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Fear of a ‘Black’ President: Obama, Racial Panic and the Presidential Sign

by Cynthia D. Bond
2 Jul 2012 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.1] | Article
 

I’ve been wonderin’ why
People livin’ in fear
Of my shade
(Or my hi top fade)
I’m not the one that’s runnin’
But they got me on the run
Treat me like I have a gun
All I got is genes and chromosomes.
- Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy

I. Introduction
Of all the imaginable racialized backlash, real or representational, to Barack Obama’s candidacy for and inauguration as President of the United States, probably no one would have predicted the relatively widespread depiction of him as Adolf Hitler. Even a cursory knowledge of Hitler’s ‘policies’ as leader of the Third Reich and his eugenicist crimes against humanity would seem to make analogies between he and Obama intellectually incoherent, at a minimum, and otherwise patently outrageous. Nevertheless, this narrative cropped up during the 2008 campaign, where Hitler-Obama comparisons were found on the Internet, even on pro-Hillary Clinton websites (though apparently not sponsored or supported by Clinton herself).[1] After the inauguration, Hitler-Obama comparisons were rife in town hall meetings on the health insurance bill. And they were common in the discourse of Rush Limbaugh, on numerous apparently homegrown websites, and even on relatively benign, apolitical blogs and chat boards like Yahoo! Answers.[2] In 2010, a large billboard posted by the North Iowa Tea Party equating Obama with Hitler (and conflating socialism with both) drew national attention and ire.[3] And in 2011, even the talking heads on Fox & Friends, the Fox News morning show, recoiled when Hank Williams, Jr., compared Obama playing golf with Representative John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu playing with Hitler.

Most thinking people would be inclined to simply dismiss these images and comparisons between Hitler and Obama as absurd fringe lunacy or Photoshop ephemera. And indeed, many of these images are graphically contradictory, evoking inconsistencies even within their own world of signification.[4] Some may find these images offensive to the memory of those who suffered under Hitler, but nonsensical in their relationship to Obama himself. And at first glance, the motives behind these messages may seem to be no more profound than simplistic, politically partisan attempts to malign Obama. Or perhaps they simply represent the playing out of the seemingly inexhaustible Hitler meme.

However, the sheer ubiquity of these types of images and references, indeed the viral nature of them on the Internet and elsewhere, makes them more than a representational blip on the pop cultural radar. In addition, these references extend beyond a few marginal Internet sites to high-profile voices of the Right such as Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and others, making them even more disturbing. Finally, these images merit examination because, as Elizabeth Abel suggests, the historic nature of Obama’s election may divert attention from ‘the ways that racial panic and taboo are mediated by the verbal and visual technologies that have always intersected in the construction of race.’[5]

I argue that this phenomenon of the conflation of Obama and Hitler channels racial anxieties, and even outright panic, about a ‘non-white’ president taking office. I situate this panic within ‘whiteness,’[6] and argue that it encompasses not just the fear of a ‘black’ president, but also the fear of unsettling the purportedly settled categories of race itself.[7] This panic may be muted by the discourse of colorblindness and post-racialism, but finds voice in these ‘hybrid’ significations of Obama.

On a formal level, the internal contradiction and cognitive dissonance of these images is not merely coincidental to the images themselves, but rather reflects the paradoxes and contradictions of an Obama presidency viewed from the position of white racial panic. These contradictions may be read as representational pathologies generated by the perceived plurality or hybridity of racial referents Obama embodies as a bi-racial person. W.J.T. Mitchell suggests that, in the context of Obama as a signifier of bi-racialism, ‘the key to Obama’s iconicity resides not in determinacy but ambiguity, not in identity but differential hybridity.’[8] And as I will discuss more fully later on, Obama’s position as an apparently ‘black’ man in a historically ‘White House’ also evokes notions of hybridity. Ultimately, these significations attempt to ‘re-other’ Obama now that he has entered the office that most visibly represents the United States as a nation.

