Question of the Month
Racial 'Civility' and the Presidential Campaign
A: Yes, I am aware of Obama Waffles. The Jim Crow Museum ordered boxes of the waffle mix (“BUY THREE GET ONE FREE”) from obamawaffles.com a week after the product was introduced at the Family Research Council Values Voter Summit, held in Washington, D.C. Mark Whitlock and Bob DeMoss, two popular Christian writers, created Obama Waffles and 400 boxes were sold for $10 a piece at the Summit before organizers, responding to a barrage of negative emails, phone calls, and comments on blogs, forced the entrepreneurs to close their vending booth. Mr. Whitlock and Mr. DeMoss subsequently moved their business to the Internet.
Campaigns for the American presidency are rarely civil. Candidates and their supporters misrepresent their opponent’s political and philosophical ideas and, more disappointingly, engage in ad hominem attacks and fear mongering. This is, alas, normative.1 The candidacy of Senator Obama, a man with obvious African ancestry, is seen by many Americans as an opportunity for this nation to try again to have open, honest, even painful discussions about race relations. This sentiment is present in the chants of hope and change that one hears at a Senator Obama rally.
What is hope for some is a nightmare for others. Senator Obama’s campaign has removed the veneer of racial civility—the social masks behind which many Americans have otherwise blithely declared that race relations in American are good. With these masks on, many Americans have simply said, “Black? Okay, White? Not a problem, Brown? You bet! Red? Just fine. Yellow? Great. Hey everybody and everything is okay.”
But now, with the prospect of a mixed-race, Black-identified man becoming President of the United States, many Americans are angry and scared. How else do we account for the raw racist objects that have are become commonplace? The main image on the Obama Waffles box shows the Senator, with bulging, darting eyes and oversized lips, staring longingly at a plate of waffles. This image is reminiscent of the Sambo, Tom, and Mammy images that dominated the pre-Civil Rights Movement in America. On the top flap of the box, Senator Obama is dressed in what is supposed to be Muslim headwear, accompanied by these words, “Point box toward Mecca for tastier results.” The implicit message is, “Senator Obama is a Muslim and he’s lying when he says he is not. He is one of Them and They scared us.” The we-they dichotomy is also evident on the back of the box where Senator Obama is portrayed in stereotypical Mexican dress, including a sombrero. There is a recipe for "Open Border Fiesta Waffles" with a recommended serving for "4 or more illegal aliens." Nearby is the question, "While waiting for these zesty treats to invade your home, why not learn a foreign language?" The box also includes so-called ebonics, implying that Senator Obama, a Harvard-trained attorney, uses and misuses the English language in ways that most Americans should find offensive. Again, by tapping into the well of racial prejudice and stereotyping we are to get the message that He is not one of Us.
Obama Waffles are, forgive the pun, tasteless, but they do not offend me as much as some other objects that mock and defame Senator Obama. There are, for example, anti-Obama objects that call into question his humanness. In May 2008, Mike Norman, owner of Mulligan’s Food and Spirits bar, in Marietta, Georgia, gained a measure of national notoriety by selling t-shirts that featured Curious George, a cartoon monkey, peeling a banana, with “Obama in ‘08” underneath. Mr. Norman argued that, although he knew Blacks were sometimes compared to monkeys before and during the Jim Crow period, the t-shirts should not be viewed as racist because the Illinois senator and the cartoon monkey "look so much alike."2 Civil rights activists and Senator Obama supporters protested in front of Mr. Norman’s business. In June 2008, a Utah couple, the Lawsons, created a stuffed sock monkey doll dressed as and named after Senator Obama. As with Mr. Norman, the Lawsons claimed that their creation was not meant to be racist but instead was the result of “a charming association between a candidate and a toy we had when we were little.”3 The sock monkey, advertised as “cute and cuddly,” offended many Americans and humored others. I should pause and note that President George W. Bush is often portrayed as a chimpanzee, though this harsh depiction is meant as an insult to his intelligence not his race.
A quick trip to the Jim Crow Museum will reveal evidence of the long and insulting history of simian representation of Africans and African Americans. There are postcards that show African Americans as almost indistinguishable from monkeys and apes. There are prints that show Blacks and monkeys romantically involved. There are dozens of other objects in the museum that link Africans and Americans of African ancestry to monkeys and apes. Material objects, of course, both shape and reflect beliefs. In the 1940s, for example many three-dimensional objects were produced in the United States that tried to link (in a negative way) Blacks to monkeys. In that same decade, Black soldiers faced stereotypes that demeaned their intelligence, loyalty, and bravery, and, remarkably enough, claimed that they had tails. The material objects reinforced the tales.
In the 21st century the cruel linking of Blacks to simians remains fairly common. For example, porch monkey is a slur against Black people who are believed to be lazy. A large Black person is sometimes called an ape or gorilla. Not surprisingly, simian representations of Blacks have found expression on YouTube videos. One CNN video discussed an advertisement by Japanese company Emobile which showed a monkey (representing Senator Obama) giving a speech about change www.youtube.com/watch?v=82J-TDASyY0. It’s possible the Japanese producers of the video did not know about the racist connections. However, Americans making similar videos should not feign such ignorance. There is a YouTube video called, “Obama Monkey,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCUb1S-W_Cw which shows a monkey representing a Black woman who is supporting the candidacy of Senator Obama. Another video (since removed by YouTube) had raw racism reminiscent of the 1960s Johnny Rebel segregation songs with such lyrics as: “Quit your bitching nigger and just let things be; you’re messing up big time, take it from me. Quit your bitching nigger or you’re get your due ‘cause the Ku Klux Klan will come a calling on you.” In another video ("Michele Obama Without Makeup" www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyJ7awIRbdA ), Ms. Michele Obama is racially caricatured as an ape.
Senator Obama, Clinton, and McCain, and Governor Palin have all been subjected to ad hominem attacks. Please view this PowerPoint that I created and you will see evidence of the sexist (and other) attacks against Senator Clinton and Governor Palin, ageist attacks against Senator McCain, and the various attacks on Senator Obama. I am not sure how to rank-order expressions of offensive material; however, it seems obvious to me that the venom meted against the Democratic candidates is greater. For example, Iâ€™ve noted a very high incidence of Democratic candidates being associated with communism and terrorism, with blatant suggestions that they are evil, maybe even the anti-Christ, as Senator Obama has been portrayed.
Despite all this and after a half-century of living in the United States, I remain hopeful that we are “muddling forward” toward becoming a nation where people are not judged according to their ascribed statuses: race, age, sex, and so forth. The poem at the end of Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech includes his well-known hope: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As I stand in a room full of two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects that defame Senator Obama as an Osama Bin Laden clone, an anti-American communist, a modern version of Hitler, a Step-in-Fetchit minstrel, and even objects that portray him as the anti-Christ, I know that we are not yet the city on the top of the hill.
1 Kaid, L. (2004). Political advertising. In L. Kaid (Ed.), Handbook of political communication (pp.155–202). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Ansolabehere, S., & Iyengar, S. (1995). Going negative: How political advertisements shrink and polarize the electorate. NY: Free Press.
2 Errin Haines, “Obama/Curious George T-Shirt Draws Protests,” The Washington Post, May 15, 2008; Page C08, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/14/AR2008051403613.html" accessed September 24, 2008.
3 “Utah Company under fire for naming sock monkey after Barack Obama,” The Associated Press, June 14, 2008, www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/2008/06/14/2008-06-14_utah_company_under_fire_for_naming_sock_.html. Accessed September 25, 2008.
October 2008 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum