Criminal InJustice† is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Criminalizing President Obama
by Kay Whitlock
The 2012 presidential election will not turn on facts, figures, and reasonable arguments. Nor will the undue and terrible influence of huge amounts of right-wing/corporate money determine the outcome – though the flood of cash will be a malevolent and destabilizing influence.
Rather, it is the power of Story, the compelling nature of narrative, that will – together with the successes or failure of Get Out the Vote (GOTV) and voter suppression efforts, both from the left and the right – determine the outcome. And it will do so because Story embodies and conveys layers of meaning – spiritual as well as political; emotional as well as intellectual – in ways cold facts and figures cannot.
And when we talk about the power of Story, we mean the narrative arc that embodies – to varying degrees – collective hopes, dreams, possibilities, terrors, resentments, and rage. The power to stir powerful unconscious associations by evoking archetypal images and messages. (For a useful discussion of criminalizing archetypes, including their racialization, see Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States.) The invitation Story extends to discover within ourselves compassion, generosity, and possibility or cynicism, fear, and loathing. We mean the depictions of what’s at stake, for whom, and the blatant as well as more coded signifiers, of the worthiness – or expendability – of various lives and communities.
This year, opponents and harsh critics of President Obama, especially from the right, but also, regrettably, from some within libertarian and liberal/progressive/left ranks, will rely significantly on criminalizing narratives that tap deeply into this country’s well of racist criminal archetypes. Beyond the presidential contest, these narratives will also be deployed to further polarize – and paralyze – other races for national and state office, voter initiatives, and more, not only by associating liberals, progressives, and leftists with criminal action and intent, but triggering waves of both conscious and unconscious racism.
Here, we briefly review the various kinds of anti-Obama criminalizing narratives that have been circulating for some time, anticipate their expansion and deepening, and analyze their meaning. All build on historical racist narratives; all of them embody snarling accusations of racial insubordination.
And we say clearly that it is critical for all of us to not only challenge these narratives and the larger Story they seek to tell, but also to understand why it is essential to the future of progressive politics to undermine all criminalizing narratives. In the run-up to the 2012 elections, CI will be alerting you to and commenting on varieties of criminalizing narratives being used to strategic purpose nationally and in the states.
Whether you enthusiastically support President Obama’s re-election, do so only tepidly, or are trying to decide whether you’ll vote for him, if you care about confronting and dismantling systemic racism in this country, you should be speaking up and out against these narratives.
(Full disclosure: this commentator does not always agree with President Obama, but strongly supports his re-election.)
Recognizing a Criminalizing Narrative
Make no mistake about it. Criminalizing narratives about President Obama reflect not only a politic of contempt, denunciation, and fear-mongering. They also strike – and are intended to strike – a deep, often unconscious, repository of racist hostility in many people; a virulent (though often unacknowledged) racism that is necessary to the further institutionalization of inequality. Like all criminalizing narratives, they normalize and naturalize the idea that only vicious responses to “criminals” can keep us “safe,” and “secure.” But we’re not talking just about people who have, provably, done something we would all consider wrong. We’re talking about entire groups who are presumptively characterized by the dominant white, male, heterosexual power structure as “inclined to criminality.”
And, like all criminalizing narratives, the ones being deployed in 2012 suggest, explicitly or through racial, gender, sexual, and economic code phrases, these (sometimes contradictory) attributes:
And, as Angela Y. Davis notes, “race has always played a central role in constructing presumptions of criminality.”
Racism thrums like a steady heartbeat through every criminalizing narrative – including those focused on sexual violence and the criminalization of youth and low-income women (and poor people generally) – ensuring that they will always disproportionately target people of color: indigenous peoples and other communities of color, immigrant or U.S. born. But it is not always immediately evident to white people who have never born the brunt of policing, prosecution, and punishment in this country.
Moreover, active proof of illegal action is not necessary to drive a Criminalizing Story. The mere presence of criminalized individuals/groups in public office or in a community is taken to be actual danger and destruction.
Since the mid-1960s, the Republicans have built their party and engineered successes we might once have thought (or at least hoped) impossible based on equating the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and other struggles for liberation (Black Power, Native sovereignty, gay/queer liberation, poor peoples’ movements, La Raza and other Latina/o struggles) with various kinds of criminality.(For a more detailed discussion, see, for example, “We Need to Dream a Bolder Dream: The Politics of Fear and Queer Struggles for Safe Communities,” by Kay Whitlock, in the Queers for Economic Justice A New Queer Agenda, forthcoming in Scholar & Feminist Online )
The “get tough on crime” policy tidal wave was a direct response to the freedom/liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Barry Goldwater was the first presidential candidate to do so; Richard Nixon elevated it to an art.
And in 1988, running against Democratic candidate Governor Michael Dukakis, Vice President George H.W. Bush deployed the infamous “Willie Horton” ad to accuse Dukakis and, by extension, all Democrats, of being “soft on crime.” Horton became embodiment of the racist criminal archetype of the black man as thug/rapist/murderer. (Please note that this man’s real name is William Horton; it was shortened to “Willie” by Republican ad men.) And it should come as no surprise to learn that, as Jane Mayer reports in the New Yorker, Larry McCarthy, the man who created the racist Willie Horton ad, is now supporting Mitt Romney, and helps direct the pro-Romney “Restore Our Future” Super PAC. Get ready, because McCarthy, who has no reservations about appealing to racial fear, is considered the genius of attack ads.
But the Right is not the only political sector to advance criminalizing narratives. “Our” liberal/progressive/left sector does it too, and so do libertarians, when there is a perceived or anticipated advantage to doing so. According to the Justice Policy Institute, “tough on crime” policies passed during the [President Bill] Clinton Administration’s tenure resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.”
Does that prove Clinton’s virulent racism? Not likely. More likely is that he is a savvy Southern politician who usually knows how to play to the crowd. But that didn’t help communities of color who are disproportionately caught up in the “get tough” incarceration net.
Unfortunately, very few politicians from any perspective deeply question the premises and history of “get tough” and mass incarceration; almost none are willing to not only mount a challenge, but support the kind of deep-rooted organizing necessary to sustain challenges. That is because they depend upon mass support. And so far, voters favor “get tough.” No single politician can change that – and without a strong and deep base of community support, anyone who tried would be politically destroyed.
Consider, too, the overwhelming liberal demands for “more policing/harsher punishment” responses to violence against people of color, queers, women, and others, even though these responses do not prevent violence nor produce justice. Consider the demands from one sector of the left for immediate war crimes trials as a primary proposed solution to torture and war.
It’s not difficult to understand the powerful appeal of such approaches, because they do genuinely help express the longstanding and growing anger people feel in the face of widespread violence; they appear to place accountability where it belongs; and they don’t demand anything of “us,” because these measures place all culpability elsewhere. With “them.”
These approaches are put forward with no apparent recognition that each time a criminalizing narrative is advanced, it strengthens systemic racism and other forms of inequality. And with no apparent recognition that “get tough” strategies do not change cultures of racial, gendered, sexual, and economic violence rooted in centuries-old structures of colonial conquest, chattel slavery, and the primacy of wealth over justice; rather, these strategies reinforce cultures of violence in ways most white people still cannot quite imagine. They are advanced with no apparent recognition that in the post-abolition period, the criminal legal system expanded, in large measure, via the enactment of “Black Codes,” anti-Indian laws, and draconian anti-immigration laws that criminalized countless ordinary activities – including walking on public streets – if engaged in by people of color, but not by white people. When the Black Codes and anti-Indian laws gave way in their most overt forms (but are alive and well today in the selective prosecution of so-called “quality of life” laws), the convict lease system and rise of the for-profit prison industrial complex took their place, dependent in all respects on the mass incarceration of people of color.
So narratives that presumptively criminalize entire groups not only arise from the bedrock colonialism and systemic racism, but their expansion eagerly and uncritically depends on never looking too closely at that bedrock or else we would have to address the massive, systemic, and ongoing violence embedded in it.
But we – you, me, all of us – also are implicated in those cultures of violence. And their dismantling requires much more of us than we might have imagined. Making change just isn’t a question of someone else doing something. We must be the ones who “do something.”
The Criminalization of President Barack Obama
This is not a comprehensive examination of criminalizing narratives deployed against Barack Obama, during the 2008 primaries, the general election, or his first term as president. But by suggesting recurring themes, we hope you will be able to add to the analysis with more examples.
These narratives often depend upon racist “dog whistling” – which means using euphemisms and code words/phrases that signify something particular to white people who believe continued white dominance is desirable, and whose racial fears and resentments can be easily stoked. One need never openly express racist statements in order to get racist messages across. In fact, dog whistles are crafted to permit deniability, victimization, and resistance: “I’m not racist! I’m talking about the need to work hard!” “I’m not racist! I’m just defending the Founding Fathers and the Constitution!”
