Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No Laughing Matter: The Tea Party GOP's Depictions of President Obama as an Ape are Motivated by Violence and Hate

Conservatives and the Tea Party GOP find great humor in depicting President Barack Obama as a monkey. Thus, it is no surprise that Marilyn Davenport, an elected member of the Orange County California Republican Party's Central Committee (and a Tea Party acolyte), was caught last week sending out racist emails about President Barack Obama that depicted him as a chimpanzee (while pressured to resign, to date she still refuses and cries that she is a "victim.") This is not the first of such racist escapades by Conservatives. Since at least 2008, The Tea Party GOP and its supporters have been obsessed with depicting Barack Obama and his family as being either subhuman or savage.

From signs at Tea Party rallies that portray the President of the United States as an "African witchdoctor," to Palin rallies where her supporters mocked then candidate Barack Obama for being a "monkey," to a series of emails that recycled tired and hackneyed stereotypes of black men as pimps and the White House as a watermelon patch (implied to include the obligatory piccaninnies), Republicans and the Tea Party GOP have flown the flag of white racial resentment with great zest and zeal.



Critics have lambasted these episodes as merely constituting moments of poor judgement by misguided individuals. Conservatives have won the language wars in America. Thus, they have succeeded in introducing such nonsense phrases as reverse racism and white oppression into our vocabulary. The result of this move has been that voices who dare to utter sharp truths about the centrality of white racial resentment in the heart of contemporary Conservatism have been kowtowed by the big lie that is false equivalence: "George Bush was mocked as a monkey or gorilla too, so what is the difference?" For deniers of the obvious racial invective underlying the attacks on Barack Obama, the "they did it too" defense has become a convenient redoubt.

I do not give safe harbor to such lazy thinking. The depictions of President Obama as a monkey or ape are no laughing matter. They are rooted in more than a deep antipathy towards the idea of a black man being President and the accompanying upset which this reality has caused for the White Racial Frame. In fact, while the Marilyn Davenports of the world and the other assorted Right-wing mouth-breathing ilk who traffic in these images may be in fierce denial of the demons that lurk in their collective self-conscious, research in cognitive and social psychology has indicated that these images are prefaced on a deep hatred of Black people.

Ultimately, caricatures which link Barack Obama to apes and gorillas are integral elements of a centuries long project of White racial violence against people of color in this country and abroad.We cannot forget that Colonialism and Imperialism were predicated on a belief in the superiority of Europeans over other peoples of the world. To legitimate this project, a narrative which naturalized superficial human differences as deep, intractable, and impossible to overcome had to be created.

The history here is quite rich. Black Africans were imagined by white Europeans as being part of a different species that was not quite human. In fact, respectable European anthropologists and scientists hypothesized that black people were the result of copulation between humans and apes. As a complement, white European biologists constructed the "chain of being"--a metaphorical tree of human types where Europeans were "naturally" at the "top" and black Africans (because they were closest to beasts) at the "bottom."

During the three centuries of slavery in the United States and the struggles over Reconstruction and against Jim and Jane Crow, images of black people as gorillas and apes were used to alternatively depict African Americans as either childlike and simple--or like the Irish before they earned their Whiteness--as violent brutes who were unassimilable and by implication a threat to the White body politic.


By depicting black people as subhuman primates a two tiered system of citizenship was legitimated where separate but equal was understood to be common sense, and mass violence by whites against a not quite equal and fully human racial Other was accepted practice.

Jumping forward to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the violent impulses that are legitimated by depicting black Americans as apes and gorillas continues to this day. Researchers have found that test takers who are first shown pictures of apes are more likely to subsequently exhibit anti-black sentiment. In a second, and even more chilling example, white men were shown comparable videos of police brutality against two individuals, one black and one white. In contrast to the white victim, after being shown pictures of apes, the test takers felt that police violence towards the black suspect was justified.

