The makers of this ad, now allegedly running on Fox News, want you to know that simply opposing Barack Obama's healthcare plan does not make one a racist. You might note, as I have, that no one has really made this charge. Former President Jimmy Carter, who is mentioned in the ad and who made waves by stating what many were thinking about the role race has played in opposition to President Obama, said:
"When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or when they wave signs in the air that said we should have buried Obama with Kennedy, those kinds of things are beyond the bounds," the Democrat who served from 1977-1981 told students at Emory University.
"I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American.
"It's a racist attitude, and my hope is and my expectation is that in the future both Democratic leaders and Republican leaders will take the initiative in condemning that kind of unprecedented attack on the president of the United States," Carter said. Read more...
What many people believe, I think rightfully, is that the coded rhetoric of some on the right is very telling. Signs at Tea Parties featuring Barack Obama as a monkey or foreign terrorist say something about how the people carrying them view the President's race. The barely-veiled threats about the "tree of liberty" issued by gun-toting activists say something about the unique level of vitriol directed toward this particular president. The insistence that a short-form state-issued birth certificate and a birth announcement from 1961 is not enough to prove that Obama is an American reveals a determination to view people of color as "other," especially if, through family ties, they may have been exposed to Islam. The way Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck slyly play on the fears of some white people that an Obama presidency is a harbinger of black revenge--that the president himself is a virulent racist--reveals something about how these icons of the right view their constituency.
It is not opposing Barack Obama's healthcare plan, which has plenty of critics among people of color and progressives, that points to a person's racial prejudice. It is brandishing signs featuring the president as a racial charicature. It is threatening violence to get "my country back." It is refusing to believe that a biracial man who has traveled and lived abroad and who counts some Muslims as family members could possibly be a true-blue American. It is insisting that, in the grand old tradition of Reconstruction Era propaganda, black people put in charge of government will seek retribution against whites for centuries-old grievances, all while tossing chicken bones and making a mockery of the Constitution. These things reflect racial prejudice and racism.
Of course, the narrative revealed by the "I Guess I'm a Racist" ad is much simpler, especially if you are less interested in useful dialogue about healthcare and/or race in America than being defensive and using a hot-button strawman issue to rile up your base.
What is also frustrating about this ad is that, to resonate with viewers' simplistic views of race, it relies on a too-commonly-held misperception about race bias in our society--that is that only the truly wicked hold racial prejudices. Those concerned and knowledgeable about anti-racism know this isn't true by a long shot. But the ad wants us to believe that the people it features could never be race biased. We are to look at the faces of these folks who could be our friends and neighbors and decide that the idea of them being race biased is patently absurd, and thus so are charges of racism against some opponents of healthcare. We could see it if they were racist, right? They'd be sporting white hoods or swastikas. Everyone knows good people are never swayed by their racial prejudices. Everyone knows that...
...decent looking, middle class, average everyday people can't be race biased.
...black people and other people of color can't be race biased.
...edgy, progressive-looking types can't be race biased.
...educated people, like physicians, can't be race biased.
...a mother with a baby can't be race biased.
All of these notions are, of course, horse shit. I look at the actors in the ad stating incredulously "I guess I'm a racist," and I think, "Well, perhaps you are." I cannot make a sound judgement without hearing their views and witnessing their actions. Just looking at them proves nothing.
I don't care so much about this ad. It is a foolish exercise tossed into the right wing echo chamber. It is the new breed of conservative doing what they do best--muddying nuanced discussion and making relations between Americans worse to better activate their base. The folks who think charges of racism against some of Obama's opponents are not about their own behavior, but about Obama's race, will see this ad and smugly nod their heads. The rest of us will roll our eyes.