Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Obama and Racism

One of the odd things about the post-election fallout in the US was the way in which discourses about race tended to drop off the map, as if the fact that the country was able to elect an African-American man to the presidency somehow proved that race was no longer an important social issue. This may be the standard liberal fantasy -- one promulgated by some of Obama's supporters -- but it is surely not one shared by Obama's most virulent opponents. It is hard not to hear in the persistent suspicions voiced by the various conspiracy theorists and their enablers the overtones of fear-mongering loosely associated with Obama's otherness: his middle name, the circumstances of his birth, his parentage, his childhood overseas and his early education. During the Cold War, it was standard right-wing rhetoric to assert that black leaders and activist organizations were avowedly "communist" -- even, of course, when these groups and leaders explicitly identified themselves with Christianity.

In the post-cold war era, the Islamic terrorist has taken the place of the communist (or has, intriguingly, merged with it) as the bugbear of the right: an inexorable, irrational enemy of infinite evil that can be neither comprehended nor humanized. This type of enemy appeals to a distinctively American comic-book superhero imagination which can content itself with fantasies of triumph over ultimate evil rather than the vagaries and complexities of political and social relations. We recognize the familiar thrill of this kind of enemy in part because it allows for a the emotional release of pent up angers, fears, and other byproducts of living in the era of capital triumphant. Our popular culture is filled with such characters precisely because of the way in which they promote a satisfying emotional discharge: Sauron, the familiar film Nazi or terrorist, all of Batman's enemies, the various incarnations (or in-machinations) of the Terminator (as bad guy), and so on.

Americans like to think in terms of super heros and their complements: implacable villains. Once upon a time the figure of the communist agent could play this role -- for some, perhaps, it still does. If the right wingers of the 1950s saw communism in every instance of social reform and political activism, those of today see terrorism. If, in the 1950s the right managed to transpose racial anxieties into the register of anti-communism, we might ask whether the same logic is at work in the irrational persistance of the right-wing attempt to portray Barack Obama as a covert Muslim "extremist" (for just one recent example see Frank Gaffney's opinion piece in the Washington Times).

Perhaps the tell-tale sign of the affinity of this accusation with that of Cold War era denuncation of black activists as communists, is the fact that the right persistently blends the two: Obama is a covert fundamentalist terrorist bent on communist transformation (not quite revolution, because that would imply the support of the populace). The non-sensical character of the equation of the religious fundamentalist with the communist is just as much a symptom of disavowed racial animosity as is the persistent unwillingness to defer to any of the facts.

No matter how widely Obama's birth certificate is circulated online or how persistently the rumors of its falsity are debunked by the news media and the commentariat (even those on the right), the far right will remain undeterred in its accusation that he is not a "real" American -- the evidence, for them, is on his face, in his skin. And so we are faced with a strange disconnect of discourses: on the liberal left, the assummption that race is "no longer an issue" and on the far right the resurgence of racial politics in coded form (Obama as covert Islamist Communist), updated for the post-Cold War era of the "War on Terror." The result of this disconnect is the reluctance of either side to consider the way racial politics play a central role in the hate-filled conpsiracy theories that circulate on the right. Even the liberal left seems unwilling to confront the racist overtones of the persistent attempts to assert Obama's alleged antipathy to the US and "American values."

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