Early last week I posted a brief blog noting the appearance of those "Obama Socialism" posters, in which the president's face is made up to resemble Heath Ledger's Joker character from The Dark Knight. That Batman-film derived image had been Photoshopped by Firas Khateeb, but up until July hadn't appeared as any sort of guerilla art. When the picture was first reported as having been pasted on Los Angeles freeway structures (the public gallery of choice for street artists and taggers) it generated a firestorm of controversy. The outrage extended to L.A. Daily, which received more than 120,000 hits within the week on this subject - a high number for a short post on an alternative newspaper blog. I was soon on the receiving end of hundreds of comments to L.A. Daily - for days my Inbox was chiming every few seconds.
The outrage wasn't about the poster's content -- most of the comments were attacks on me for saying the image appealed to conservatives: I didn't have a sense of humor; I was rubbing people's faces in race when race had nothing to do with the poster; I had said nothing when the L.A. Weekly featured a cover image of George W. Bush with vampire fangs, etc. The most interesting aspect of this is how often anti-Obama commentators accused me and anyone else whose remarks displeased them as playing some kind of race card. In fact, all I did was accurately point out that Obama was in white face. True, my description of the poster ended with, "All that's missing is a noose." However - to use the thinking of the anti-Obama crowd - my crack about the missing noose didn't necessarily refer to this country's history of lynching blacks. It could have simply implied a Blue State desire to see the president strung up - metaphorically, of course.
To be honest, though, I do believe the poster appeals to people who see in it a validation of their own racial prejudices, even if they can't acknowledge them. That my short post hit such a deep, raw nerve clearly shows that race was very much part of the illustration's attraction. Denials that the poster has any racial overtones join that endless parade of self-deluding apologies and clarifications presented by Republicans about the Birth of a Nation imagery they've been employing ever since Obama ran for president.
There was the president of the Inland Republicans women's group who sent out a newsletter featuring a "food stamp" depicting, as the Riverside Press-Enterprise said, "Obama's head on a donkey's body surrounded by a bucket of KFC chicken, a slice of watermelon, a slab of barbecued ribs and a pitcher of Kool-Aid." (A tableau, ironically, that was originally created by a Democrat to illustrate Republicans' malarial fears of a black president.) Then there were the ubiquitous No Easter Egg Hunt This Year e-mail card showing the White House lawn as a field of watermelons. And who can ever forget Rush Limbaugh's favorite ditty, "Barack the Magic Negro"?
More recently, in the immediate wake of the Henry Louis Gates dustup, Boston cop Justin Barrett sent out a mass email in which he described the Harvard professor as a "banana-eating jungle monkey." Barrett, of course, later claimed he didn't intend for the imagery to be taken in a racist way. You really don't know which is the scarier prospect: That he is glibly lying, or that he honestly believes this. Barrett managed, however, to get defensive about the outrage his email unleashed: "People are making it about race," said Barrett. "It is not about race."
No, dude, it's all about race. Racial anxiety and racism are social pathologies that adapt to changing conditions and evolve over time. Conservatives don't burn crosses at their rallies - contemporary political theater and its language have moved on with the times. Still, I remember that even back in the days when cross burnings were in vogue -- and when it seemed that civil rights workers were being killed every month in the Deep South -- even then you would rarely find a segregationist proclaiming, on television at least, that he was a racist and believed blacks were inferior. Instead, the racist argument was usually couched in terms of "state's rights," "mutual benefits," of how Negroes themselves didn't want race-mixing, that they were basically good, hard-working people who were being duped by Communists.
Kelefa Sanneh recently noted in the New Yorker that "to some Americans 'racism' doesn't mean what it used to." He meant that a popular definition of racism no longer describes the unemotional systemic discrimination against blacks, but to the "reverse racism" commonly referenced by rightwing pundits alluding to the mere dislike of whites by individual blacks.
The truth, again, is that the fears of the art lovers who champion the Obama Socialism poster are all about race - about losing their skin privileges, about the possible airing of old crimes and grievances committed against blacks. How else can you explain the mad surge to buy guns, to deny Obama's American birth, the teary prediction that the White House is ordering up concentration camps, and the rock-solid belief that Obama's lab-coated bureaucrats are coming to kill our grandmas? Who's the real Joker here? And whose deck is that race card being played from?