But beyond that, dog whistling is also sometimes used by people who may not be motivated by racism, but are still willing to invoke it to gain political advantage.
Here are some of the major criminalizing narratives utilized against President Obama.
Welfare Queen/Lazy Black People Wanting What Belongs to Whites
As he sought the presidency thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan famously invoked images of a “welfare” queen” who drove a Cadillac, had one child after another out of wedlock, scammed public assistance programs by using bogus Social Security numbers, falsely collected veteran’s widow benefits, gave various addresses, and the like. He didn’t say this mythic person was black; he didn’t have to. He often featured this story while campaigning for “states’ rights” in the South. This woman wasn’t real; she was a toxic, public relations amalgam of already-existing racist criminal archetypes and hatred for the New Deal, the War on Poverty, and other public initiatives aimed at helping poor and low-income people. To do this, Reagan tapped into a long legacy of pathologizing, criminalizing views of black women – including Jim Crow images and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report for the Lyndon Johnson administration, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (popularly referred to as The Moynihan Report).
Infamously, this report identified black family structure – not the intersections of virulent poverty and systemic racism – as “destructive.” Blame was placed squarely on the growing numbers of families headed by single mothers who, Moynihan claimed, were increasingly giving birth to “illegitimate” children and becoming dependent on welfare.
Today, Newt Gingrich refers to President Obama as “the food stamp president” and refers to poor [read: black] children having a “poor work ethic,” suggesting they might replace school janitors.
He’s invoking the entire racist, criminalizing archetype, and this kind of GOP stoking of racial resentments is widespread. Public commentator Juan Williams, who is not generally known for his progressive politics and who regularly appears on FOX News and offers his opinions in the Wall Street Journal and other conservative media makes note of the tactic:
Race is always a trigger in politics, but now a third of the nation are people of color — and their numbers are growing. With those minorities solidly in the Democratic camp and behind the first black president, the scene is set for a bonanza of racial politics.
The language of GOP racial politics is heavy on euphemisms that allow the speaker to deny any for the racial content of his message. The code words in this game are “entitlement society” — as used by Mitt Romney — and “poor work ethic” and “food stamp president” — as used by Newt Gingrich. References to a lack of respect for the “Founding Fathers” and the “Constitution” also make certain ears perk up by demonizing anyone supposedly threatening core “old-fashioned American values.”
The code also extends to attacks on legal immigrants, always carefully lumped in with illegal immigrants, as people seeking “amnesty” and taking jobs from Americans.
The “welfare queen” mythos underlies attacks on President Obama’s health care initiatives as well. But we aren’t solely dependent on Newt and the GOP to invoke the image of a black person as lazy, irresponsible, and siphoning off the resources that rightfully belong to white people.
In the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, as then-U.S. Senator Obama surged, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton turned to racist dog whistles to appeal for votes. She had just lost the Indiana and North Carolina primaries and was heading into West Virginia and Kentucky – and also appealing for “super delegate” votes. In an interview with USA Today, she argued:
“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she said…As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article “that found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me.”
“There’s a pattern emerging here,” she said.
Aaron Astor of The Moderate Voice blog – hardly a radical voice – quickly responded:
But instead of using the typical “blue collar voters” frame, she employed explicitly racial language that closely comports with classic racist rhetoric from the likes of George Wallace and Jesse Helms in the past. She said, without baiting, that she wins “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans,” and Obama cannot reach such voters. The implication is, of course, that hard-working goes hand-in-hand with white. Never mind that Obama has won hard-working black Americans, or that he’s won whites everywhere outside the South and the Rust Belt.
The “hard-working Americans, white Americans” is a classic Wallace/Helms/Buchanan equation of whiteness with hard work and honesty. The opposite is either effete white intellectuals who don’t work, or lazy blacks who also don’t work. In fact, the Reagan coalition GOP even dropped the word “white,” knowing that “hard-working” and “law-abiding” already implied, in their minds, white people.
I don’t think Hillary Clinton really believes that only white people are hard-working. But she has to know that such phrasing is downright toxic given the racially polarized electorate in the primary.
Now: imagine the lingering impact of those words, far beyond the Democratic primaries.
Rapist/Killer/Thug/His Mere Presence Causes Danger to Innocent Others
Among the truly vile criminalizing narratives is the depiction of President Obama as a rapist and violent thug.
Most recently, that narrative came into sharp focus when the libertarian-masquerading-as-progressive-crusader-for-justice (and virulent hater of President Obama) pundit Glenn Greenwald became embroiled in a well-published Twitter debate with blogger Angry Black Lady.