In addition, these contradictions in signification may in part result from the difficulties the Right encounters in maintaining its preferred discourse of colorblindness, while simultaneously seeking to stir white racial anxieties to fuel anti-Obama sentiment. Thus, in the Right’s signification of Obama, ‘both the stabilizing project of racial classification and the destabilizing strategies that call that project into question’ are essential to activating, and indeed constituting, white racial panic.[9]

II. Origins

Daily Beast Reporter Max Blumenthal traces the origin of the association of Hitler with Obama to Lyndon LaRouche and his supporters.[10] Blumenthal cites the appearance of LaRouche supporter Anton Chaitkin at a June 10, 2009 meeting of the Federal Council Coordinating Comparative Effectiveness Research, where he alleged that Obama’s health care legislation proposals were the same as Hitler’s T-4 policy for the murder of millions.[11] One of the better-known public pronouncements of the Obama-Hitler conflation was also made by a LaRouche supporter. In an August 2009 town hall meeting in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a LaRouche follower was rebuked by Representative Barney Frank with a question regarding her planetary home when she asserted that Obama’s health care proposal was ‘Nazi.’[12]

However, it’s not entirely clear that the slur began with LaRouche’s organization. As early as February 14, 2008, in a blog post on his Orcinus website, independent journalist David Neiwert noted Obama-Hitler comparisons that were evoked in regard to Obama’s impressive oratorical skills at campaign rallies.[13] For example, Fox News Radio Host Tom Sullivan responded to a caller’s comparison of Obama’s speeches to Hitler’s rallies by playing audio of Hitler speaking, alternating with one of Obama’s speeches, and eventually blending the audio of Hitler into Obama’s.[14] Of course, Hitler’s speech is in German and Sullivan freely admitted after playing the speech on air that he didn’t know what Hitler was saying. Yet this did not inhibit Sullivan from finding similarities between the impassioned oratory of both men.

Yet Neiwert doesn’t fully place the blame for this association with Fox News and the Right. Instead, he suggests that Right wing commentators like Sullivan were simply taking their cue from the mainstream media who had begun constructing the narrative of ‘the cult of Obama’ in its reports about the large attendance at Obama campaign rallies, and his purportedly messianic qualities. Indeed, when Clinton and Obama were still competing for front-runner status, many mainstream TV news programs showed footage of Obama’s well-attended campaign rallies, likening them to cult gatherings.

Some commentators more firmly place responsibility with Right wing conservatives, in a narrative begun decades ago. For example, Frank Schaeffer (reformed early architect of the U.S. Religious Right)[15] has traced the strategy of projecting fascism and Nazism on Obama back to the fledgling tactics of the Religious Right.[16] The use of Hitlerian or fascist associations was intentionally developed in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s, Schaeffer contends, to suggest that there was a ’slippery slope’ between maintaining the legal right to abortion (the hot topic for the Religious Right at the time) and widespread, government sponsored euthanasia. He claims that

an unholy union between the rhetoric we introduced in the 70s and 80s to the pro-life cause is now being borrowed by the giant corporate interests who want to keep the status quo the way it is because they’re making a fortune off of it…and…a lot of the foot soldiers [lobbyists, town hall meeting participants, etc.].[17]

While the nature of the Internet’s endless proliferation and recirculation of images further obscures the origin of the slur,  it appears to emanate from various sources. And even if its origin could be traced to a discrete political organization, it is now a pervasive association used by a range of groups and individuals.

III. The Post-Racial Narrative

Obama is certainly not the first U.S. president to be likened to or depicted as Hitler. Most recently, images of George W. Bush as Hitler also appeared on the Internet and at rallies protesting his conduct of the Iraq war.[18] In addition, comparisons between Hitler and U.S. Presidents began as early as Hoover (albeit after he had left office), and has extended to John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.[19]

Is this depiction of Obama then simply an inevitable phase in the signification of an American President in late capitalism?[20] And if so, is this signification, however paradoxically, a gesture of ‘color blindness’ or a ‘post-racial’ moment regarding America’s first non-white president? Or is the ubiquity of such images on the Internet simply another example of ‘Godwin’s Law’ (‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1′),[21] aka the ‘reductio ad Hitlerum,’[22] or does it reveal something more particular about the current trends in U.S. racial signification?

