By David K. Shipler
Americans who are honest with themselves can perform a mental exercise to test the proposition that Barack Obama is a victim of racial prejudice. Change his race to white and, for good measure, change his Kenyan father to a Swede. Name him Olander. Then listen closely to what is being said about Obama, apply it to Olander and hear how it sounds. Is it off key? Does it have resonance? Would 41 percent of Republicans believe that a president with a Swedish father and a white mother from Kansas was born in another country?
Arab-Americans have been doing a variation of this for years to make the point that if “Jews” are substituted for “Muslims” or “Arabs” in cartoons or epithets, the result in polite company would be a gasp of horror.
Once revealed and called by its right name, a stereotype can be addressed, and that may be the perverse benefit of Obama’s need to get a waiver from Hawaii to obtain his original birth certificate. The word “race” has finally entered the vocabulary of a few commentators and editorial boards. The candor may be curative.
It is more common in modern America for the stereotype to remain encrypted and wrapped in layers of denial, where it festers. When it appears, it is camouflaged to look legitimate, a shape-shifter mutating into various accepted forms. Did he actually deserve admission into Columbia and Harvard? Is he a Muslim? Does he harbor an alien ideology, like socialism? Is he really one of us? Where is he truly from?
Race is the insidious component of these comments, unmentioned because it doesn’t have to be. It silently animates the questioning and flows invisibly into the imagery like an undercurrent of code. Yet interactions across racial lines are usually ambiguous. They may be about race, but not only race. They may be malicious or just innocently ignorant. Many African-Americans who know this spend energy asking themselves again and again: Is a criticism or a slight rooted in some hidden core of bigotry, or is it just a raceless, equal-opportunity affront?
The uncertainty leaves room to dismiss accusations of racism out of hand, without serious inquiry. All you have to do is to imagine that it isn’t there. This is the tactic used by Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingers, who conduct preemptive strikes against discussion. The left, they complain, tries to discredit all legitimate criticism of Obama by branding it as racism. So, how do you cut through this fog of war? Where does the President’s race play in all this?
There is a key to the code. It is written in the raw stereotypes of blacks that have flourished throughout modern American history. Lay the images and beliefs out on the table one by one and see whether the questions and caricatures of Obama fit the longstanding patterns.
Take the collection of fantasies portraying Obama as alien: He was born abroad. He is a Muslim (forgetting the ravings of his Protestant pastor, Jeremiah Wright). He supports such un-American ideas as socialism. Little is truly known about him, less than any other president, Limbaugh has declared (forgetting Obama’s two introspective memoirs and his transparent biography). The campaign to render him mysterious, different, and inscrutable is designed to make him alien to us.
Blacks in America have long been stigmatized as “different,” apart from the mainstream. Sociologists have tested whites’ prejudices in studies using a “social distance scale,” in which respondents are asked to record the level of their discomfort in having a black as a co-worker, then a neighbor, then an in-law. As the distance is reduced, the resistance rises.
In my research for A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, some whites explained how they perceive distance between them and an African-American, often from the first moment of encounter: a sense of apartness determined by the darkness of the skin, the flatness of the nose, the thickness of the lips, the style of the hair, the clothing, the accent. Some whites conceded that they were less comfortable with a black American who wore African clothes or cornrows than a business suit or straightened hair.
Many African-Americans know this, too, so to get along in the white working world, they straighten their hair, wear business suits, and shed their ghetto dialect at the office door. In other words, they “act white.” A California professor even told me that as she drove onto campus, she switched her car radio from R&B to classical.
Obama has none of the “ghetto” or “African” characteristics except for skin color, and of course he is just as “white” as he is “black,” since his mother was white. His speech is erudite and middle-American. His kinky hair is cropped so closely that it nearly disappears. He talks less about race than Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson did. So to emphasize Obama’s “otherness,” the right-wing movement of absurdists has questioned his place of birth, his religion, his commitment to red-white-and-blue capitalism, and his true agenda.
Because he is biracial and lived part of his childhood in Indonesia, because he worked as a community organizer in Chicago and his world is the multiethnic real world, he seems to create anxiety among some who want to live in the monochromatic world. He represents much of what makes them nervous about the country, bringing that tumultuous, diverse real world into the sanctuary that once felt safe and predictable. At some level, his extremist detractors may be afraid of the new America that he personifies.
Another set of slanders fits into another potent stereotype of blacks—supposed lack of intelligence. It’s hard to use this label on Obama, who exudes brilliance. But being smart in a powerful position may also be an irritant for whites who feel more comfortable with the caricature of the deferent, shuffling, inarticulate, and slow-witted. Therefore, when black people excel, they are sometimes derided as the products of unfair advantage bestowed by affirmative action. Into that pattern slides the latest canard, repeated by Donald Trump after he took credit for getting Obama to release his birth certificate: the innuendo that Obama did not deserve to be admitted to Ivy League schools.
“The word is, according to what I’ve read, that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental,” Trump told reporters, referring to Occidental College, which Obama attended before transferring. “He then gets to Columbia, he then gets to Harvard. I heard at Columbia he wasn’t a very good student. He then gets to Harvard. How do you get into Harvard if you’re not a good student? Now maybe that’s right or maybe it’s wrong, but I don’t know why he doesn’t release his records. Why doesn’t he release his Occidental records? . . . It’s an interesting thing.”
Trump added a little dig that, he may not have realized, also called up an old racial stereotype: He said that Obama should get “off his basketball court” and get oil prices reduced. Blacks have long been stigmatized as possessing physical prowess at the expense of mental acuity—good athletes, bad thinkers. Was Trump being inadvertent or cunning?
It is a sorry fact of the American legacy that identical criticisms of whites and blacks mean very different things. History will not leave us alone. George W. Bush was incessantly heckled from the left for his supposed stupidity. A bumper sticker denouncing his warrantless surveillance program read: BUSH IS LISTENING. USE BIG WORDS. Since Bush is not black, no longstanding stereotype was summoned; if the same bumper sticker ridiculed Obama, it would strike an ugly chord of historic bigotry.
Similarly, portrayals of white and black presidents as primates generate very different reactions. In 2004, when an artist named Christopher Savido displayed a portrait he’d done of Bush composed of tiny images of chimpanzees, the exhibition was closed by a director of the Chelsea Market in Manhattan outraged by the rude politics of the piece. There was no racial context, obviously.
But when a picture of Obama as a baby chimp was circulated in 2011 it had another implication, given the longstanding caricature of blacks as subhuman primates. Marilyn Davenport, a Republican Central Committee member in Orange County, California, e-mailed a doctored photo showing Obama’s face on a baby chimp alongside two chimpanzee parents, with the caption, “Now you know why—No birth certificate.”
At least part of the Republican establishment was embarrassed enough that she apologized defensively. “I feel that it was inappropriate and I offended people,” she admitted, but then added: “I think it’s only racist when the intent in my heart is to make it that way, and that was not the intent in my heart.”
Perhaps, to give her the benefit of the doubt, she had no intent in her conscious mind. But when it comes to racial stereotypes buried deeply within the American experience, the heart often beats in age-old rhythms.