The Tea Party GOP's love of depicting Barack Obama as an ape or gorilla is not simply an outlier or interesting curiosity and artifact of "old school" racism. Rather, it is a stark example that serves as the connective tissue tying together much of the "take America back," "real America" narrative which drives the contemporary Tea Party GOP imagination. Consider: at least 50 percent of Republicans believe that President Obama was not born in this country. And serious attention is given to the premise that America's first black President is somehow controlled by his dead father's Kenyan voodoo politics or that Obama himself is a Manchurian candidate, and some type of Mau Mau who wants to kill white people.

As an additional data point, public opinion surveys suggest a deep divide where Tea Party Republicans show even higher levels of anti-black sentiment than baseline Republicans, two groups where such sentiments are not at all modest in their scale. Echoing and reinforcing these beliefs, the mouthpieces of popular Conservatism such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, suggest that white people are oppressed and that Obama's voting base are "savages" and "walking human debris." In total, the opposition against Barack Obama is premised on both ideology and racial hostility. If the New Right's cries of States' Rights and Nullification are dog whistles, the cartoons of black people as apes and monkeys are clarion calls to the sick racial id that drives the White Conservative Soul.

The portrayals of America's first Black President as an ape or gorilla are racially explicit examples of a broad assault on his legitimacy and authority. In the eyes of contemporary Conservatism, Obama is not fit for the Presidency because he is not one of their tribe. This belief is reinforced by a deep notion that his blackness places him outside of being fully American...and perhaps even the human family. In a moment when the election of America's first black President has resulted in a rise in militia activity, a record number of assassination threats, and a resurgence in the popularity of White Nationalist organizations, these caricatures of Obama as a monkey or ape are matters of the most utmost and dire seriousness.

Let me be specific, careful, and precise. My claim is not that the Marilyn Davenports of the world (and those on the Right and elsewhere) who find these images funny are going to personally indulge in racially motivated violence. However, the energy they channel, and the history which the white racial reactionaries of the Right draw upon for aid and comfort, does legitimate the worst and not the best of America's national character. Because humor reflects social norms, as well as legitimates (and also at times subverts) conventional wisdom, it is a potent force for both good and evil.

I do not know Marilyn Davenport personally. But I do understand her type. They may not hold the noose in hand, or personally light the fuse that sets the fire, but "backstage" bigots of that stripe would not run from the lynching tree. Instead, they would watch in mass and take a picnic (as many thousands of white folks did) as the ruinous energies channeled by the dark heart of Whiteness ran their inexorable course and strange fruit was made to hang by the town square. They hide their unrepentant ugliness behind humor and laughs. Yet despite their best efforts, the guffaws are based on a deep seeded prejudice which they cannot easily or long mask.

12 comments:

ish said...

Great post.


The portrayals of America's first Black President as an ape or gorilla are racially explicit examples of a broad assault on his legitimacy and authority. In the eyes of contemporary Conservatism, Obama is not fit for the Presidency because he is not one of their tribe.

THIS! It's why they are always making those weird digs about Obama using a teleprompter (after Bush, really???) because clearly the only way they can reconcile his speeches with their realty: the teleprompter makes them think of a trained monkey.

Shame on anyone who perpetuates the lie that the teabaggers are only fiscal conservatives.

chaunceydevega said...

Thanks Ish. Been a long time. How have you been?

We shall see if this lands with a thud or an loud echo. I said what needed to be said...and what many I think are loathe to--the connective tissue with all this anti-Obama imagery and rhetoric is deep and old. There are many, and I rarely say this, who hate him. And from hate comes a propensity to do harm.

Vesuvian Woman said...

People have to spread the truth. There was a rampant ignorance back then that we fight to keep educated. Just like yesterday's "holiday" has ties to slavery, we just have to keep each other informed of as much as possible.

ish said...

CDV, you know I read every last one of your blog posts even when I don't comment. Always thought provoking. And all's well with me.

Daniel Goldberg said...

Excellent post.

(Long-time reader, first time commentator . . . since a great deal of my professional work focuses on structural injustice and inequalities in context of health, WARN is one of my daily reads. Love the fire and the uncompromising tone to most of the posts. Plus, even though I work on some of the same topics from a health perspective, I am a dyed-in-the-wool epistemic relativist and a fallibilist, so WARN is also helpful for highlighting what I don't know and don't get. Keep up the strong work, and I'll keep reading).
Kudos.)

