In recent weeks, and particularly since the September 12th protests in Washington, a significant number of national commentators have advanced the notion that behind the stated objections raised against Obama by the Tea Bag/Town Hall/ September 12th protesters (and the much larger group that opinion polls indicate sympathize with them) there actually lies a deep undercurrent of racism.
The main evidence that is offered for this view is the deep underlying “us versus them” cognitive framework in which many of the protesters’ objections are expressed – “I want my country back”, “Obama hates white people”, “We are the real America.” It seems almost self-evident that when a group of white people pose issues in stark “us versus them” terms and when the person they are opposing is Black, then racism must somehow be intimately involved.
At the same time, it is also a very easy task to find examples of just about every imaginable form of anti-Black racial prejudice expressed somewhere or other in the vast number of broadcasts of various conservative talk radio commentators or in the comment threads of conservative discussion sites or in the texts of anonymous viral e-mails.
Combine item A with item B and op-ed commentaries accusing the protesters and their sympathizers of racism seem to literally jump out of the keyboard and write themselves.
But before concluding that anti-Black racism is actually a major source of the Tea Party/Town Hall protesters attitudes toward Obama, there are two additional steps that have to be taken: (1) to try to seriously gauge the extent (and not just the presence or absence) of racist attitudes among the protesters and (2) to consider possible alternative sources of deep “us versus them” polarization that might be behind the protesters’ attitudes.
To do this, it is necessary to look specifically at the stereotypes that exist about different social groups. It is group-specific stereotypes that distinguish one kind of prejudice from another — racial prejudice against African-Americans, for example, from prejudice against Mexicans, Moslems, radicals, homosexuals or drug users. These groups all experience hostility, prejudice and discrimination, but the specific stereotypes that define them are entirely different.
In America, there are two main categories of anti-Black racist stereotyping:
The first is older, segregation- era stereotypes of African Americans as “lazy”, “stupid” and/or violent sexual brutes. These segregation-era stereotypes are still widespread in overtly racist web sites like those of the Christian Identity, White Power and Neo-Nazi movements. They occasionally show up in more mainstream conservative sites and have sometimes appeared in e-mails sent by staff members of conservative political candidates and officials – particularly among staffers of the political dynasties in the South that have deep roots in the segregation era. Interestingly however none of these “old fashioned” racist slurs have gone massively viral and gained widespread popularity among conservatives and Republicans in the way that other attacks on Obama have done.
Overlaying the traditional racist images are four new and distinct post-civil rights era negative stereotypes of Blacks – (1) the angry and anti-white “black militant”, based on 1960’s figures like Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and Huey Newton (2) the “Welfare Queens” of the 1970’s and 1980’s , Black people supposedly “ too lazy to work” but driving Cadillacs while living off welfare (3) the “racial guilt hustler” (symbolized by African-American leaders like Al Sharpton) and (4) gangbangers and crack cocaine dealers, symbolized by swaggering “gangstas” with 9-millimeter pistols and gold teeth.
These new negative images are more widely disseminated than the segregation-era racist stereotypes. They frequently appear in discussions on the larger conservative web sites and are a staple of commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Mike Savage and others. While it is possible to criticize groups like gangbangers without intending to invoke any racist stereotypes, the context of the remarks usually gives the game away. When former civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis criticizes gangbangers, you know he’s not being racist; when former KKK leader David Duke calls their behavior “typical”, you know that he is.
But when one looks at the roughly 200-300 photos of the hand-made signs attacking Obama at the tea parties and Washington march that have been published on the major news and commentary sites, the striking fact is that attacks on Obama based on these racial stereotypes represent only a minor percentage of the total. Let’s quickly look at the main categories:
a. There were very few overt segregation-era stereotypes in the signs and slogans displayed at the Tea Parties and Washington march (i.e. images using monkeys, apes cannibals, bananas and watermelons, the staples of old-fashioned racist iconography). To be sure, it is easy to suspect that some protesters were simply concealing their true racist feelings, but if the “official” “white power” racists really thought these images would “resonate” with other conservative whites, they would have had their members gleefully display them in order to rally the apathetic white majority to their banners for the coming “race war”. On the contrary, however, in the internal debates over strategy on the racist websites, the leadership clearly warned their supporters not to alienate the other protesters by displaying overt and explicit racism.
