On the November 4 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio program, G. Gordon Liddy spoke to a caller who stated: “I’m ready to go to the concentration camp, that [Sen. Barack] Obama’s police force — he will round me up. Because I — I’m a white American.” Liddy then said, “Well, listen to this,” and aired an edited clip of Obama saying in a July 2 speech in Colorado Springs: “We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.” Liddy then stated: “Shades of the Gestapo. The Geheime Staatspolizei,” to which the caller replied: “How’s the cooking going to be? What will — what will they serve, at the camp?” Liddy responded: “Well, I think, probably, there’ll be ham hocks and turnip greens.”
What does it look like to have an African-American in the White House? Pop culture has offered versions awful and great, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Chris Rock.
If Barack Obama wins Tuesday, he might begin his victory speech by thanking Dennis Haysbert.
At least Dennis Haysbert seems to think so. Months ago, he declared that his portrayal of a black president on Fox’s “24” series had paved the way for the real-life senator from Illinois. “If anything, my portrayal of David Palmer, I think, may have helped open the eyes of the American people. And I mean the American people from across the board — from the poorest to the richest, every color and creed, every religious base — to prove the possibility there could be an African-American president, a female president, any type of president that puts the people first.”
He may be on to something. As one of “24’s” most dedicated and ambivalent fans, I have always marveled that a single program could accommodate both Dick Cheneyesque interrogation techniques and the liberal wet dream that is David Palmer. Unassailable in his goodness, ironclad in his resolve, Palmer is only incidentally a black man, and he is, not so coincidentally, everything you could want or need in a commander in chief. In the checks-and-balances universe of “24,” a figure of such virtue cannot live indefinitely, and in the opening episode of Season 5, David Palmer was duly sent to his reward. His legacy lived on, fitfully, in younger brother Wayne (D.B. Woodside), who overcame his wicked-pol origins (and his goatee) to become the Bobby to David’s JFK. “24” is hyper-adrenalized pulp, but pulp can be as good a teacher as art — better, maybe — and it’s hard to deny that six years of the Palmer brothers have inured a whole segment of Fox America to the sight of black faces in the Oval Office. But, in fact, the Palmers are just the latest milepost in a long road of acculturation that has taken several curious detours along the way.
To the audiences of the early 20th century, perhaps the most defining image of black power was provided by “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), which shows the Reconstruction Legislature of South Carolina overrun by barefoot black legislators — an open reproach to everything white civilization holds dear. Given the prevailing political climate, it’s no wonder that the idea of a black president, before it could be broached anywhere else, had to be considered through the prism of fantasy.
In 1926, a Brazilian children’s author named Monteiro Lobato had to look far into the future — the year 2228, to be exact — to imagine an African-American president. In Lobato’s obscure, half-prescient novel, “O Presidente Negro (The Black President),” a politician named Jim Roy, leader of the Black Association party, actually succeeds in claiming America’s highest office, only to be undone by a coalition between the incumbent white president and a white feminist named Evelyn Astor. Roy is murdered in short order, leaving his race to be sterilized into extinction by “the Aryan super-civilization.” See where ambition gets you?
Fantasy of a different order is on view in “Rufus Jones for President” (1933), a bizarre Vitaphone musical short in which a black mother (the great jazz-blues singer Ethel Waters) dreams that her little boy (an immediately recognizable Sammy Davis Jr.) has been elected president. A modern viewer barely has time to register the aspiration before recoiling at the racial slurs that were common to that day: black voters lured to the polls with free pork chops; Rufus celebrating his victory with a half-eaten piece of chicken; a presidential platform that calls for unlatching chicken coops and planting watermelon vines close to the fence.
From bulging eyes to happy feet, scarcely a single racist trope is omitted from this 23-minute film. But perhaps the most disturbing sight is Davis, whose grown-up clothing and prematurely aged face give him the appearance less of a child than of a midget. It’s as though the filmmakers understood that the only way to make a black president pass with Depression-era audiences was to shrink him into freakish insignificance.
Nashville Post Politics
Posted on November 3, 2008 at 10:44 am
A white working class voter tells a brown skinned Indian why she will not be voting for a black candidate for president:
A scrawny white woman in her 50s answered the door, smoking a cigarette. When she found out I was for Obama, she smiled and told me I had the wrong house which I did. But we still got talking and she told me she could not vote for him because he is black and he would only take care of black people. She went on to say “His mom is white.. why does he call himself black? He is half-white but he calls himself black because he only cares about black people.”
