Pam Spaulding

Joan Walsh @ Salon: The Blackening of the president

Filed By Pam Spaulding | September 15, 2009 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, blackening of the president, Joan Walsh, Race, racism in America

There's a portion of America that has insisted, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that the nomination and election of the first black president was proof that we've reached a post-racial society. The President's status as a biracial man largely raised in the Midwest was seen as a "safe" black man -- not of the traditional civil rights leadership often seen as an ornery bunch mucking in society by many. He was not the descendant of West African slaves, an origin that made many American blacks of that extraction suspicious of his racial fidelity.

But as the campaign wore on, we saw display after sad display of outright racism and bigotry (documented in dozens of Blend posts) emerge, stoked by the McCain/Palin campaign and the noisemakers on the right. But the vile behavior seemed to come from a demographic we all knew was below the surface -- people who would never vote for a black man under any circumstance. It all died down for a millisecond -- a period of calm after the inauguration, but the full-out attack was cooking as the anger at the reality that Barack Obama is President sunk in when he started affecting policy and approach to governing.

I love it that Salon Editor-in-Chief Joan Walsh doesn't mind stepping on the landmines. She went on the O'Reilly Factor in June and made the Faux News bully's head explode over the Tiller assassination, so you know that she'll likely go toe-to-toe with the knuckledraggers over her piece today, "The Blackening of the president." She lays it out there.

The racially tinged debates over Obama's appointing the first Latina to the Supreme Court and his politically unwise foray into the Henry Louis Gates flap, combined with organized GOP opposition, seem to have done what Obama's political foes could never manage in 2008: They've blackened Obama, in both senses of the word -- simultaneously diminishing his support and emphasizing his ethnicity. Simply by raising consciousness about the president's race and associating him with radical identity politics, they've diminishing his standing among a large swath of the public. (Gabe Winant has more of the statistical detail here.)

I started thinking opponents were blackening Obama back in July, after the racial drama of the Sotomayor hearings, when poor oppressed Caucasians like Sens. Jeff Sessions, Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham made it sound like it was open season on white guys. Then came the racial morality play of the Gates arrest -- Did race or class matter most? Should Obama have stayed out of it? -- which gave way to the screaming of the Birthers, the angry gun-toting town-hall haters, the shrieking of Palinites over "death panels."

I wrote about the role race played in these ginned-up controversies at the time: Birthers and Deathers (who tended to be the same people) were focused on marginalizing Obama as scary, "the other." Race was central to their fears, from the Birthers' obsession with Obama's literal origins as the product of miscegenation; to the Deathers and the Town Hellers' insistence that healthcare reform was, in Glenn Beck's idiotic formulation, Obama's idea of "reparations" for slavery. The cries of "socialism" were just another way to mark him as "other," scary and foreign. Watching scenes of shrieking, sobbing people pleading to "take our country back," it was hard not to ask, From who? The president who got a larger share of the vote than Ronald Reagan in 1980 or George Bush in 2000? What exactly is it that makes this particular commander in chief an interloper?

Finally, when Republicans began objecting to Obama's speaking to schoolkids last week, you couldn't ignore the racism: Listening to some parents' expressing actual fear of having Obama beamed into their kids' classrooms, it was hard to imagine such hysteria being inspired by a white president. It would never happen.

Seriously, one woman was interviewed on NPR and said that the President was going to have subliminal messages in his speech to indoctrinate children. Can you imagine her saying that if Joe Biden was reading the exact same speech? Speaking of subliminal...

There may still be some subliminal racial discomfort in that growing white voter doubt, because all of the extreme right-wing questions about Obama -- Is he an outsider? Does he care about people like us? Is he competent to run the country? Can he be trusted? ("You lie!") Is he dangerous (we can't trust him with our children!)? -- echo the most crippling stereotypes that afflict black men in America. (As I write I'm listening to a woman at the Washington tea party on Saturday screaming, "We will not let Obama ram socialism down our throats!" Where to start?) It's a cruel irony that this conciliatory, courteous, accommodating black man still faces claims that he's a scary menace to America.

