The first nine months of Barack Obama's presidency have witnessed accomplishments (pulling the economy back from the brink) and disappointments (the broken promises to the gay and lesbian community). If you are of a certain age, you have seen this strange and often dispiriting first year blend of callousness, courage, and concession before, and it is too soon to know how this story will be told two or three years from now.
But there is one story that can be told right now. This is the story of the resurgence of mainstream, Main Street racism in the wake of Obama's election. For a surprising number of people in America, the election of the first African-American president has become a license to print (and speak, and circulate) hate. The testing of the new rules began slowly at first: in February a mayor in California sends an email representing the White House as surrounded by a watermelon farm ("No Easter Egg Hunt this year"); in May, a Republican staffer in Tennessee circulates an "Historical Keepsake Photo" dignifying all the U. S. Presidents with official portraits or photographs -- save for President Obama, who is represented by a field of black with two bug-eyes staring bewildered from the shadows. Then, as the "tea party movement" heated up this summer, and the hate came spilling out onto the street: a litany of signs decrying President Obama as a "Lyin' African," the endless parade of "birther" signs suggesting that Obama "go back to Kenya," all taking their cues from the movement's leadership -- men like Dr. David McKalip who forwarded to his fellow "activists" a photoshopped image of Obama as a bone-in-nose wearing witch-doctor. "Funny stuff," McKalip wrote to his correspondents.
These "jokes," all of them, are straight out of a long line of racist imagery going back to the origins of the form, cartoons portraying uppity people of color mimicking the white folk -- and making a travesty of everything in the process. Illustrated magazines in the 19th Century (Harper's Weekly, Life) ran these cartoons regularly, and I have for years used them as a historical lesson in my classes on the power of racist imagery. Apparently, however, the election of the first black president, far from making these jokes unintelligible or intolerable relics from a bygone age, has made them newly (and newly acceptable) "funny stuff" for a growing numbers of people.
Of course, these jokes never went out of fashion -- they just left the mainstream media and buried themselves deep inside the institutions that govern society. It is this "joke" that underwrites the violence directed at young African-Americans guilty of the travesty of driving while black, or the arrest of an African-American man in his own home guilty of being an irate homeowner in a "nice" neighborhood. And it is the "joke" that empowers a backbencher from South Carolina to call the President a liar in a congressional address.
So, there is nothing surprising about seeing the resurgence of this brand of racism based on the "joke" (always a mask for the humorist's deepest fears of a Black Planet) now that a black man is in the white (man's) house. Nor is there anything surprising in the new media that has been used to disseminate them; all of these incidents began as "funny" emails forwarded to friends or listserv groups -- but specifically designed (like racism itself) "to go viral."
What has surprised me, although it shouldn't, has been the role (at once passive and deeply cynical) in all of this played by mainstream media. No longer able to depend on big media (like Harper's in the 19th Century) to spread its message, those with an investment in propagating racism have increasingly turned to new digital media to spread their message -- a new media that is in the very process, we are told, of ringing the death knell for the news industry. Racism has of course long played a vital role in the popularization and legitimization of emerging media in the United Stated (as Michael Rogin pointed out, for example, "the founding Hollywood movie, The Birth of a Nation, celebrates the Ku Klux Klan. The first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was a blackface film"). One might, therefore, imagine a role for the now "old" media of television and daily newspapers in counteracting the renewed mass circulation of racist humor on the Internet, perhaps deploying some of that investigative reporting, editorial perspective, or, at the very least, basic coverage they have been going on about while lamenting their imminent doom. Instead, mainstream media has found a role to play that relies entirely on their decorous, even righteous, silence.
There was not one mainstream account, for example, of a May email sent by a Republican official decrying "the black house and its minions" (well, none in the U.S. media, anyway; it was covered in London papers and called by its proper name). The Los Alamitos mayor's watermelon White House postcard elicited some media coverage, but only after the mayor resigned (retaining his council seat), and mostly highlighting the obvious absurdity of the former mayor's statement that "he was unaware of any racial stereotypes associated with watermelons." Sherri Goforth's "Historical Keepsake" elicited virtually no mainstream news response whatsoever.
This doesn't mean people aren't seeing these images, reading these words. They likely reside somewhere right now in your computer's browser cache or archived email. They certainly reside for the foreseeable future on the Internet itself in countless blogs, both delighted and outraged by the messages. And increasingly they are bubbling back up into the accepted daily discourse of American life.
Meanwhile the mainstream media sits off at the sideline, discussing the birther movement with its back-to-Africa chants as if there are legitimate concerns here that have nothing to do with racism. And when Joe Wilson calls the president a liar on global television, and folks who know a thing or two about racism -- from Jimmy Carter to Spike Lee -- state unequivocally that race has a whole lot of something to do with this unprecedented speech act, the media can stare at their own monitors in innocent bewilderment: "Where? I don't see any racism. Do you?"
And they don't, and you won't, at least not on your television news or in your city's daily paper. The images of the tea party protests on broadcast television were devoid of any of the images and signs decrying the President as an "African" out to create a system of "White Slavery" -- just as the media has for the most part turned a blind eye to the "jokes" that are circulating through their computers as surely as they are through ours. In their deliberate silence on the racism they see openly articulated when they visit the rallies or read their audience's emails, the mainstream media makes the racism as invisible -- and therefore as natural -- as air. And even as we see the open articulation of racism directed against the President moving closer and closer to the center of political discourse, the mainstream media now presents itself as innocent and pure and thus perpetuates perhaps the most insidious myth of all: the notion that race has nothing to do with it.
Keith Knight, in a recent installment of his comic The K Chronicles (Sep. 21), began with a panel portraying an African-American man in the process of being lynched by a mob of white men. "You're doing this because I'm black, aren't you?" "See?" one of the mob complains, exasperated. "There you go again!! Pulling the race card." Tom Tomorrow tackled the absurd logic of "post-racial" racism in his own comic, This Modern World (Sep. 22), concluding with a panel showing two Klansmen complaining, "It's getting so a fella can't even wear a pointy hood and burn a cross -- without being accused of racism!"
No, Virginia (or any of the states on the "Tea Party Express II: Countdown to Judgment Day Tour"), dissent and opposition is not racism: it is healthy and necessary to any democracy. However, lynching, cross-burning, or portraying the President as an "African witch doctor" is racism, and as both Knight and Tomorrow insist we cannot allow that distinction to be lost. We cannot allow acts of racism to be tolerated or winked at, even for an instant. When protests erupt at the prospect of the president talking with school kids "alone" (as one radio talk show host wailed), one doesn't have to look very hard to see the racist fear of "predatory black men" behind the hysterical tears.
Only the most idealistic imagined that the election of the nation's first African American president would dissipate the deep legacy of American racism. But only the most hard-bitten cynic could have anticipated the paradox resulting from this historical event, in which we are told by old media that our election of an African American President has magically inoculated the nation from racism, while the racism circulates with unparalleled ferocity via new media. In their stalwart refusal to acknowledge the ways that race is very much in the limelight of opposition to our current president, the mainstream media makes all-too plausible the seemingly outlandish scenarios imagined by Knight and Tomorrow. This last month saw a Facebook poll asking for people's opinions about killing the president. Tragically, we also learned of the lynching of a part-time census worker in Kentucky, whose bound-and-gagged body was found with the word "FED" scrawled on his chest. As violent resistance against the Federal government increasingly becomes intertwined with racist fears and fantasies, I fear we may already be there.