Monday, August 04, 2008

Subsuming the Black

My blog overlord, Joe Gandelman, links over to a Rasmussen poll which says that more "voters" found Barack Obama's "dollar bill" comment to be racist than they did John McCain's Britney Spears/Paris Hilton ad. The article is a bit unclear if they asked if voters thought the ad and comment were "racist" or "played the race card", which I think is generally meaningful, but not for the discussion I wish to have. For I think the real story about the Rasmussen poll is being buried here.

As I just said, the article frames the story as most voters (writ large) thinking that Obama's remarks were more racist than McCain's ad. That isn't exactly immaterial, but it hides the fact that this opinion tracks racial lines very closely. In the middle of the article, it is revealed that while just 18% of White voters thought that the McCain ad was racist, 58% of Blacks did. And while 53% of Whites thought Obama's remarks were racist, only 44% of Blacks did.

So in reality, there are at least two stories here. Certainly, from a purely political point of view it matters what the electorate as a totality thinks. But from the view of furthering our understanding of racism and society's perception thereof, the real story is that Blacks and Whites have substantially different ideas of what constitutes something as "racist".

Unfortunately, that second story -- the continuing divide in how Whites and Blacks perceive racism -- gets buried because "the majority" (which, of course, is dominated by Whites) thinks Obama was racist and McCain wasn't. The Black voice gets subsumed by the White majority, and ceases to be a relevant competing view -- it's just the minority (wrong) view. But I think it is very relevant that Blacks consider McCain's ad to be more racist than Obama's comments, and that Whites think the reverse. Is it racial loyalty? Is it a greater perception by Blacks about what racism actually entails? Is it partisanship? Who knows. But it is relevant, and the way the story is being covered hides that fact.

Also, a quick digression: It is interesting to me that White voters considered Obama's words to be racist, given that they don't pass the general threshold of racism in American public discourse, which is that nothing can be racist unless it explicitly and overtly expresses malice and hatred towards a racial group. Obama's comments were way to subtle for that, but presumably were covered under the "Black speaker" exception where anything that a Black person says that ties to race or otherness automatically is presumed to be a playing of the race card. And that gets transformed into "racism" because there is nothing more racist than a Black person ever insinuating that there is anything racist in what White people do.

UPDATE: One Drop at Too Sense has a great post on this topic as well.


PG said...

I am puzzled as to what was racist about the Celebrity ad. It's not like the Harold Ford ad where they showed a blond white woman to scare people; the ad doesn't imply that Obama wants to have sex with Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, only that he is similarly young, empty-headed and more famous than he deserves. Those are personal insults, but they aren't particularly racial ones.

As for the dollar bill thing, I am astounded that so many of the people polled, both black and white, believe that mentioning the fact that all our prior presidents were white is racist. I suppose the next thing that will be called racist is adverting to the fact that none of the slaves in the U.S. were white. I hadn't realized that the Tucker Carlson concept of racism -- Noting that a certain group is wholly one race is racist! -- had become so mainstream.

David Schraub said...

I think Obama's "dollar bill" comment was far more clearly not racist than McCain's ad was, and if pressed yes/no I'd probably say the ad was not racist too. But I don't think it's open and shut, and if anything I think it's part of an accumulation of punches which play off of Obama's racially otherized background.

There are at least two elements that potentially racialize McCain's ad. First, there is the Hilton/Spears thing, which is not racially salient insofar as they're chosen for being "young [and] empty-headed", but is insofar as their chosen for being sexually licentious White women. Racial undertones don't need hammers -- just putting the images together often is enough of a trigger.

But second, the basis of the ad, which is an attack levied on Obama for some time now, is basically "all flash no substance." This intersects with at least two racist tropes -- Black leaders have always been tagged with this claim (showy, ostentatious, more concerned with putting on a show than truth); it's hardly new. And second, the general demeaning of Obama's considerable accomplishments could easily be taken harshly by many Black viewers who likewise see their own credentials and merits consistently denigrated and belittled.

See also: David Gergen.

Anonymous said...

I have to run with PG on this. The McCain ad is stupid, but doesn't appear to have anything to do with race. I could see the same thing being run with an attractive white candidate.

Cycle Cyril said...

The problem with the Obama's statement concerning how different he looks from the guys on our paper currency is that it follows on the heels of his statement in June in which he stated "...And did I mention he's black?"

While he did overtly used racist terms this go around his prior statements creates a pattern that is easily discernible.

schiller1979 said...

The problem I see with calling the McCain ad racist, is that it veers in the direction of setting a standard that says that any criticism of Obama is racist.