Joan Walsh notes that while Bill Clinton had to endure the constant blasts from the right, the anti-Clinton hysteria didn't generate marches on Washington or outlandish, chaotic town halls with people packing heat as intimidation props. She also wants him to get back into the battling campaign mode of 2008. I'm wary of this advice, as Barack Obama is in an odd, uncomfortable position -- he's the best person to call out the lies and incredible conspiracy theories, but he can never truly show anger lest he display the "angry Negro" to the masses. He has to walk a delicate line that hampers him from drop-kicking the foolishness out of the door. His overly concilatory behavior is maddening because so many of us feel there isn't any genuine desire for compromise on the other side of the aisle. Those Republicans are sore losers of epic proportions and they want another crack at leadership, even as they have FAIL written all over recent history when they had their turn at the wheel.

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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 15, 2009 8:57 PM

Pam, the way the mainstream media tiptoes around this issue is nothing short of nauseating. God forbid someone on one of the networks would speak plainly about racism: which remains endemic in this country. No. Rightwing Americans have the emotional sensibilities of two-year-olds, and the last thing the MSM wants to do is offend their' "delicate sensibilities." So ok, don't call them out for the superstitious, immature, selfish, stupid, illogical, and racist bigots they are. But puh-leeze, quit pretending that we live in a "post-racist" America, especially as the guy or gal on the split screen wearing the "Obama=Hitler" T-shirt is saying that Sotomayor, Henry Louis Gates, or Obama hates white people.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 15, 2009 8:58 PM

(Oh, and thanks for this great post!)

And today former President Jimmy Carter came right out and stated that our President is being targeted with racism, pure and simple. And he pointed out that the Deep South, where he's from, isn't the only place in the U.S. that is deep-dyed in racism. It can be found in other parts of the country as well.

Pam just posted about Jimmy Carter's speech this morning on her blog. Well worth a read.

(I wrote a comment containing 554 words, then hit the "Cancel" button. Let's see if I can say the same thing in fewer words.)

To some extent, this "post-racial America" nonsense is wishful thinking by people who do not want to go thru the painful task of producing a truly post-racial America. They claim the goal is reached so that someone else will end up doing the painful work of actually achieving it.

Then there are the chicken-hearted journalists, many of whom are afraid to fully engage a discussion on racial issues. If they make a genuine mistake or mis-speak, it could be the end of their career. Additionally, they could be doing a perfectly good job, and someone out there might distort their innocent statement and try to mis-interpret it and label it as something hateful. If that faction is successful, result is same: End of career.

Third, there are the people who want to shoot down anyone who attempts a meaningful discussion on race. From my vantage point, most are on the right, but some are on the left. They want to damage the opposition at all costs, and will without hesitation jettison the environment of trust that an honest discussion requires.

Finally, there are the ones I will call the "proud rednecks" --- they are blatantly racist, they are happy with themselves being blatantly racist, and they claim a right to be racist. Since decent folks like you and me cannot impose our will on them, all we can do is pray for them to die off someday and that their children will somehow magically grow up to be better. (This is called "by the grace of God" but I'm not out to offend those of you who are atheist.)

Then, finally, there are the folks like you and me (hopefully) who want this post-racial America to come about someday, and are, day by day, willing to rise to the task, whatever that task implies in our tiny, everyday lives. We may be rich or poor, but we do tend to be educated. The bad news is that we are still probably in the minority --- but the good news is that our numbers are growing.

And the only good thing about the blatant racism we are seeing is that it exposes that racism to the clarity of day, where the light of the sun might someday burn it away. Despite all the things he has not yet done, I am hopeful about President Obama. No one promised good ol' Barack that being the first black man in the Oval Office would be easy. In fact, it was almost guaranteed that he would have to put up with crap like this.

(120 word shorter, but still too long --- sorry, not everything can fit into a 7-second sound bite.)

Excellent article. I could not agree more that the behavior we have seen over the last 90 days is blatant racism. The disrespect shown toward this president truly makes me sick. What is more appalling is that many leaders in the house and especially the senate are stoking radical (opportunistic) coals they will not be able to harness.

I truly believe that they are digging a very deep hole for themselves and ultimately will marginalize their very existence. Yes I am a die hard optimist.