b. There were only a very few signs tried to invoke the “Obama as former ghetto-punk/coke-snorter” image despite the fact that this line of attack was tried frequently during the campaign, supported by passages in Obama’s own autobiography.
c. Although both Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh energetically promoted the notion that Obama “hates white people”, there were relatively few attempts to portray him as an “angry black militant”, burning with hostility toward whites or to revive the Rev. Wright controversy.
d. Although there were some signs using the nomination of Sandra Sotomayer to accuse Obama of practicing quota politics or reverse racism they were also definitely a small and relatively isolated part of the total.
e. The only category of anti-Black racial stereotype that was clearly apparent was a series of modern variations on the “Welfare Queen” image – the notion that the “undeserving poor” were being supported by the taxes of hard-working Americans. One example of this was signs that blamed the housing crisis on loans to irresponsible Blacks. Another was signs depicting ACORN as the undeserving recipient of vast sums of government money. Notably, these stereotypes were not directly aimed at Obama and a far larger number of signs accused illegal immigrants rather than African Americans of being the principal welfare spongers and parasites. Anti-immigrant stereotypes of this kind can definitely be classed as racist, but not as specifically directed at either Obama or American Blacks.
In short, characterizations of Obama based on invoking the dominant and standard American racial stereotypes of African-Americans were a distinctly small part of the attacks on him and his administration.
In contrast, two profoundly different stereotypes of Obama were overwhelmingly widespread — indeed almost universally shared — among the demonstrators.
a. Obama as a modern Hitler or Stalin – a would-be dictator seeking to impose totalitarianism on America. More broadly, this view pictured Obama as a man who is the exponent of a foreign ideology, an alien, a stranger and an enemy of the American way of life. The two most dramatic expressions of this view were the notion that Obama is a secret anti-western Muslim and/or literally not an American at all – that he was not born in the USA.
b. Obama as a sinister, duplicitous, devious and charismatic demagogue – a master manipulator who only rules by virtue of brainwashing and lies. The most extreme and dramatic expression of this view is, of course, the image of Obama as literally the “anti-Christ.”
The central psychological fact about these two images is that they are simply not tapping into the basic and deeply embedded cognitive stereotypes that underlie anti-Black racism. If anything, they are actually much closer to the “yellow peril” stereotypes of the 1930’s — devious and sinister Asian villains portrayed in movie characters like Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless – rather than any common American stereotypes of African-Americans.
As a result, it is conceptually problematic to argue that this set of stereotypes actually reflects an underlying anti-Black racism. If the stereotypes that people are using are radically different from the deeply engrained anti-Black stereotypes of American society, then the assertion that they reflect underlying anti-Black racism does not have much empirical content. The views of the protesters are indeed deeply imbued with an underlying “us versus them” sensibility and they are indeed expressed by overwhelmingly white protesters against a Black president. But this falls short of demonstrating that specifically anti-Black racism is a central factor. There is, in fact, an alternative and more plausible explanation for these same results.
The “yellow peril” comparison suggests a much more robust conceptualization of the protesters attitudes – not as an antagonism against African-Americans in particular, but as a broader antagonism to the growing racial and social diversity of America in general – to the replacement of a white-dominated, traditional, conservative small-town American culture with a “Tiger Woods” racial mélange of white, black, brown red and yellow Americans and an eclectic urbanized culture of diverse tastes, values, music, clothing, slang and even sexual preference and expression. It is a reaction against a new world of Spanish signs on stores, Asians and Indian families moving in next door, gays calmly accepted as part of ordinary daily life and the necessity of having to be retrained in new jobs and fields in response to the economic demands of a complex globalized world. The “real America” the protesters want to restore is the America of Tom Sawyer and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” – a culture rooted in the rural and small town values that are still a very real and significant part of America.
