Watermelongate and Its Discontents
The past week saw the meteoric flaring and passing of one of those stories about race and the Obama presidency that have occurred regularly since the start of the 2008 election season and which will be with us until at least 2012. This one took place nearby, in Los Alamitos, and involved the mayor's emailing friends an image of a White House lawn, transformed into a watermelon patch. It was captioned, "No Easter Egg hunt this year." The mayor, Dean Grose, didn't even have to wait for his clever jest to be leaked to the public for the inevitable outrage to begin -- he'd sent it to a friend, businesswoman Keyanus Price, who is African American.
Price quickly went to the media to demand a public apology from Grose. These kind of
incidents generally end one of two ways: With the official's head on a platter or with clueless shrugs and stonewalling calls to move on. To his credit, Grose resigned -- both as mayor and from the Los Alamitos city council -- even though Price had never insisted on such an outcome.
As I say, this kind of thing has come up before. During the presidential campaign a newsletter was mailed from an Inland Empire Republican women's group, with graphics depicting "Obama Bucks" -- play money whose bills featured Obama's picture surrounded by images of ribs, Kool-Aid, fried chicken and, yes, watermelon, plus a reference to food stamps. More recently there was the flap over a parody of an old Peter, Paul and Mary song called "Barack, the Magic Negro," and theNew York Post
cartoon of a bullet-riddled chimp and a caption linking the monkey to the author of the White House stimulus package.
What's so remarkable about all these incidents is not that they
happened but that their authors seem astounded that anyone would think
their gags were racially offensive. The GOP women with their Obama
Bucks, the mayor with his watermelon email and the Tory newspaper
with its dead chimp. All three proclaimed, with straight faces, their
ignorance of any historical racist attitudes connected with their
choice of imagery. It's as though they'd been called out for donning
white hoods and setting crosses afire -- then claimed none of it had
anything to do with race.
In fact, 40 or 50 years ago relatively
few people who actually wore white hoods and lit crosses, or who stood
blocking school house doors, would say they were racists -- not
publicly at least. They would instead, in the name of civic order,
claim they were for separation of the races but did not necessarily
feel blacks were subhuman. Or that blacks were really quite grateful
for the status quo. Either way, the cross-burners of the past and the
present crop of Obama parodists were and are delusional because they'd
either convinced themselves the lies they told the media were true, or
worse, racism and all its signifiers were so deeply ingrained that they
emerged spontaneously, like the words of a sleepwalker with Tourette
There has been another startling aspect to these
antics: the reflexive impulse of Republicans to denounce the objections against race baiting as political correctness or victimhood run amok. But it's
more than mere denunciation that bodes ill for the Republic and the
Republican Party -- it's the visceral but unfounded grievances that
pundits and blog posters display during these incidents, a white hot,
preemptive anger that says, "We're the victims here, not you. We knew
this would happen if Obama were elected."
As one reader of a Fox News site that covered the Los Alamitos story emailed:
"Another victim of Obama's hope. First Joe the Plumber, then Santelli, now Grose. Thou shalt not criticize the Messiah."
"there's absolutely nothing wrong with one being proud of ones'
culture, heritage and race. There is, however, something wrong with
creating a set of laws that discriminate against the majority in
preference of the minorities."
In other words, they are saying, We are the victims, we are being persecuted.
It's going to be a long four years -- longer for some than for others.
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