It is perhaps the definition of a watershed moment in U.S. history when a president is simultaneously hailed as signaling the end of race, and as being the next Hitler.[23] As to the first projection, Obama’s election added fuel to the fire of those who preach that the United States has entered a post-racial era. On November 3, 2008 and thereafter, many mainstream media pundits declared the death of race and racism in America. Andrew Sullivan called Obama’s election the ‘death of the identity politics of race.’[24] Rachel Maddow of MSNBC news exhorted viewers to laugh at anyone who asserted ‘old,’ pre-Obama, ideas about the role of race and racial oppression in America.[25] Roland Martin of CNN half-jokingly speculated that Rev. Jesse Jackson, televised weeping at Obama’s Election Day rally in Chicago’s Grant Park, was crying because he was ‘out of a job.’[26]

Of course, even the most casual observer of American popular discourse saw that Obama’s ascendance was predictably narrativized in terms of race. For example, journalist George Stephanopoulos asked Barack Obama early in the campaign whether his ‘coolness’ on the campaign trail was a ‘black thing.’ [27] Or consider the Chaffey Community Republican Women Federated organization which circulated images of what currency during an Obama presidency would look like: the ‘money’ pictured was labeled ‘United States Food Stamps,’ and bore the image of Obama, fried chicken and watermelon.[28] And soon after the election, former RNC chairman nominee Chip Saltsman drew ire for distributing the Rush Limbaugh-commissioned song ‘Barack the Magic Negro’ on a Christmas CD to members of the Republican party.[29]

While the expression ‘post-racial’ has a contemporary ring, it is at core a belief in the death of power dependent on race, and thus ultimately a belief in the shopworn notion of a ‘colorblind’ society. As Ian Haney López argues, ‘as both rhetoric and strategy, post-racialism responds to colorblindness by adopting the latter’s basic message: that race is irrelevant.’ [30] Thus, narratives of post-racialism are symptomatic of the persistent American social amnesia about the structural, economic, and political aspects of racial inequality. Recent mainstream media frenzies regarding racist statements by, for example, radio personality Don Imus and the like, reflect this focus on individual racism rather than structural racism.

The post-election celebration of the death of race was as shallow as it was pervasive. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva called it in a speech three days after the election:

In Obamerica – by which I mean, the fact that Obama was elected president without a social movement behind him–racism will remain firmly in place. Even worse, I suspect Obama’s very election as President may become a formidable obstacle to advance a progressive race and class agenda at home and an internationalist agenda abroad.[31]

Thus, the celebration of the post-racial moment was not simply wishful thinking, but was actually in service of the continuation of structural racism.

Obama himself has publically embraced the post-racial narrative in, for example, his Philadelphia campaign speech about race, and his remedial response to public outrage at his comments about the Sgt. Crowley-Prof. Gates incident. For Haney López, Obama professes belief in post-racialism strategically: “As a strategic response to recalcitrance among whites to dismantle the edifices of racial privilege, perhaps post-racialism is the better bet.’[32]

Bonilla-Silva, on the other hand, is less sympathetic to this strategy, arguing that even if Obama’s post-racial or ‘racelessness’ stance was essential to his getting elected, it satisfied the white electorate while selling out the non-white electorate, thus abdicating the possibility of addressing racial inequality once in office.[33] However one views the strategic value of embracing post-racialism, it is undeniably a key narrative to Obama’s ascendance, and thus part of the racial signification surrounding him.

Despite the aura of novelty that surrounds post-racialism, notions of race have always changed over time; this change doesn’t indicate that race as a concept is disappearing.[34] Rather, change is essential to the continuation of narratives of race, not extraneous to it: ‘…to avoid breaking down, racial hierarchy must also be newly produced and reproduced.’[35] Contrary to the various transformed ‘racial futures’ that are commonly predicted for the U.S. in the context of changing demographics, (e.g. multiracialism, so-called ‘Latin Americanization,’ etc.) Haney López has argued (before Obama’s campaign) that the ‘looming racial paradigm’ is ‘colorblind White dominance.’[36] Colorblind White dominance has three central characteristics:

(1) continued racial dominance by Whites; (2) an expansion of who counts as White along socio-racial rather than bio-racial lines; and (3) a colorblind ideology that simultaneously proclaims a robust commitment to antiracism yet works assiduously to prevent effective racial remediation.[37]

Haney López suggests the development of a new group who expand whiteness: ‘honorary Whites.’ [38] Such persons are not able to physically ‘pass’ as white, but instead ‘are extended the status of Whiteness despite the public recognition that, from a bio-racial perspective, they are not fully White.’[39] Crucially, recognition of ‘honorary Whites’ will remain dependent on the physical characteristics assigned to race, e.g. skin color.

