In each administration, there emerges something to mock, caricaturize, and stereotype. With Bill Clinton, it was his sex addiction and bulbous nose—both issues he has written about or commented on in the press. With Jimmy Carter, it was peanut farming, and with George W. Bush the list is long: reading children’s books turned upside down, political stunts on aircraft carriers, and the misguided invasion of Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. So, caricaturizing Obama’s wide-extending ears or even how his administration rolled out health care reform fits with prior discourse. These are the shots politicians take as presidents.
Yet, noticeably, this administration has been the subject of more pronounced and pernicious attacks. Here, I’m not speaking of policy, partisanship, hopes that Obama will fail in stabilizing an economy wrecked by fighting multiple wars, or other attacks on job performance. No, the attacks I and so many of you have observed are deeply aggressive, racialized, and hateful. Some of the attacks present Obama as a stereotyped misogynistic black male. Take for example Kimberly Small’s Facebook page. In a shallow attempt to bring attention and humor to her Web site, the candidate for the Illinois legislature recently posted two provocative commentaries. One calls Michelle Obama a “hoochie mama” for wearing what has mistakenly been described as a short skirt to the Kids’ Choice Awards. In reality it was a tunic with grey skinny jeans and not a skirt. Small defended the post by saying she was offended—by Obama’s jeans??
Then, Small posted a particularly racist joke on her Facebook page. The joke, which she borrowed from elsewhere, depicts the president grabbing Michelle Obama by the collar and the seat of her pants, picking her up against her will (while she’s screaming and protesting), and throwing her onto a baseball field. The crowd cheers and slaps high-fives. The “joke” is that Obama misunderstood that he was to throw out “the first pitch.”
This level of gutter commentary and racial vitriol about the Obamas defies the notion that the U.S. has entered a “postracial” era. To the contrary, it seems that race-baiters have decidedly reified racial tensions over the past few years. First it started with clever attempts to protest the Affordable Care Act—with signs caricaturing the president with a huge bone through the nose. That is joined by Paula Smith’s hot-selling $3 bumper stickers urging Obama not to “Re-Nig”. Ms. Smith thinks it’s cute. Then there are the racial throw-back t-shirts, depicting Obama as a monkey either eating a banana, or Sean Delonas’s cartoon of police shooting dead a crazed chimpanzee. The caption refers to the chimp as author of the stimulus bill. There’s no end to them; the president shining Sarah Palin’s shoes, Michelle Obama as an aging monkey, etc.
One need only follow online commentary to get a sense of the racial hatred against the president, his wife, and even their children. There have been the Facebook calls to assassinate the president and “his monkey children.” And white-victimology:
“Well boy and girls, the Obama nigger has once again targeted everyday Americans with new legislation. … That’s right, you can be shot because Buckwheat down the road said you hate niggers, or muslims…”
A quick Google search illuminates far more than postracialism admits to. For example, there’s this site that promises that you can bash “Nigger Obama free from censorship.” And this one too: yourniggerpresident.wordpress.com.
Some suggest this is fair game—presidents must take what’s thrown at them. However, I would beg to suggest that in this case, the bumper stickers, cartoons, political slip-ups by candidates running for office (including Santorum’s ambiguous “nig-uh” stammer three months ago), etc. reveal a serious setback in the United States, where everyone loses. This is anything but racial progress. Indeed, I’m reminded of comments in Look magazine after the acquittal of Emmet Till’s murderers more than 50 years ago. The murderers killed the 14-year-old for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam explained to William Bradford Huie, a reporter for Look, that they felt justified in killing the boy. In their confession, which the magazine published, in January, 1956), Milam recounts the final moments of Till’s life; he was shot (Milam beat him earlier that evening with a pistol), and barbwired by the neck to a cotton gin. Both Till and the cotton gin were thrown into the Tallahatchie River.
Letters to the editor following the story were as revealing as the confession. Richard Lauchi of Collinsville, Illinois commented “Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam did what had to be done, and their courage in taking the course they did is to be commended.” Decades later, similar responses to the Martin case can be found in newspapers and on Web sites.
As a parent of a teenager who was first called nigger when she was three years old—by a four-year-old classmate—I’m doubtful that her world will be postracial. If anything, we are deeply, racially entrenched and unwilling to admit it.