I could not really respond to this but as I was leaving after more small talk about the election, she said
with a air of resignation, “It’s true.. I cannot afford more years like these last years.” with a heaviness that spoke to me immediately despite what I had just heard from her.
Most of all, I came away very surprised that someone would tell me such racially charged things in the most pleasant manner when I clearly stood out as a brown-skinned Indian-American in that poor white working class neighborhood.
The election is almost here and the news involving racism just gets more complex with each passing day. While a few commentators wonderwhether the country is truly prepared for a black President, while McCain says race will “play no part” in the election and Obama calls on the “better angels” and tries to reassure voters that they do not need to fear “secret racism.” The facile notion that racists will vote for McCain and those free of racism will vote for Obama is far too simplistic to hold much weight in this intricate knot of an election season (image from here). Some of the complexity here around racism is illustrated in a thoughtful piece at Salon.com by James Hannaham, called “Racists for Obama”. About half way in, Hannaham makes this provocative observation:
“The number of racists who aren’t voting for Obama isn’t as interesting as the number of racists who are. That he has any racist supporters at all points to a quality in bigotry that few people ever acknowledge — flexibility. It’s usually assumed that racism is all-powerful, that it alone will cause someone to vote against a black candidate. But blackness is just one possible plus or minus in a balance sheet with many entries. In an abysmal economy during which the white candidate’s campaign has seemed disorganized and erratic, common sense or shared values can prevail over gut fears about the color of a candidate’s skin.”
Hannaham then goes on to refer to the analogy (attributed to Democratic strategist Paul Begala) about asking a white voter, “How would you feel about a large black man kicking your door in,” they would say, “That doesn’t sound good to me… “ But any reasonable person would change their response if they heard the additional information that “Your house is on fire, and the firefighter happens to be black.” Hannaham uses that to argue:
“Perhaps urgent circumstances require so much self-interest that racism can wait, at least until the crisis is over. Maybe this is why Obama’s poll numbers seemed to rise along with the volatility of the world’s financial markets.”
These are interesting times to try and understand the complexiites of racial politics. I do hope that tomorrow people will call on their “better angels,” or simply their self-interest, and vote for change.
The Threat of Race
Barack Obama’s candidacy for the American Presidency has proved that racism in America is pretty much a thing of the past. Whether or not he wins, a black man has broken the barrier of racism in American politics. His candidacy has proven how inconsequential racism has become in a land long scarred by it. If a black man can rise to the nation’s highest office and can occupy the most powerful position in the world, racism can be no more than the sometime pernicious, occasionally violent but decidedly intermittent expressions of misguided individuals. The deep commitment to freedom of expression means that the country will just have to put up with these anomalies. It is the price to be paid for America’s unstinting commitment to liberty.
Or so mainstream political pundits would have it. And perhaps America’s Main Street too.
Underpinning this position is the presumption, sometimes a charge, that any invocation of race is wrong. Whether to signal differentiated experiences, to explain pernicious treatment, or to indicate unfair burdens borne, invoking race is considered a wrong worse than the experiences, treatment, or burdens themselves. Expression, it seems, is free so long as hewing to the prescribed script. Some, it turns out, are freer than others. And that freedom still very much tracks racially.
To keep insisting that Obama introduced race into the presidential campaign by saying he doesn’t look like past presidents on America’s paper currency is to keep introjecting race into the campaign. It is to keep reminding the electorate that Barack Obama is black, “not like us,” different than “we” are used to, a “risky choice.” And to do so in the guise of insisting that in this polity one should not now publicly speak of race by naming it; race can only be spoken for the most part by indirection. ThatObama is black introduces race into the campaign; which is another way of saying that in America a serious black presidential contender still inevitably makes race a factor. Just as an all-white field would but only silently, without mentioning it, making it a non-thought.
Why should this surprise? One of George W. Bush’s Republican Convention Committees had three joint honorary chairs, each representing America’s major minorities (blacks, Hispanics, women). This at a party convention the racial minority delegates for which comprised less than 5 percent of the total. The point, of course, was to attract “target of opportunity” votes. For a polity in which race and gender are to make no preferential distinction, they clearly have remained compelling variables in the political calculus. It may be illegitimate to name race; but the denial is at once to re-affirm its tentacled hold. Perhaps the very point of the persistent denial.