Thank you for an excellent post. I have to say that from my perspective our President is not trying to avoid being seen as angry so much as he is maintaining the confident dignity that he has held for so many years. That dignity has been something that we have not seen in our highest executive office in many years.
I'm of two minds about the open racism that we are seeing. On one hand it is hideous to see and seems to be regenerating like a hydra. But on the other hand it is exposing itself to scrutiny and informing on itself loudly screaming 'I'm here' and that means that it is confirming its own existence. So arguments of being in a post racial society which are being made are seen to be untrue and often demonstrated as such by the very voices making the claim.
Anglo normative structures in society are problematic and pervasive and create a very deep racism and egocentricity. Not only are you supposed to be white in coloring you are supposed to be Anglo in culture, but my family isn't English in culture we are Gaelic which puts us at odds with Anglo normativity. I have long wondered if perhaps the fact that we (my family) are not Anglo and are actually culturally a completely different ethnic group allows us to see the egocentricity and racism of our Anglo neighbors. I know I get very upset when a person uses Anglo to mean white because I feel insulted.
As to the usurpation of the term redneck to mean racist, this bothers me. The term redneck came into use to describe the members of a labor movement. But the ones that I go after for that are the usurpers.

From (tweeked slightly for compactness):


redneck (plural rednecks)
1. (slang) An uneducated, unsophisticated, or poor white person, typically used to describe residents of the rural US. A redneck can be a man or a woman.
2. (slang) The nickname given to miners who wore red bandanas for identification during the West Virginia mine war of 1921.

An uneducated, unsophisticated, or poor white person

Rob, although your statement about the origin of this term is correct, that is hardly the common usage today. To insist that it is would be as obsolete as insisting that a red handkerchief hanging out of a man's rear pocket in the Castro District of San Francisco has to do with square dancing during the Gold Rush of 1849 rather than the sexual position the modern wearer prefers. had 199 definitions, most being attempts at humor. Surprising to me, the term commonly implies a Southeasterner --- I missed this connotation, since we seem to have plenty of rednecks here in the heart of the northern Midwest, where I grew up. (Moreover, West Virginia is hardly in the Southeast --- culturally maybe, but geographically not.)

To me personally, the defining characteristics of a "redneck" are not specifically racism or ruralism, but the lack of ability or desire to transcend the tribal culture that one grew up in. This results in xenophobia, mental stagnation, and a distinctively stubborn form of intellectual rigidity. Members of this group totally lack the mental discipline that professor Sam Kean and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck called bracketing, the ability to set aside ones own attitudes and perceptions in order to take in something new in a fresh, intellectually uncolored manner.

Angela Brightfeather | September 16, 2009 4:09 PM

Great post Pam. Now if you could only feed that into the homes of everyone in NC without having to fear for your property and life, it might help people to stop and think a bit.

But you know as well as I, that here in the South they have institutionalized racism to the point that it has become a way of life and even many POC do not realize that there is anything else or a better path.

You live in Durham. In our own state, when I moved here from NY some 14 years ago, I was warned not to move to Durham by non-POC. But I was really more surprised at getting the same advice from POC who lived here also. Everyone here knows that white people live in Cary or Raleigh, black people live in Durham, hispanics live in Siler City and the true Southern bigot who takes his fancy KKK robes in for cleaning every week to get the ashes of them after the cross burnings, lives in Angier or Smithfield. For those who don't know, you have to understand such deep seeded racism before you think we are in any kind of a post racist America.
The fact that whites, blacks, hispanics and every other race live in all those cities is a fact that is just ignored by a very large majority of Southern folk, no matter what their race is. So many of them have bought into being herded into an area just for them or have bought into the bigoted mentality of the revisionist history of the area.

Those who voted for Obama like myself did not do it because they wanted to vote for a POC. they did it because they grew up marching for civil rights, they marched on Earth Day for a better environment, they marched against the Vietnam War, or they marched for GLBT equality. What they were really saying and have always said all along, is that they want change.

It remains to be seen if President Obama will bring us the changes that we marched for this time. Racism was one of those changes that those who voted for him really do want changed, along with healthcare, peace, environmental responsibility, and a chicken in every pot for everyone. He carries the hopes that have been hatching in people's minds during an 8 years state of mental depression about a president who achieved nothing, except to push us farther away from what we marched for on al those previous occassions. All we really can do now is to back our choice as President and help him any way that we can. But never count on the people that tell you where to live or how to live before you get there, to be anything other than bigoted about any that ahs any connection with being socially progressive or morally responsible.