Obama’s ascendance provides a good opportunity to test Haney López’ predictions regarding ‘honorary whiteness.’ As a bi-racial, relatively light-skinned man who has assumed the nation’s highest office, Obama would seemingly be a good fit for ‘honorary white’ status. Indeed, some observers have remarked that Obama’s campaign sought to gain traction in 2008 by emphasizing Obama’s ‘whiteness.’[40] However, given the racialized representations that have swirled around Obama, it is clear that the concept of honorary whiteness cannot fully account for his signification. One limitation may be the concept itself, which suggests a whiteness that is still unitary (if more evidently socially constructed). Yet Obama’s identity in the public imagination unavoidably evokes notions of hybridity (white mother and black father; American mother and Kenyan father; American origin and ‘foreign’ origin, etc.). Significations of Obama must accordingly account for something more complex than a projection of ‘honorary whiteness.’

Just because post-racialism is not actual, does not mean that narratives of post-racialism aren’t important. In fact, post-racial narratives contribute to representational strategies regarding Obama, and they do so simultaneously with older and perhaps more familiar stereotypes about race. As noted above, many of the Obama-Hitler images reveal persistent white anxieties about race, racial boundaries, and racial hybridity. Such anxieties are not ancillary to race, but are in part constitutive of race itself, and thus not a break with earlier raced signifying practices. One such practice that is relevant to the signification of Obama is the use of racial masks, in the form of blackface and whiteface performance.

IV. Blackface/Whiteface

On the level of pop cultural performance and representation, one performative tool for the creation of ‘honorary white’ signification has historically been the manipulation of blackface; for example, in nineteenth century minstrel shows, which Eric Lott calls ‘the first, formative public or institutional acknowledgement by whites of Black culture.’[41] This practice continued in early twentieth-century performance.[42] Michael Rogin argues that the donning of black face on stage and in film by immigrant Jewish performers (Al Jolson is the most obvious example) was a way for those performers to become American and culturally ‘white.’ While blackface ‘assaulted the people through whose mouths it claimed to speak,’[43] it also gave people who were not yet constructed as ‘American’ or ‘white’ access to those identities. ‘Blackface…loosened up white identities by taking over black ones, by underscoring the line between white and black.’[44] That is, if I have to ‘black up’ to appear ‘black,’ then I must be ‘white,’ even if I have yet to be recognized as such by the dominant culture.[45] Thus, in the narrative of the American melting pot, ‘[a]ssimilation is achieved via the mask of the most segregated…’[46] Crucially, the performance of the black/white binary is the performance of nation.

Historical performances of blackface also revealed the potential mutability of the boundaries of ‘white’ hegemony. Lott has famously argued that blackface images and performances in the United States in the nineteenth century didn’t simply reflect unassailable white supremacy, but ‘[read] as a sort of racial panic rather than confident racial power’[47] Blackface minstrelsy ‘constituted black people as the focus of the white political imaginary,’[48] raising titillating fears of black power while simultaneously domesticating it. And of course, central to this dream work[49] was the construction and policing of the line between black and white.

In the realm of blackface…the house was always haunted, the disavowals never enough to halt the enslaved Other’s encroachment upon white self-identity; the continual return to the mask itself, its obvious usefulness, suggests as much.[50]

In the continued haunting of the American house that is race, what of the dream work of contemporary whiteface; that is, the donning of ‘white’ identities by ‘non-white’ actors?[51] Does it function like blackface to similarly police the line between black and white, helping to constitute the exclusiveness of white identity? What racial operation takes place when a ‘black’ person ‘whites up’? That is, if I have to ‘white up’ to appear ‘white’ does that mean that I must be ‘black’? Does whiteface, like an inverse of Al Jolson’s act, serve to underscore the ‘blackness’ or ‘non-whiteness’ of the subject who adopts it?