Just about any criticism of Obama could be compared to some aspect of negative stereotypes of black people. They could also be criticisms (whether any of us consider them legitimate or not) that are not based on racist motives. Being too quick to jump to the conclusion that it's the former will not, it seems to me, be helpful to the national political discourse this year.

I don't think it's ever legitimate to apply to "oversexed black man" stereotype to anyone. And I don't think the McCain campaign intended to do so. However, a whole lot of people seemed to think it was OK to apply it to Clarence Thomas.

David Schraub said...

Schiller: I agree with you that because of the breadth of racist stereotypes in America, nearly any criticism of a Black person can overlay a racist stereotype. Which is a problem -- but a problem in both directions: it's a problem because it makes it really hard to "legitimately" criticize Black people without stumbling across a part of our racist past and present, but it's also a problem because it means we can continue to trigger racist inflections even if our "intention" was not to (and by extension, we can avoid grappling with the continued salience of these inflections by arguing that we did not intend to bring them up -- which has nothing to do with whether they did, in fact, manifest themselves). Too many people care about only one but not the other.

I think this is another reason why the "intent" standard runs into difficulty. I'm skeptical that the McCain campaign was unaware that these sorts of ads do at some level link to racist tropes, but it's unclear what that means under an intent framework.

Assume that their primary intent was to highlight Obama's supposed lack of experience, but they knew that it would also trigger the over-sexed Black man trope and considered that a welcome side-effect (a "mixed motive" case). What if they knew the over-sexed trigger would happen, and were just indifferent? What if they knew the trigger would happen, and didn't want whatever direct benefits came from the over-sexed Black man trope, but did want to reap benefits from faux-outrage over "playing the race card" when the accusation came?

At least one of those three scenarios strikes me as what I'd suspect the McCain camp -- not ignorant of racial politics, after all -- was going for (my guess is #3). But what that "means" under the intentionalist framework is an open book to me. And of course, none of it allows to respond to the underlying frame which is causing the problem in the first place -- the persistent salience of anti-Black stereotypes which politicians can play upon.

PG said...

What exactly were the "overtly racist terms" that Obama used? Noting that all prior presidents have been white is now overtly racist? Or noting that Obama looks different from all the candidates that the Republicans put forward is now overtly racist? I suppose if Hillary had mentioned that Republicans might try to undermine her Commander in Chief credentials, by continuously pointing out that she is female rather than critiquing her knowledge and ability to command the military, y'all would now be in full cry about her rampant sexism. "How dare you mention that you're a woman! You sexist!"

I just don't think the "over-sexed Black man" trope is present in how McCain wants to describe Obama. The focus is on Obama as Other, elite, wussy, selfish, vain, etc. He's basically being described as a woman; note that it is his wife who is depicted as the one who is too angry and aggressive.

Frankly, for someone from McCain's highly masculinized background (Navy, first wife was a model, second was a teacher and heiress, followed paternal footsteps as much as possible) being "over-sexed" probably isn't seen as that much of an insult.

As for the acceptability of an "over-sexed black man" stereotype, there aren't acceptable racial stereotypes. But I'm OK with saying that a guy who thinks it's appropriate to describe pornos to his classmates and underlings, especially the female ones, as Clarence Thomas was alleged to have done, would seem to have some issues with sex. Whether it's that he's oversexed, that he's impotent and trying to hide it by putting on an obnoxious front, or whatever, it's a problem.

Joe said...

1) Political ads are stupid by their very nature, and anyone who intentionally relies on them for information in making a voting decision frankly shouldn't bother voting at all until they educate themselves. And people who are unintentionally swayed by them obviously lack strong resolve.

2) But given that stupid political ads do influence voters, if you believe your candidate is a really good candidate for the job and his opponent is really bad one, and that the stakes are really high, it seems to me that there are not too many moral limits when it comes to what you put in a campaign commercial, and it's not clear that knowingly making an ad that has some relation to ugly tropes within society is all that bad. Put another way: Is the Obama ad that says McCain is practicing "the same *old* politics" going too far?

I say no.

3) McCain is indubitably trying to play the race card card. And people who fall for it, see above: stupid, shouldn't vote.

schiller1979 said...

But David, your analysis still gets back to a point where Obama is immune from criticism.

Motives are always mixed, to some extent at least. I confess I went too far in saying that the McCain campaign had no racist motive. My guess is that they weigh the racial implications of all of their ads. If so, they probably considered whether the Britney/Paris ad would be seen as dredging up the black-man-with-white-woman thing.

Maybe their motives were racist; I really have no way of knowing.