” … a Greenwald supporter quipped that if I saw Obama raping a nun on live TV, I would defend him for it; another supporter quipped that I would fantasize about playing the role of the raped nun; and Greenwald piled on. When asked to account for the clumsy rape metaphor, Greenwald doubled down, claiming that it wasn’t a metaphor, and that he actually believed that I and other Obama supporters would defend Obama if we were to see him raping a nun.
The point of the ensuing Greenwald double-down and Chirpstory explosions is, of course, to firmly plant the image of Obama as a rapist and defiler of virgins (read “white white white”) into the public discourse.
Much earlier, as part of an almost rabidly vicious right-wing attack on President Obama’s health care legislation, conservative blogger Darleen Click posted on the site Protein Wisdom a cartoon she felt captured the moment. [ALERT: this link goes to jezebel.com, an anti-racist website. You can see the cartoon here and read a good analysis of it without going to the original source.]
In the cartoon, Lady Liberty sits on the edge of her bed, sobbing. She has just been raped. The bedroom shows signs of disarray. In the foreground, President Obama, bare-chested, is putting on a shirt and smirking at her distress. He’s telling her to “shut up and quit whining;” that the only consent he needed was winning the election. He promises to come back – and the next time, he’ll bring friends.
[ALERT: the following link is provided only so that you can verify the accuracy of this quotation. Unless you are strongly compelled to do so, do not click and give this vile website the traffic.]
Click brushed aside allegations of racism in her depiction, saying, “Heck, I want to shake them up. This is supposed to be a post-racial era? Then deal with the fact that the President of the United States is the head of a gang that just raped our American principles.”
Latoya Peterson and others have written about the general right-wing embrace of rape metaphors to attack health care and other liberal legislative measures. But it’s important to recognize that this isn’t just a race-neutral right-wing metaphor. The racist criminal archetype of black men as thugs and rapists violating whiteness echoes back to the days of chattel slavery. It saturates the history of lynching in the United States. It defines such brutal travesties of justice as the case of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama in 1931 and resurfaces again as “Willie” Horton in the late 1980s.
You’d want to hope, then, that liberals and progressives would help expose the racism of suggesting that a black man in the highest office in this country is a rapist. But a well-known, white male blogger, presumably progressive, used Click’s cartoon uncritically to illustrate his own grievances against President Obama in a diary posted at Daily Kos. Eventually, and only under duress – not from the DK administrators, but from a handful of other posters at the site – this diarist deleted the cartoon from his post. Since that time, this same blogger has been promoted to Front Page status at Daily Kos.
But the “rape/thug/intruder” messages can be subliminal, as well. A greatly scaled-down dogwhistle regarding the potential violation of innocent women, children, and sanctity of home appeared in Hillary Clinton’s noteworthy “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep” video ad.
It was fear-mongering at its slickest – but with an unspoken racial suggestion.
The ad purported, via its spoken words, to speak to the competency of a military leader responding to sudden crisis; in fact, by its verbal logic, it would have been arguing for a McCain presidency. But through careful selection of imagery, it signified the violent violation of your innocent child’s bedchamber, seen in part through a doorway painted white. The ad includes a number of child images; the first is a blond, white girl. The mother peeking in on her children to reassure herself of their safety is white.
Any suggestion that these images are completely neutral and signify nothing more than is on the surface flies in the face of a long, terrible history of representations of black men as intrinsically violent intruders, thugs, and rapists.
Birtherism/Deceptive Sleeper Cell Muslim/Betrayer of the Nation
The paranoid, xenophobic, and conspiratorial conceptual mess known as “birtherism” asserts that President Obama is not a “natural-born” U.S. citizen and therefore not eligible to be president. He is variously alleged to not be Christian, but to secretly follow Islam; to have been born in Kenya and not Hawaii; to have forged his Hawaiian birth certificate. Or, even if he was not born in Kenya, other circumstances that negated his citizenship.
The themes here are: dishonesty, deception, and criminality on a massive scale: “We can’t know who he really is.” But in a post-9/11 world, we can assume that he is more aligned with presumptive U.S. enemies (all Muslims); with “foreigners;” with “foreigners who are terrorists.” He is not “American,” but African. Clearly, he is in sinister alliance with “people who are not us.” What would the (all-white, slaveholding) Founding Fathers say?
Court case after court case has been initiated to legally compel President Obama to release his “real” birth certificate – which, by definition, cannot be the legal one – produced and widely reprinted. He did release it, of course. But by birther definition, since he is a criminal, it is a forgery.