Key whiteface performances that immediately come to mind are the late 20th century-early 21st century work of performers such as Eddie Murphy (e.g. as Saul in ‘Coming to America’ (1986)), Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans (e.g. in ‘White Chicks’ (2004)), and Dave Chapelle (‘Chapelle’s Show’ (2003-2006)). Obviously, unlike these actors, Obama has not voluntarily adopted the racial mask or whiteface, but rather has had this mask projected upon him.[52] Thus, since Obama has not adopted this particular performance of race, we cannot assign to him any intended message, whereas we can analyze Chappelle’s intent and critique in his whiteface performance of race. Since we know Chappelle chooses to don whiteface, we must examine him as subject as well as raced object. We must ask, ‘why is he doing this?’ as well as ‘what does this image of a whiteface ‘black’ man look like?’

On the level of the reception of most white viewing-subjects, there is undoubtedly shared territory between any image of a ‘black’ man in whiteface. That is, the viewer will think that the ‘true’ race of the person assuming whiteface is ‘non-white’ or ‘black.’[53] And they will think that the adoption of ‘whiteness’ is incomplete and imperfect (though they may marvel at the believability of it in some cases, such as Eddie Murphy’s Saul character).[54]

Thus, whiteface images must evoke the ‘black/white line,’ as does blackface. However, given the historical hegemony of ‘whiteness,’ whiteface is of course not equivalent to blackface. There is simply no equal signification from which ‘black’ and ‘white’ performers can proceed. For a ‘black’ performer to ‘white up’ is to mock ‘the master’ and ‘white’ hegemony. Whiteface performances can be brilliant at denaturalizing and estranging the concept of ‘whiteness,’ even if they ultimately cannot fully de-center the power of ‘whiteness’ in so doing.[55] Whiteface in its contemporary forms seeks to add something new to ‘whiteness,’ to establish ‘whiteness’ as a culture with its own physicalities, vocalities, and repressions. But such a performance most likely does not expand the category of ‘whiteness’ to include the whiteface performer, as Rogin argues can occur with certain performances of blackface, but instead maintains the black/white line.

Reading the Obama/Hitler images within the signifying practices of blackface/whiteface provides some insight. First, it suggests that these images are symptomatic of the type of racial panic that Lott describes, signifying white fear of the ‘Other’s encroachment on white self-identity’ through use of the racial mask. Second, it marks the deeply binary nature of these images. That is, historically, blackface in the U.S. constructs race along a black/white, other/self axis. Many of the Obama/Hitler images graphically reproduce this binary, using split frame images of Obama next to images of Hitler. Finally, narratives of whiteface/blackface, which operate to manage anxiety about racial indeterminacy, may have special force in the context of Obama’s hybridity as a bi-racial person. That is, by depicting Obama as an identity split between whiteness and blackness, the more comfortable binary of black/white is preserved and the potential uncertainty of racial hybridity is managed.

Finally, while Obama did not author these images, the ‘white-ing up’ of Obama in this particular version of white supremacy may be, somewhat perversely, an assimilationist gesture similar to the ones Rogin describes. That is, to cast Obama as a whiteface leader (albeit an über-evil one) is to assimilate him into the heretofore white-dominated presidency. Obviously, this gesture functions paradoxically, by suppressing the politics of race in an apparently ‘colorblind’ conflation, which simultaneously evokes racial eugenics. We will see how this operates in a detailed analysis of the images themselves that follows.

V. Semiotics of the Presidency

The figure of the U.S. president is a complex nexus of signification.