Democrats need to call this perspective by its correct name. It is not simply anti-Black racism, but rather a modern version of the “nativism” or cultural xenophobia that has been a recurring feature of American culture and politics throughout the country’s history – a fear not simply of alien and foreign ideas but of wrenching social and cultural change in general.
This outlook was a powerful force in the early decades of the twentieth century when millions of European immigrants transformed America into an industrial society of large cities. In that era it was the “dirty” Poles, Jews, and Italians who were “taking away our country” from the Anglo-Saxon Protestants of small town America as they filled the factories and bustling ethnic neighborhoods of the industrial cities. Along with their strange languages and customs they brought foreign religious beliefs — “Papist heresies” from the catholic countries of southern and Eastern Europe — and European ideologies like socialism and anarchism.
The response was a fierce anti-immigrant and anti-cosmopolitan reaction — a demand to protect traditional small town American way of life from the corrupting influence of big cities and a profound fear of “pollution” from foreign cultures, religious ideas and ideologies. A wide range of laws were passed and campaigns launched against immigrants, Asians, socialists, anarchists, trade unions, Catholics and many other aspects of the new, industrial 20th century world.
Confusing this culturally conservative, politically reactionary “nativism” with “racism” against African-Americans is not only sociologically inaccurate but politically counterproductive. It provokes a sincere, self-righteous indignation on the part of the protesters and their sympathizers because they genuinely and correctly feel that in opposing Obama they are not actually thinking about the traditional racist stereotypes of African-Americans – they know in their hearts that the color of Obama’s skin or possible loyalty to his “brothers in the hood” is far, far, far down on the long and bitter list of objections they have to him and everything he represents.
Just consider how utterly stupid and idiotic conservatives seem to serious Democrats when they smugly tell each other that progressives and Democrats are all really “fascists” because they support a variety of mild social-democratic polices. Within their closed ideological bubble the conservatives feel quite certain that they have achieved a deep psychological insight by recognizing that latent Adolph Hitlers lie just beneath the surface of everyone from Teddy Kennedy to Robert Redford and Jane Goodall. They actually sit around and pat themselves on the back for their penetrating aptitude at psychological analysis.
This is exactly how stupid progressives and Democrats appear to culturally conservative Americans when they label as “racism” beliefs that these Americans know are in reality vastly different and more complex. It makes Democrats appear to be trapped in a smug, self-satisfied ideological bubble just as pathetic as the fevered alternative universe of the delusional right.
Let’s be clear. This is not the same as saying that genuine anti-black racism doesn’t exist. It most certainly does. It extends far beyond the “official” racist websites and organizations to significant sectors of the Deep South Republican Party that are still in thrall to segregation-era political dynasties. In addition, many fundamentally racist attitudes – such as the 1970’s-1980’s notion that all Blacks were “welfare cheaters too lazy to work” — have been transferred onto Mexican and other Latino immigrants – supporting the idea that they come to the US to freeload off welfare, for example. Specifically anti-Black Racism is also alive and well –just look at the myths about Blacks causing the housing crisis or that portray ACORN as a cross between the New Jersey mafia and the Nazi Gestapo — but this racism not at all subtle, subliminal or covert. It’s a definable and measurable social reality.
The reality is that the threat Obama poses to the world and culture of the protesters and the wider circle of people who sympathize with them is far more extensive and profound than any “hate whitey” bias or goal of advancing African-American interests against those of whites. Obama’s America is multiracial and multicultural. It is young, educated, urban and tolerant. The “real America” of the protesters, in contrast, is culturally conservative, racially homogeneous, small town and stubbornly committed to traditional views. The extremism and desperation with which the protesters threaten to literally secede from the union or launch a violent revolution to restore the lost “real America” paradise of the past is a measure of how deeply they sense that in the long run the odds are stacked against them.
It is easy to view the demand to “give me back my country” as nothing more than a racist resistance to a Black chief executive. But it is not. The protesters real enemy is the complex and uncertain multiracial and globalized future that Obama represents and which they desperately wish to hold at bay