It just seems to me that we can't discuss the qualifications of the candidates to the extent that we should, if any negative statements about Obama's qualifications are going to be taken as racist.

PG said...

But it's not true that any negative statement about Obama is taken as racist. Before Obama became the presumed Democratic nominee, the Republicans -- even Ron Paul! -- did a great job of criticizing him without bringing race into the question at all.

Admittedly, this was before they were running anti-Obama TV ads, so the criticisms were all verbal. But why not have more of that? Why not have an ad where one of McCain's supporters (perhaps a retired general) faces the camera and explains for 28 seconds why Obama lacks the experience to be president? Or another ad where Carly Fiorina faces the camera and talks about the devastating effect Obama's tax plan will have on the economy? (Really, if the white woman you are showing is the former CEO of H-P, I don't think anyone is going to find a sketchy black-man-with-white-woman implication in that.)

Racism becomes much more of a concern when you rely on images, because then you deliberately are trying to get at people's unconscious gut reactions. You are not appealing to their rational and reasoning faculties. And if you MUST use images of people where their race is apparent, why not make smarter use of them?

schiller1979 said...

PG, I'd like to hear an example of a criticism into which a racist angle could not be read.

On the tax issue, why could one not read into it: Obama wants taxes to be too high? Why? To support welfare queens in the ghetto?

PG said...


So long as the Republican doesn't bring up Reagan's Cadillac welfare queen myth, there is nothing racist in the criticism. Seriously, there has been a huge amount of concern in the financial press about Obama's tax ideas: raising the capital gains tax will create problems for everything from starting new business to tying compensation to performance for Fortune 500 CEOs; the "donut hole" increase in the Social Security cap* makes no theoretical sense and appears to be an overt pander to the middle class. There has been huge criticism from the religious right about Obama's stance on abortion. Etc., etc. So long as the criticism is made of policy and not of the person, no one has said "Oh, that's racist!"

I have been hearing about this fear that any criticism of Obama would get one called a racist for over a year now, and so far, NO CRITICISM OF OBAMA'S POLICY STANCES HAS GOTTEN ANYONE CALLED A RACIST. Really, this is not brain surgery.

Obama has attacked McCain by tying him to Bush's policies. This is the way to run a serious campaign. McCain ought to do the same, except that he can tie Obama to the "failed policies" of the Democratic Party: point out that Obama's platform will hurt free enterprise, indicates a disregard for the value of life, values some polar bears stumping around ANWR over the needs of American families for affordable energy. (I'm going to be amused as hell by how Republicans will say they can't criticize Obama on the environment because then they'll be called racists. "See, Obama will say that we're implying he cares more about *black* bears than *white* bears...")

I know lots of Republicans who are capable of making the serious policy critique of Obama without getting into personal, "he isn't a real American" territory. Get 5 of them in one room and you'd have a non-racial, policy-driven ad campaign against Obama.

The problem is that the McCain campaign lacks a fundamental belief in conservative values. So instead of campaigning on the importance of not having government interfere in the market, or on the sacredness of life, they claim that Obama treasonously would rather have American lose a war than himself lose an election; that he is unpatriotic and doesn't care about the troops; that he is a shallow celebrity; that he is vain because he stays in shape and eats healthfully. Such claims, because they are personal attacks, inevitably invite concern that they are being made with some dubious motive such as racism.

* My Republican fiance argues that it is anti-feminist to have a tax plan that creates an incentive, in a two-earner family, for the wife to stay home (thereby keeping total income within the "hole"). I pointed out that this is true only if one assumes that in any situation, the wife ought to be the one to stay home -- itself a fairly sexist belief.

schiller1979 said...

PG, what your comment misses is that there are two elements to a presidential campaign.

One part is a referendum on issues. Very important. But it's not the only important aspect of the campaign.

The other is the "job interview" part. Which one is better qualified to be president? That's the one where we're more likely to run into trouble. But we have to go through it. For one thing, we don't know what issues will arise during the next four or eight years. As far as I know, no one thought to ask Gore or Bush in 2000 "what will you do if Islamists attack New York?"

So we need to judge them in a more abstract way. Whom do I most trust to handle whatever is going to arise?

You're probably right that we're less likely to hear charges of racism in reaction to criticisms about Obama's policy positions.

But if we're prevented from criticizing Obama the person, and his qualifications, the campaign can't accomplish what it needs to accomplish.

PG said...

I find it completely unbelievable that everyone who voted for Bush believed he was better qualified than Gore. People voted for Bush because of his conservative policy positions, because they disliked Gore or had a bad taste from Clinton, because they liked Bush better.

