodies, burning skylines of U.S. cities, or a “heart of darkness” descent into the “primitive,” it relies solely on pale typeface on a black screen, cutting through the usual worn out rhetorical imagery of empire that often dominates the media and even the anti-war movement. The ad describes in great and moving detail the atrocities committed by occupying troops on U.S. soil, atrocities meant to evoke the very same violence committed by U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, finally culminating in what is perhaps the most powerful line of the short ad:  that we should imagine “some Americans so angry about them being in Texas that they actually joined together to fight them off….imagine that those Americans were labeled terrorists….” And yet, for all of its minimalism, the one word bolded in red twice is Chinese. The ad begins:

“Imagine for a moment, somewhere in the middle of Texas, there was a large, foreign military base…..say Chinese….or Russian,” ending with the line “the reality is that our military presence on foreign soil is as offensive to the people that (sic) live there as armed Chinese troops would be if they were stationed in Texas….”.

The fact that the horror of a military occupation is inextricable from the “foreign troops’” Chineseness is not an accidental part of the message, in the same way the occupation of America lies in its synedochal and quasi-mythical evocation of “Texas.” The occupation is horrible not simply because it is a military occupation, but a Chinese military occupation at the heart of white frontier America.

Of course, imperialism is always already about race, and in many ways this is Paul’s appeal – he cuts through the posturing on both the right and left. Progressive commentator Cenk Uygur’s rhapsodic praise of the advertisement is quite real, and goes beyond even the calculated maneuvering of Glenn Greenwald who attempts to divorce the message from the messenger. Because Paul, as on so many other issues, refuses to commit the hypocrisy demanded by modern politics, there is something refreshing in an anti-imperialism that acknowledges its own racial bias as the root. And yet, because Paul’s racism is so thorough and so much a part of an earlier racial and political formation, its hard to recognize, and the temptation is to separate the “good” positions of Ron Paul from the “bad” positions of Ron Paul. These positions are inextricable for Paul, in much the way the Nazis hatred of the financial sector is inextricable from their politics of anti-Semitism, or the 9.11 “truthers’” good points about the fishiness of the events around the terrorist attack is inseparable from their conspiratal view of the way the world order functions. As Eric Love points out, many of the more racist objections to U.S. world domination in the 19th century actually did limit the scope the size of U.S. empire, preventing at the very least the incorporation of southern Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba into the continental United States.  And yet this does not mean for a minute that they should earn progressive support or a reevaluation in the long arc of U.S. history – there were many 19th century thinkers and activists, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and Albert Parsons who opposed U.S. colonial expansion on the grounds of mutuality, solidarity, and common destiny with the peoples of the global south and east. And that seems to be the real tragedy of Paul. Because people cannot locate his anti- imperialism with a longer tradition of white nationalism that goes back to the 18th century, other voices of anti-imperial solidarity are that much harder to hear.


1. Eric T.L. Love, Race Over Empire:  Racism & U.S. Imperialism 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill, University of

North Carolina Press, 2004), 21. [↑]

2. Ibid, 21. [↑]

3. bid., 22. [↑]

4. bid., 56. [↑]

5. bid, 41. [↑]

6. Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism

(Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1981), 219. [↑]

7. Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion 1860-1898 (Ithaca, Cornell

University Press, 1963), 24-32. [↑]

8. Walt Whitman, The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Journalism (New York, PL Press, 1961),

358-67. [↑]

9. Immanuel Wallerstein and Etienne Balibar, Race, Nation, and Class: Ambiguous Identities (London, Verso, 1991), 32-5. [↑]

10. Ron Paul, Ron Paul Political Report June 1992, pg 1, online at  [↑]

11. Ibid., 11. [↑]

12. Ibid, 10. However, it should be noted, the federal government reneged on its “capitulation” so I suppose the terrorists didn’t “win” afterall. [↑]

13. Ibid, 1. [↑]

14. bid, 3. [↑]

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Benjamin Balthaser’s scholarship, teaching, and creative work investigates the relationships among social movements, racial identity, and cultural production. His current manuscript entitled Modernism and Anti-Imperialism: Global Movements and Radical Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War explores the connections between cross-border, anti-imperialist movements and the making of modernist culture at mid-century. Balthaser’s critical and creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as American Quarterly, The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Reconstruction, Minnesota Review and elsewhere. He also recently published a collection of poems about Jewish victims of the blacklist entitled Dedication, that appeared from Partisan Press in the fall of 2011.
All posts by: Benjamin Balthaser | Email | Website

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