As signifier the President calls up not only the American nation, the government, the executive branch and the triumphant party…but the mythic and historical associations that attach to the office and to its past and present occupants.[56]

This signification in part revolves around the tension between the notion of the President as an actual person and the Presidency as office:

The President appears to us as a person, an embodied individual presence whom we see directly. Yet that person is veiled from us by history and presidential office. The natural bodily singularity of the person is supplemented by the plurality of referents in the image of the President.[57]

This lack of a unitary subject in the image of the president creates an openness in the meanings assigned to that sign:

The plurality of referents makes possible a variety of strategies in…this act of signification. The histories the referents carry with them renders strategies vulnerable, however, for though they are commonly motivated by a specific rhetorical and ideological intent, they supply both the motive for subversion and the means to attempt it.[58]

The fluidity of representational strategies vis-à-vis the body of the president thus emanates in part from the plural sign of the presidency itself. Yet this signifying vortex that is the president also works within the always already signifying vortex that is race. Thus, it is not simply the plurality of referents of the presidency attaching to Obama, but the plural referents of race that, through Obama’s embodiment, attach to the presidency. While race has always figured in the body of the President since race is always already present, Obama’s presidency may be for many unreflective ‘white’ Americans the first explicit announcement of racial signification in the office. Thus, the signifying practices surrounding this president must also take into account the plurality of racial signification his bodily particularity evokes.

Given the particular racial narratives attaching to blackness, black maleness, bi-racialism, etc., it is impossible to see the figuring of Obama as Hitler as no different than the figuration of other 20th century presidents as Hitler. Since the figure of Obama as a ‘black/bi-racial’ man brings with it racialized narratives different from the invisible narratives of ‘whiteness,’ the conflation of him with Hitler is not simply Photoshop business as usual. Neither Obama’s election nor this signification signals the disappearance of race as a category or the arrival of a post-racial society. However, these images may mark a new gesture in the playing out of white racial anxiety about maintaining America as a ‘white nation,’ and other controlling metaphors of white hegemony.

VI. The Images

While as noted above, associations of Obama and Hitler may have initially been found most consistently in the remarks of Lyndon LaRouche supporters, a plethora of associations and images have cropped up before and since. A Google search on ‘Obama Hitler’ in November 2010 brought back 6,830,000 web pages, of which 1,750,000 were images.[59] These images take on an extraordinary range of signification and styles, framing attacks based on a number of distinct elements. I limit my discussion here to a few key images.

The images that circulate can be divided into roughly three categories. The first of these are images that suggest a correlation between Obama and Hitler due to their allegedly shared oratorical and persuasive skills. These images appeared during the 2008 campaign. Second, the post-inauguration images suggesting that Obama is following Hitler’s eugenicist practices, presumably in his promotion of the health insurance reform measures that resulted in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And finally, the relatively free-floating images that simply mark Obama as ‘Hitlerian’ without focusing on any particular aspect of Obama’s candidacy or presidency.[60]

(a) Lyndon LaRouche (LaRouche PAC) Poster

Lyndon LaRouche’s infamous poster is an early and notable example of the third category of free-floating, Hitlerian Obama imagery:[61]

Fig 1: Lyndon LaRouche Poster (http://www.larouchepac.com)

LaRouche supporters brandished this poster at the aforementioned tea party rallies and at town hall meetings opposing health insurance reform. This image also appeared at LaRouche supporters’ literature tables on the streets shortly after Obama’s inauguration. The image isn’t literal whiteface, but rather attaches the Hitler mustache, a recognizable white supremacy meme, to an apparently unaltered photograph of Obama. The caption obviously seeks to recast Obama’s campaign slogan, “Change,” as an ominous statement of Obama’s transformation, though the precise nature of this transformation is unclear. Thus, the LaRouche image shifts the focus of the slogan from an (admittedly hazy) idea about governmental transformation to a statement of personal, and thus purportedly fearful, change. The suggestion is that Obama’s ascendance to the presidency has catalyzed a political turn from liberal (in the current vague sense of that word) to fascist. If so, the suggestion is that Obama’s historic ascendance to the heretofore white presidency results in a political transformation to extremism. As I will discuss later, this extremism is linked to notions of racial ‘excess’ in this image and others.

(b) Shepherd Fairey Redux

Fig 2: Unattributed. (http://manoamondo.com/2009/09/30/medium-emotion-hate-speech-and-drama-politics/)

During Obama’s campaign, San Francisco artist Shepard Fairey’s poster [62] (cited in the right panel of figure two) was ubiquitous and much copied (even by Ralph Nadar whose 2008 campaign organization released a Fairey-like image with the slogan ‘Radical’). Fairey’s Obama poster aesthetic has been widely reappropriated, pressed into service to portray everyone from the average Joe to Muhammad Ali.[63]The above image equates Hitler and Obama not through explicit use of whiteface, but rather through mirroring the ‘Fairey-esque’ style of Obama’s image in Hitler’s.