But I don't think the Bush campaign made a good case that Gore was somehow less able to handle issues that arose. They certainly painted him as untrustworthy, but because of his ties to Clinton, because of his supposed claim that he had invented the internet, etc., not because he was somehow incompetent or inexperienced. Bush knew that was an argument he would lose; Gore was a member of the House for 8 years, of the Senate for 8 years, and was vice president for 8 years. Bush hadn't even been governor of Texas for 8 years at the time he ran for president.

Indeed, of the Republicans I knew, there were several who initially were concerned about Bush's experience, which is exactly why Cheney became his VP, for none of the usual reasons to pick a VP -- no geographic area, no race/ gender/ religious group would be attracted. Cheney was the "don't worry, a grownup is here" pick, the guy who told folks like my dad who were troubled by all this "compassionate conservatism" not to worry, the guy who voted against Head Start would be in the White House too.

So if we're going to say that the campaign legitimately is not just about policy positions but also about one's experience and qualifications, let's remember that it seems to matter only in certain election years.

Moreover, the appropriate way to attack your opponent's inexperience is to put his resume next to yours. That can be done easily without being as stupid as the "Celebrity" ad was. It can be done very literally, in fact: put McCain's experience in the left column, Obama's in the right, and say, "America needs experienced, tested leadership." Point out, as many Republican blogs alleged, that Obama was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for over 3 years without a visit to Iraq or Afghanistan. This is not an impossible campaign to run. It just requires the Republican political establishment to be very different than what it is. They learned thoroughly from the Swift Boats campaign that attacking your opponent's patriotism -- even when he is a decorated veteran -- is an effective strategy. Other than human decency, what's the reason not to keep using that strategy?

schiller1979 said...

I agree that the Celebrity ad was silly. But that's not the same as saying it was racist.

And my saying that a presidential campaign should in part be about the candidates' qualificaitons does not mean that the better-qualified candidate necessarily wins.

It's up to each individual voter to decide how much weight to put on policy positions as opposed to experience, in judging the candidates.

I suspect those of us who are of a more intellectual bent will emphasize issues more, and those who think more in practical terms will see it the other way.

Prior experience in public office is an important qualification for a presidential candidate (Ross Perot showed us that). But I don't think that can be reduced to a simple comparison of time spent in public office. By that measure, McCain would of course easily win.

PG said...

I was the first comment on this post saying that I didn't think the "Celebrity" ad was racist. But silly ads, because they seem so short on actual meaning, are more likely to be searched for hidden meaning -- and so we get David Schraub and Bob Herbert perceiving racist imagery in them.

But I don't think that can be reduced to a simple comparison of time spent in public office. By that measure, McCain would of course easily win.

Exactly -- so why not make that measure an appealing one to voters? Obama hasn't tried to claim that he has more experience than McCain. Rather, he has claimed he is better qualified because he has made the right calls -- such as opposing the war in Iraq.

But this has the potential to blow up on Obama if he picks a senatorial running mate like Dodd, who also voted for war in Iraq. Then he's stuck with the appearance that anyone who had actual authority to vote on the war -- anyone actually in Congress at the time -- believed it was the right thing to do. Right now the argument among the majority of Americans who think the Iraq war was a bad idea is whether it always was an obviously bad idea, or whether there was a good reason so many Congressional Democrats voted for it too.

I guess to me, there are a ton of legitimate vulnerabilities in Obama to exploit, and I find it both pathetic and disgusting that rather than doing that, McCain is stuck on portraying Obama as an outsider, not a real American, caring only about himself rather than his country, blah blah -- all of which "criticisms" inevitably have racist undertones because their message in total is "he's not one of US."

David Schraub said...

Hey, hey, hey! "If pressed yes/no I'd probably say the ad was not racist too." I just said it wasn't open/shut that it was not racist, not that I thought it was, and I think that once you take the ad out of isolation and put inside a broader context of the McCain's argument, the case gets stronger (something can be non-racist in of itself but contribute to a larger racist overtone, if that makes sense).

schiller1979 said...

PG, sounds like blackmail. As long as McCain runs his campaign within parameters set by Obama, he won't be called a racist.

David, your last comment seems to be an example of the argumentative fallacy of assuming your conclusion. You've already decided that McCain is running a racist campaign, so you'll interpret the evidence in a way that fits that conclusion.

David Schraub said...

If "Obama's parameters" are running a campaign that is issue-based and has "meaning", I that's less a case of unfairness and more of a strike against McCain.

