is the right’s criticism of obama racist?

There’s been a lot of discussion recently of whether the increasingly ugly criticism of Obama and the health care proposals is racist in character or just generically ugly. Jimmy Carter, of course, famously said that Joe Wilson’s outburst was racist, which in turn required Obama and press secretary Gibbs to underscore that they don’t think it was because of “the color of his [Obama’s] skin.” Which, of course, is distinct from race, but why should there be subtlety or distinction in a mass-media debate these days?

Meanwhile, Fox News commentator Greg Gutfeld writes a silly, sophomoric response that could easily have been written by any privileged white frat-boy in an intro sociology class. Keith Olbermann, for his part, put together a pretty good pastiche of examples of right-wing signs and statements that demonstrate racial, as opposed to just plain ugly, claims, which can be viewed online but I can’t figure out how to embed them: look at clip 3 and 4 of the September 16, 2009 show.

The problem here, though, is that while some of the signs and claims are transparently racist, others are not. The ones of Obama as the devil and Obama as a Nazi strike me as not racist even as they are obnoxious, ad hominem, and even frankly ridiculous.

Olbermann also had Melissa Harris-Lacewell on, who is quickly becoming a media darling for discussions of racial matters. (Clip 4 of the same show.)

Now, I loved Harris-Lacewell’s book largely because of its insistence on thinking seriously about the language and culture of everyday political talk and its sources. But her commentary, e.g., on the Olbermann show as well as on NPR last month seems to play right into the hands of a conservative establishment that would like to paint the left as so obsessed with pervasive racism that there is no way to talk about anything without it being infused with racism. I thought this exchange was particularly telling:

Mr. BLANKLEY: Yeah. I mean, that may well have been a true statement if you’d ask somebody in 1964, 5 or 7.

But in 2009, I don’t know anybody who thinks that way. I mean, this is out of the history books. This isn’t out of life. A lot of my friends are very conservative. I have liberal friends too, but – a couple of communist friends as well. But nobody thinks that way. I mean, this is trying to bring up an old problem that has largely disappeared.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I appreciate your sort of personal narrative about the world that you live in where no one’s racist, and I think that’s fantastic. And for the most part, my friends aren’t either. But the realities of continuing racial inequality on everything from health indicators to housing to wealth to education – really, there’s almost no social or political or economic indicator where we don’t continue to see major gaps.

And I agree that we can have these tremendous inequalities, even without individual racist actors in the system. But the idea that race is a non-issue, I think is just willfully naive.

Mr. BLANKLEY: Well, look, look, I’m confident that most Americans who listened do not think that they’re opposed to this because they’re racist. But they’re opposed to this because they’re not socialists. And so, it undercuts the defense of the program if you’re trying to make a case to people who don’t buy your underlying assumption of. And so, I mean, I think the more that this argument is made, probably the worse for the initiative because I think it undercuts credibility.

Now, speaking sociologically I would actually agree that race and racism are so pervasive in American society as to mean that no major policy debate can take place without being infused with racism. It would be far better, IMHO, to make a much more nuanced argument about race and racism being social facts that, therefore, don’t require that their practitioners be racists themselves. Thus Joe Wilson’s son’s “not a racist bone” defense would be irrelevant because Joe Wilson need not be a racist for Wilson’s behavior and political leadership to be deeply inflected with race and racism.

I grasp that this is a difficult, nuanced case to make in a political environment obsessed with the personal character of political actors as the ultimate arbiter. But it sure would be nice to see.

(Sorry if this is a rambling post–I combined several ideas that have been stewing for a few days.)

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

5 thoughts on “is the right’s criticism of obama racist?”

  1. I love it, Jenn – thanks! But while I very much like Jay’s “I don’t care what you are, I care what you did” approach, there’s still another layer here. While I wouldn’t necessarily condone it, it’s clearly within the realm of acceptable political speech to call the President names — even horrible names like Nazi, which has been done both ways–and which is a “what you are” approach. But racist names is a different question, I believe.


  2. I wrote a pretty angry and annoying comment (which I’m mostly deleting because it is primarily misplaced aggression) because I am pretty irritated at my relatives about all this, first crank posts from my aunt equating health insurance with wanting government handouts for not working (speaking of a “non-racial” trope with well-established racial overtones) and then a smart ass email from my father. And also very scared about all the death threats which, I’m sorry, are exactly about race. I think Carter was spot on. What he said was about his reading of the level of threat that people were expressing.

    And I think that Jenn is just right to cite the Jay Smooth video, which I’ve seen before and enjoyed re-viewing. So it is fair to say that the Carter comment went down the “what you are” path, which is a dead end.

    I’ll offer two citations:

    Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammad argue that the issue is racialized, because Whites disproportionately have health insurance, and people of color disproportionately don’t.

    Tim Wise who argues that the equation between Blacks and socialism has a long history in US political rhetoric:


  3. Andrew, I agree that much of the commentary is playing right into the right’s hands. I was disappointed by Jimmy Carter’s comments for this very reason, as I watched conservative friends say, “see, there they go again!” As Olderwoman noted, Carter was right in his reading of the issue, but his actual comments didn’t portray it as such.

    On a related note, a sociologist friend and I discussed how often we’re disappointed by sociologists who go down the same path. He calls it the “see, we found one!” syndrome. While it’s important to point out racism where we see it, far too many scholars jump on every opportunity to point out someone as racist, which, I believe, detracts from the more important issue of educating others about racism and racial inequality at the structural level.

    I think there is a good paper to be written about how sociology has drifted too far from structural explanations on matters of race (conference presentations are generally especially disappointing in this regard).

    A related issue — one that is the subject of my newest research project — is that arguments about racism fall on deaf ears for people who have so very little contact with racial/ethnic minorities. Whites can easily live their entire lives in many areas of the country and never have contact with a non-white. And I don’t just mean isolated rural areas, but metropolitan areas like Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky (where I’m from). That doesn’t make those people racist — they are subject to racialized structures that lead them to certain neighborhoods and school districts. But when I talk to people in these areas about racial inequalities, I might as well be talking about the plight of some endangered bird in Antarctica, as that’s how much relevance racism has to their lives. Blaming them as racist because they’re not engaged in a larger struggle for racial justice misses the point. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t challenge them — of course we should — but we need better ways to reach them.


  4. In a way, that other Jay (the Smooth one) is right. You don’t get very far in an argument by trying to establish what they are. But you also don’t get very far trying to discuss policy rationally with them. I also think that for understanding what’s going on (rather than in winning arguments in the media and elsewhere), it is indeed useful to try to figure out who they are, if not what they are.

    My take is that what’s underlying the protests is not racism per se. It’s the resentment (or as I’ve more pretentiously put it ressentiment) of a group that finds its status diminished. That group just happens to have no blacks or Hispanics in it. A good number of its members just happen to wave the Confederate flag (or like Joe Wilson, supported flying that flag above the State house). But that doesn’t mean they’re racist in some simplistic sense of being against blacks.

    Instead, it’s about status groups – people like us and people not like us. What’s gotten them upset is that people who think and look like them are no longer running the country as they had done for the last couple of centuries. What they’re angry about is their loss of power and status. It has little to do with the specific policies they oppose. A lot of them say this right out. They carry signs demanding that their “voice be heard.” They tell interviewers they feel it’s not their country any more. They feel that they, in the words of their beloved Sarah Palin, are the “real” Americans and that the Obama presidency is illegitimate. He’s not a real American (literally, according to the birthers), and neither are his supporters.

    (I tried to make this argument at greater length in a blog post comparing them to the Temperance movement as it appears in Gusfield’s account.)


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