The image cites other aspects of Fairey’s work by using the word ‘Obey’ under the image of Obama. This text evokes one of Fairey’s earlier projects, based on images of wrestler Andre the Giant, whose vaguely sinister black and white face was accompanied by the word ‘Obey.’[64] Fairey has subsequently developed an entire clothing line based on the ‘Obey’ images, and the word ‘Obey’ has appeared on several of his graphic images, including some which appropriate Russian constructivist and social realist imagery.[65]

The Fairey poster became a ubiquitous populist icon during the campaign (Fairey produced it for Obama, though apparently not under commission). Thus, the linking of Fairey-Obama to Fairey-Hitler reinforces the suggestion that Obama’s appeal to the mass is like Hitler’s appeal. The transposition of ‘Change’ and ‘Obey’ in this context hyperbolically suggests that the campaign-appeal and charisma of Obama will ultimately result in fascist dictatorship.

Figure two above seeks to connect Obama and Hitler by shifting words or slogans we would associate with each man to the other. So Obama’s campaign slogan, ‘Change’ is shifted to the image of Hitler, thus conflating Obama’s message with Hitler (and by extension Nazism or fascism more generally). The word ‘Obey,’ vaguely totalitarian (and appropriated by Fairey originally as a ‘propaganda campaign without a clear motive’),[66] is shifted to Obama.

In addition, both men are colored in red, white, and blue, evoking national signification while simultaneously suppressing racial signification. The more pronounced use of red in the image of Hitler is presumably meant to signify evil, the bloody color of murderous intent. It would seem that the producer of this image would not want to associate the colors of American patriotism with Hitler, but the use of a shared color palette crucially links Obama to Hitler on the level of nation.

The suppression of racial signification in the images correlates with the suppression of the central role that virulent racism and xenophobia played in Hitler’s agenda and in the actions of the Third Reich. Thus, there is a kind of ideological ‘whiteface’ in this image; an elision of the way that Hitler’s policies would not even allow for the existence of Obama, much less for a shared political approach.

Yet to say that racial signification is suppressed here is not to say that it is non-existent. In addition to the overdetermined sign of President, Obama’s presidency brings with it the overdetermined meanings of blackness and black maleness. Significantly, Obama’s bi-racialism, in the residual ideology of the ‘one drop’ rule, is read as ‘black’ by most ‘whites.’ As Shawn Michelle Smith suggests, this positionality may have particular resonance in our current historical moment:

Obama is a key transitional figure between the racially divided generation of the Baby Boomers and the future generations that will see the decline of a white majority in the United States through immigration. Perhaps this is why his whiteness seems to matter so much. If, as the son of an immigrant Kenyan man, Obama represents a new kind of blackness, perhaps he also represents a new kind of whiteness – a mixed whiteness to be sure, but for now a whiteness that is tentatively maintaining its hold on an anxious American imagination (or at least its ‘white half’).[67]

Interestingly, Smith’s own analysis here wavers between the narratives of the white/black binary (Obama’s ‘white half’ and ‘black half’), and more fluid notions of hybridity, in which ‘whiteness’ (and ‘blackness’) are remade.

As noted above, Obama’s racial hybridity potentially embodies age-old anxieties about racial ‘mixing’–essentially anxieties about the actual indeterminacy of race as a biological matter. Such anxieties fuel the signification of the imagined boundary that is ‘white/non-white,” which, paradoxically, the Hitler images embody. (Note also the clear binary composition of the image, with its diptych presentation). Under this formula, a white viewer would see the image of Obama, regardless of the colors used in it, as the image of a ‘black’ man, with whiteface techniques only serving to reinforce some viewers’ perceptions of his ‘blackness.’