Sherry Peyton said...

Yet another in a long line of such "incidents". I am so sick of the charade of the teabaggers and the GOP claiming their "racial" tolerance by parading their favorite GOP Negro as proof of their inclusivity. They are and have been an utterly racist group for a very very long time. Much as they play to the religious right, on various social issues, while not giving a hoot, they do the same in regards all peoples of color not white. It is disgusting and they need to be called on it at every opportunity. Of course, to do so invites from them the invective of "playing the race card." They are en mass a piece of work.

chaunceydevega said...

@Vesuvian. The truth. Please. I think it left the room a long, long time ago. We can keep fighting for it though.

@Ish. Thanks as always.

@Daniel. A fellow traveler. Good to have you. What type of work in PH do you do?

@Sherry. There you go again crazy liberal racist. Didn't you know calling out racism by conservatives and their brethren makes you the REAL racist? Where have you been these last few years?

fred c said...

It's easy for me to laugh at those old pic's of Irishmen depicted as ruined primitives, guys who dressed for a fancy ball long ago and then never went home. Easy, even though I'm as Irish in the blood as almost anybody. Easy? Sure, because we're white, and were finally accepted as such. The Paddy Wagon is still the Paddy Wagon, but we can laugh at that too. It's a tougher row to hoe for the groups that are not white, but I hope that you all make it someday, in a post-white world, sincerely. (The secret word to allow this comment is "paties," who's idea of a joke was that?)

Tracy said...

I notice they also tend to use that picture of President Obama with his head tilted up and his nose in the air. I wondered why that bothers them so. Could it be because Obama is not looking down like they want him to?

It's just an odd picture to choose time and time again.

fred c said...

Just now I innocently came across a Bing thread called "Obama racist e-mail." It featured the instant monkey-shines and much, much more. Jeez-Louise, what an avalanche of bullshit. I suppose that we have the internet to thank for it all. Not only does the internet provide an easy means of creation and delivery, it also gives every Yahoo out there the mistaken impression that they are wise and well informed.

Usually I studiously avoid this kind of pollution, because I'm really not sure how much my poor heart could stand. You seek it out for purposes of study and illumination, and God knows I worry about your health too on that account. It's all so beyond the Pale. Alas! Babylon! And poor President Obama . . . a high tech lynching indeed.

Constructive Feedback said...

Mr DeVega:

1) Do you find it odd that when we remove the "Non-White White supremacist" notion that a strike from a White man renders a more painful blow upon a Black - like you and I - the far more prevasive "Violence" against Black people are the very assaults that pass under your radar?

2) Funny how when ONE Black male executes an assault and BIGOTS attempt to make inferences about ALL Black people - you are in the lead of calling out their generalizations

3) The biggest evidence of "hatred and violence" that I have personally witnessed in the past 2 weeks was the news that the Detriot Public Schools had issued pink slips to all of its educators as the insolvent city reconsiles itself with the hard reality of the results of the economic policies that its leaders had promoted absent a force to check them. The diversions into "monkey pictures" as more important than good governance of our own INTERESTS is part of the "lessons learned" that clearly have not been learned.

In closing - Mr DeVega - do you find it strange that in the conscious mind of our "White Brothers" it is their IDEOLOGICAL ALIGNMENT that serves as the firewall which allows Charlmers Johnson to be a "good White" while the one White lady with Photoshop who said that Obama's White mother is a chimp to be possessed with the "Bad White gene" - per your system of apprasial?

Does it make you curious that DESPITE the SAME DAMNED OUTCOMES are produced WITHIN THE BLACK COMMUNITY - regardless of having "White folks who LUV" us or "White folks who HATE US as evidence of their CONSERVATISM" that there are MORE VARIABLES that your MODEL doesn't quite capture and thus it continues to collapse?

Cynthia said...

All this monkey business reminds me of the emotional cripples at Harvard Business School who told me how horrible it was when, as blacks, they were mistaken for students at Northeastern.

Racial traffic means nothing if it can't be implied that the same old stereotypical weapons will always find the heart, no matter what the armor.