As for me, I'm confused by the point here. I watch McCain's campaign. I see a lot of framing based on real American versus scary other (good lord, remember "the American President Americans are waiting for"?). In light of that theme, it is not unreasonable to interpret things that might seem more innocent on their own as being related to that theme. Context matters -- indeed, context is the only way that language makes sense to us.

That being said, I never said McCain is running a racist campaign. What I said with reference to this ad was that I thought McCain was trying to provoke folks into saying he's being racist (or make a bare peep about race being related to the issue), so he could pull the "I'm an innocent White man being oppressed by the race police" card (also known as the "Race card card").

PG said...

As long as McCain runs his campaign within parameters set by Obama, he won't be called a racist.

But that is silly. Obama undoubtedly would prefer that the parameters for the campaign not allow McCain to refer to the estate tax as the "death tax," refer to abortion prohibitionists as "pro-life" and pro-legalization folks as "pro-abortion," refer to Supreme Court judges who overturn conservative laws as "activists" and to judges who overturn liberal laws as "strict interpreters," etc. In other words, Obama undoubtedly wishes McCain wouldn't talk about the Democratic candidate as Republicans have talked about Democrats in the last 30 years.

However, so long as McCain doesn't say anything about Obama that Reagan wouldn't have said about Carter*, I don't think you're going to hear any serious suspicion of racism. Indeed, with all the Obama-Carter comparisons being made that are clearly intended unflatteringly, I haven't heard anyone say, "But it's racist to compare Obama to the last Democratic president who turned out to be seen as a failure!"

* So far as I know, while Reagan thoroughly derided Carter's ability to lead America -- with the reasonable evidence of how Carter had done so far -- he never stated that Carter's deficiencies were due to character flaws like selfishness or lack of patriotism, bur rather put them down to just plain incompetence and a failure to see America's role in the world and the federal government's role in Americans' lives correctly. McCain can criticize Obama's excessive concern with how America is seen by Europeans and Obama's confused idea of the 2nd Amendment all day long and I have no problem with that.

We have come to a sad point when expecting McCain to treat Obama like prior (white) candidates were treated is seen as race card "blackmail."

schiller1979 said...

You want McCain to campaign against Obama the way Reagan did against Carter. But the main issue against Obama is inexperience.

McCain's campaign might have been trying (more or less directly) to play the race card with the celebrity ad. But the main thrust of his criticism of Obama is based on inexperience.

It would have been silly for Reagan to have alleged inexperience against a man who had already been president for four years. That issue was not salient in 1980, but it at least arguably is, in 2008. And I don't classify inexperience as a character flaw.

Surrogates for both candidates are alleging character flaws on the part of their opponents. In McCain's case, those allegations largely involve the way he treated his first wife.

Past candidates of both parties have tried to contrast their better military record against an opponent's poor or non-existent military record, as George H.W. Bush did against Clinton in 1992, and Gore against George W. Bush in 2000.

McCain might be trying to play the race card, by the manner in which he's doing that, but it's not unprecedented for a candidate seen as a war hero to wrap himself in the flag.

PG said...

OK, so it sounds like the most parallel campaign of recent history would be that of George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton. Old, more experienced, war veteran Republican versus young, less experienced, non-vet Democrat. In attacks on Clinton's character, Bush pointed to specific misdeeds that Clinton himself essentially had to acknowledge: smoking pot (but he didn't inhale); avoiding military service in Vietnam (but he got the deferment legitimately); being a serial adulterer (um, er, no comment).

I fully expect McCain to be working to dig up this sort of dirt on Obama and to use it as he can. I think he will run into difficulty because Obama already has acknowledged high school drug use (though more recent, un-admitted use would be damaging to him); there was no draft during Obama's 18-25 age span; and the press seems more interested in finding Edwards's alleged love child than finding evidence of Obama's infidelities (if any exists).

At no point that I recall did Bush say or imply that he was more American than Clinton. Rather, Bush identified with specifically older, conservative values against the Woodstock generation of Clinton/ Gore -- and Woodstock, of course, was a seminal event in American culture.

McCain has adverted to the difference between himself and the Woodstock types -- he "was tied up" at the time -- when he thought Clinton might be his opponent. If he wants to work the generation gap theme with Obama, he certainly can. He can point to Obama as being part of a group or generation of Americans who lack McCain's peers' knowledge of service to country. Obama's campaign will respond by acknowledging their respect for McCain's military service, and then point out that Americans can serve their country in multiple ways, including Obama's method of helping communities organize for a better life and working to protect citizens' civil rights as a lawyer. And we'll see whether more people identify with the idea of military service as a preeminent qualifier for the presidency, or if more people identify with the idea of Americans serving their country in other ways as well.