Obama's Rockwell Choice and Response Tell the Story

08/28/2011 05:42 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2011

As a scholar of public opinion, I love to read the comments following articles. Scholars of racial attitudes have found it harder to get individuals to reveal racist beliefs to strangers over the phone. We call it the principle policy gap. Whites tend to support the principle of racial equality, but oppose even very limited forms of civil rights enforcement, that help bring about equality. While some call this "principled conservatism," others have used a variety of techniques including experiments to show that both conscious and unconscious racist motives drive these choices. The Internet however, has provided for me, a treasure trove of data. Articles about immigrants, poverty, the president, sports etc. are accompanied with relatively unfiltered anonymous comments, where individuals can say what they think without fear of repercussion. While the comments cannot be used as representative samples in the way that well crafted telephone surveys can, they do reveal much about the logic that underlies certain reactions.

Articles on research contradicting basic assumptions about the "culture of poverty," are often met with responses that repeat the basic faulty assumptions of the "culture of poverty" arguments. Articles that attempt to address the faulty relationship between race and intelligence and the general idea that race is a social not a biological construct, are met with comments affirming the "common sense" that race is biological. Articles about budget shortfalls in the UC system and tuition hikes routinely assert those budget shortfalls are a result of educating "illegal immigrants," via the California Dream Act. These comments are made even if the article confirms undocumented students are less than ½ of 1 percent of students in the UC system. It is with this in mind I turned my attention with interest to the articles on President Obama's choice to display the Norman Rockwell painting, "The Problem We All Live With," in the White House.

Norman Rockwell, known for his idyllic portraits of small town America, and his unique brand of American romanticism did as much as anyone to promote notions of American exceptionalism in the mid-twentieth century. Rockwell's portraits of Americans at work, play, and worship sell Americans and the world, an image of America as hardworking, self-reliant, optimistic and white. The scenes in most of Rockwell's paintings differ sharply from the ugliness of the image in, "The Problem We All Live With," the painting chosen by Obama, and in many ways make the painting an exception.

However, I see another logic behind Rockwell's painting and Obama's choice of it, that I felt was lost on most commenters. Much of the commentary on the painting was overtly racist. But more disturbing was that most "reasonable" commenters saw the painting as "divisive," or "opening wounds." One commenter thoughtfully argued, "A more appropriate rendering for the White House walls would be one that depicts triumph over the shame." I found this line of reasoning profoundly disturbing.

Given it is less "racist" than many of the other comments, I had to ask myself, "what's so wrong with this?" For the answer I turned to the image itself. There are several things that stand out about the image. One is the N-Word written across the wall. Another is the tomato splattered on the wall. Yet another are the legs and torsos of the federal marshals guarding Ruby Bridge's pathway to school. But I realized what my focal point for the image has always been, Ruby. Ruby is well dressed, standing up straight, showing no signs of fear. She is walking resolutely, as she holds her head up high, and her book and ruler in hand. Her face is the only face we see in the image. She is a portrait of heroism. One major thing that characterizes the civil rights movement is that ordinary Americans: Black, White, Latino Asian, Jew etc., many of them children or teenagers, stood up for their rights. They overcame fear, hatred and violence, in order to show their fellow Americans the evils of segregation. This brilliant painting captures that spirit. It is what makes it a great work of art. But the hero in the painting is Ruby.

I then realized that many of the commenters did not see her. There is another wrinkle to the painting, perspective. I realize that the painting places the viewer among the angry mob. This perspective for some viewers elicits shame. The image that for me communicates pride and triumph, for them depicts collective shame. But the image offers another narrative that these viewers refuse to embrace.

In Obama's campaign, he frequently used the imagery and iconography of the Civil Rights movement. However, he did not use it as an us vs. them, but as a theme for which he was lambasted by Sarah Palin for, a theme of, "American becoming." Obama's principle take on Patriotism was that we cannot uncritically love our nation or trumpet exceptionalism, we have too often been imperfect. Slavery, Jim Crow, our treatment of women, and even to some degree the unfairness of social inequality are struggles that America and Americans must continually battle both in our current moment and historically to make "A more perfect union."

The United States for Obama and many African-American political thinkers, exists in stark contrast to the common narrative of American exceptionalism. American is not exceptional because of its perfection as developed by its founders. America for Obama and many black thinkers is exceptional because of the ability of regular Americans to fight to exercise their democratic rights, and to demand America live up to its principles of equality and justice for all. In that sense, Martin Luther King Jr. but also regular, even small Americans like Ruby, are heroes and founders of a better America. Their success is not a personal triumph or a triumph for their group, but an American triumph.

It is here that I find the commenters most disturbing. While they see themselves in the crowd, potentially throwing the tomatoes, they cannot see themselves in Ruby. Ruby is never an "American." Her triumph is not theirs. Ruby's struggle and heroism is at best invisible to them and at worst an "in your face" reminder of their own inadequacies. Ruby's victory and Obama's victory is a victory perhaps for African-Americans, but never America. This is in part, because Ruby, Obama, and African-Americans, are never "real Americans" to them. The "real Americans" are shouting at Ruby and throwing tomatoes, and they are embarrassed by it. The white nationalism and racial narcissism embedded in the critique of Obama's use of the painting demonstrates both Obama's challenge and the challenge that remains for overcoming racial inequality in the 21st century. If we cannot collectively own our progress and failures, if it is always, us vs. them, then how can we move forward?