Raising the stakes, the Arizona legislature passed a “birther” bill requiring all presidential candidates to show proof that they are “natural-born” citizens – a clear attempt to disqualify President Obama. In a momentary spasm of sanity, rare for her, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it and the state legislature didn’t override. They didn’t need to.
You’d like to think this is so off the wall that no respectable people would buy it. And you would be wrong. Yes, there are an apparently limitless number of right-wing wackadoodles who promote birtherism, but there are also a host of others who do, including Donald Trump recently (and slavishly) embraced by a grateful Mitt Romney who received Trump’s endorsement. Many in the GOP and media who don’t openly endorse birtherism nonetheless continually refuse to cast it aside and thereby continue to stoke doubts. It’s used to cast doubt on his commitment to the U.S. Constitution as well as his ability to legally serve as the commander in chief of the armed forces (imagine having an African Muslim terrorist giving the orders!).
The neat trick about birtherism is not its outlandishness, but rather its ability to work at subconscious levels without having to actually convince anyone of its truth.
One critical intent of birtherism is to get prospective white voters to mentally compare a black man against white people, in light of a criminalizing narrative, and ask: “Who is more trustworthy?”
And another function as reader RW noted over at Talking Points Memo, is that it
…brings up the question upon which all of this madness, birtherism and the like turns. Will America forever be a white country? For any demographer, this question has answered itself for many years. But the very existence of Barack Obama has startled a significant part of the population into realizing what the rest of the world has known for some time—that the day fast approaches when America will no longer be majority white—not just in population, but in governance and culture. It is only through this prism that the new political hysterics can be understood.
Repeated over and over and amplified in the media each time another “birther” drama erupts, the message does damage in the subconscious of the body politic, even if it doesn’t succeed in its challenges on the basis of daylight scrutiny.
Exposing & Shredding the Criminalizing Narratives
The deconstruction of criminalizing narratives requires a steadfast commitment to recognizing, exposing, and fighting systemic racism – and recognizing that the criminalization of people of color is an extraordinary obstacle to any meaningful form of racial justice in the United States.
And it requires a willingness to expose and call out these narratives no matter where they’re coming from – the right, the left, the libertarians – and no matter who is giving them voice (and cover). But we also need to recognize that mere reactivity to and denunciation of these criminalizing narratives and archetypes isn’t nearly enough. Even as we expose the wrongs of these narratives, we have to be able to invite people into something better. Otherwise, we just shout at each other over fences that only grow more formidable over time, and any change won can be quickly undone at the next election.
The best kinds of politics aren’t the politics of power-play victories, but of deep social and cultural transformation. Something must take the place of criminalizing narratives and the policies and practices that they drive.
The first task is to educate yourself and others about the historical longevity of racist criminalizing archetypes. Talk about and expose the ones that will surface with greater momentum as we advance toward the 2012 elections.
One way the Right keeps us on the defensive is that we so often become so deeply reactive to their vile rhetoric and proposals that we fail to craft and advance alternative and more compelling narratives.
To do that, we need to recognize the blogosphere as vitally important and useful for educating ourselves and others and sharing news, ideas, and organizing tools. It’s useful for broadcasting action alerts. But while it can send up alarms and rouse the troops to positive action, it cannot deconstruct cultures of racism and violence.
And it’s not a substitute for real, grassroots community organizing where, to make lasting change, we have to engage respectfully and humbly with people who don’t always agree with us. Where, to make lasting change, we must engage in the painstaking effort of building strong, trustworthy community relationships at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, disability, and immigration status. That means building real communities of resistance to “get tough” policies, mass incarceration, and the idea that more policing, more punishment can dismantle cultures of violence. It means recognizing that to make lasting change, politicians need to know that there’s strong community support that goes broad and deep.
What would our more compelling narratives, be, if they weren’t rooted simply in reactivity, and our own politics of contempt and denunciation? What kinds of more life-giving Story can be advanced in ways that touch people’s hearts as well as their minds; that can touch the subconscious part of self that values compassion and justice and generosity –but without resorting to simple emotional manipulation? What kinds of narratives would invite people into the task of building communities that are safe, just, caring, and compassionate in practical as well as visionary ways? What archetypal images and narratives call forth the best rather than the worst in us?
Please share your thoughts with us here. CI and CMP will also work to help keep these discussions going in many different ways throughout the coming year.
Kay Whitlock is a co-author (with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie) of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States and writes frequently about the systemic violence and injustice in public institutions.