By David K. Shipler
The alleged murderer Dylann Roof may have entered the bible study group in Charleston from that fringe of white supremacists that have always plagued America, but the stereotypes they hold of African-Americans are also woven into much mainstream conservative commentary by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and others. One telling overlap is their assertion that whites are in peril; Beck has called Obama a racist who hates whites, Roof is said to have expressed fears that blacks were taking over, threatening whites.
Ironically, the election of a black president has enabled old racial assumptions to be embedded and camouflaged within legitimate political criticism. The images are cleverly encrypted, but they may be blatant as well. Google “Obama ape” and you will see dozens of Photoshopped pictures of Michelle and Barack Obama as primates, playing off that traditional American calumny of blacks as subhuman. You can buy them on T-shirts and babies’ onesies. When they are circulated online, sometimes by Republican office-holders, the caricatures create an odd counterpoint of racial prejudice alongside the non-bigotry that most voters demonstrated by twice electing the first African-American in the White House.
Low-level officials and candidates often suffer some informal punishment for stepping so crudely over the line of decency. Marilyn Davenport, for example, a Tea Party member of the Republican Central Committee of Orange County, California, forwarded a doctored photo of two adult chimpanzees and their baby, bearing Obama’s face. “Now you know why no birth certificate,” the caption said. After a mild uproar that embarrassed her, she insisted that she wasn’t racist and didn’t think of Obama as black. She got enough support from constituents that she defied the committee chairman’s demand that she resign.
The subhuman caricature is one of about a half-dozen traditional anti-black stereotypes that have a long history in American culture. Using each of them as a lens to examine criticisms of Obama can be illuminating. Not that Obama doesn’t deserve criticism, of course, but the racial component regularly magnifies the commentary, at least for those who hold the negative views of blacks that are implied. Let’s take them one at a time.
1. Subhuman: When the commentator Glenn Beck was still at Fox News, he showed a clip of Obama denouncing special interests at a labor union event. Beck then held his head, wailed, and poked the AFL-CIO logo behind Obama on the screen. “Special interests!” Beck raged. “What planet have I landed on? Did I slip through a wormhole in the middle of the night? And this looks like America. It’s like the damned Planet of the Apes!” The line was not impromptu, obviously, because Fox’s studio engineer was ready with an immediate clip from the movie, a scene of apelike men surrounding a white man captured in a net, who was shouting, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!” Beck went on to host his own successful online show, which is carried by some cable services.
2. Angry, Violent, Dangerous: Limbaugh, whose daily radio talk show draws millions of listeners and has an impact on conservative political argument, frequently speaks of Obama’s anger, saying he’s got a chip on his shoulder. This, despite Obama’s effort to avoid being seen as the stereotypical angry black man—to the chagrin of some of his supporters, who wish he’d get angry with Republicans who have undermined him. “I think he’s motivated by anger,” Limbaugh has said. “He’s got a chip on his shoulder, a number of them . . . the days of them not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry. He’s going to cut this country down to size. He’s going to make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made—its mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on here.” In another monologue, Limbaugh declared: “Obama’s plan is based on his inherent belief that this country was immorally and illegitimately founded by a very small minority of white Europeans who screwed everybody else since the founding to get all the money and all the goodies, and it’s about time that the scales were made even.”
3. “Other:” Blacks have often been thought of as different, others, not part of “us,” meaning us whites. And whites have told me in interviews that the more dramatically blacks emphasize their blackness in dress, hairstyle, language, and music, the less approachable they seem. In Obama’s case this has translated into the birther movement—the allegation that he was not born in the US—and the assertions that he is a socialist and a Muslim (Muslim also being a code now for dangerous).
Once the birther movement tapered off, the caricature shifted to Obama as not truly American, “more African in his roots than he is American,” Limbaugh said. Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado declared at a fundraiser: “I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States or not, but I do know this: that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.”
4. Uppity, Arrogant: It is a long tradition to regard blacks with power—undeserved power, in the prejudiced mind—as arrogant, and if you Google “Obama arrogant” pictures of him with his chin raised haughtily will appear on your screen. When Obama passionately defended his Affordable Care Act, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan said, “It’s arrogant, it’s arrogant. It was really a smugness, arrogance, and self-confidence.” Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay called Obama “Arrogant in Chief.” Of course you need an ego to get to the White House, and we’ve all watched Obama for enough years to judge for ourselves, but arrogant strikes me as out of tune with what I’ve seen. Exasperated, yes, but understandably so!
5. Lazy: “Let me focus on the lazy,” said Limbaugh. “He’s on his sixth vacation. He really doesn’t appear to work very hard . . . I don’t think it’s laziness. I think it’s arrogance. I think Obama thinks of himself as above the job.”
6. Stupid: It’s hard to pin this on Obama, but some commentators are undaunted by his obviously intelligence. They mocked him for using a teleprompter—has any other president been ridiculed for using the device? It was a way of dismissing his facility with words, casting his eloquence as a mask across an emptiness of substance. He’s in over his head, an incompetent leader. Again, there is nothing illegitimate in a president’s being criticized for incompetence (we’ve had a run of them), but combined with allusions to the longstanding images of blacks as mentally inferior, the condemnations are based less on specifics than on prejudice. Limbaugh, for example, has asserted that his blackness got him elected in a kind of political affirmative action, because whites did not want to be thought of as racists, even in the privacy of the voting booth, apparently.
It would be interesting to know if Roof was a consumer of mainstream commentary as well as marginal, hateful web sites. It would be interesting to know what commentators or web sites contribute to the world views of trigger-happy white policemen who think of black men as automatically dangerous. This poisonous stuff is in the air we breathe.
This is not to say that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the others who trade in racial images are directly responsible for the violence. They cannot be held accountable for that. But they can be held accountable for failing to use their megaphones to counter, rather than reinforce, the society’s time-worn prejudices.