Even though Obama has not chosen the masks thrust upon him in these images, they may paradoxically function as a kind of racial assimilation similar to what Michael Rogin finds in early twentieth century appropriation of blackface. That is, since Obama is the first ‘non-white’ President, his entry into the office threatens to destabilize its hegemonic ‘whiteness.’ As Anne Norton says, ‘all offices undergo a transubstantiation when they are occupied.’[68] Obama’s entry into the U.S. presidency can be viewed as an appropriation or transubstantiation of its historic ‘whiteness’ and its truly ‘White’ House. Whiteface in this instance can be read as a representational strategy that reflects the fear of Obama’s assimilation into, and possible disruption of, the white house of the U.S. as a nation. Thus, for the sufferer of white racial panic, this appropriation of ‘whiteness’ is envisioned as absolute power, a totalitarianism that will destroy the very office it occupies, and by extension, the nation.

Crucially, these images signal and construct a notion of excessiveness in the presidential sign. Obviously, an essential aspect of raced signification is the unexamined presumption that the normative, universal self is white, and that ‘non-whiteness’ is ‘in excess of’, an ‘extra’, to that essential self.[69] Similarly, the presumption of whiteness in the presidential office renders ‘blackness’ an ‘excess’ to that office. The political demonization of Obama in the Hitler images in part suggests that should Obama ‘pass for white’ by entering a position only and always held by ‘white’ men, his racial trespass will create an excess, an extremism that can only be performed as fascism, as dictatorship.[70]

There are seemingly endless variations of the Fairey-esque Hitler-Obama imagery:

Fig 3 (http://www.thepeoplescube.com)

Fig 4: Unattributed. (http://rexcurry.net/barack-obama-adolf-hitler.bmp)

Fig 5: http://www.AdamThinks.com

Fig 5: http://www.AdamThinks.com

The image in figure 5, appearing on a satirical website, critiques the nonsensical conflation of communism, Nazism, and socialism that circulates in the discourse of Obama demonization.

And finally, a Fairey-esque image with a more explicitly racial (yet somewhat inscrutable) message:

Fig 6: Unattributed. (The Huffington Post - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/09/anti-obama-images-circula_n_314769.html)

How to read this alliance of Obama with the Confederate flag? Are the diptych images meant to be read as ‘canceling out’ each other in an evocation of narratives of lynching? That is, the Confederate flag, emblem of racial annihilation, destroys Obama as presidential possibility? (Under this reading, unlike the Hitler images, the panes of the diptych are meant to be antonymic rather than synonymous.) Or is the conflation meant to be read as a warning of an Obama neo-confederacy, which will now take whites as its target?[71] Regardless of how one reads the relationship between these two parts of the image, like the Hitler images discussed above, the overall message is of an extremism–in this instance embodied in the Confederate flag– inherent in Obama’s assumption of the presidency.[72]

(c) The Sign of Socialism

Many of the Obama-Hitler images seek to connect Obama’s policies to what is alternately and simultaneously referred to–in a dizzying conflation of history and ideology–socialism, fascism, and/or communism. Superficially underlying these images are objections to Obama’s health insurance legislation and the early allegations of so-called ‘death panels’ that were mouthed by Lyndon LaRouche followers, Sarah Palin, et. al. However, the core signification of these images seems to be a conflation of any (to an average American) scary ‘-ism’ with Obama. In addition, this conflation evokes a re-othering of Obama as ‘un-American.’

Consider the following image, republished in an October 2009 Huffington Post article without attribution:[73]

Fig 7: Unattributed. (The Huffington Post - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/09/anti-obama-images-circula_n_314769.html)

While the road sign warns the drivers entering the concentration camp-like gate that they are ‘Now Entering Fascism,’ there is the hammer and sickle of the former Soviet Union’s flag looming behind Obama, whose eyes are closed. In addition, Obama is accompanied by the ghost-like heads of not only Hitler and Mussolini, (proper fascists, most would agree), but also by the heads of Marx and Lenin. The Obama campaign logo stands in for the swastika as totalitarian symbol above the camp door. The prevalence of surveillance cameras (there are a total of seven in an otherwise relatively concise image) evokes notions of a ‘Big Brother’-type fascism (ironic given the up-tic in domestic surveillance begun during the Bush administration).[74]

This image presents a ‘pantheon of evil,’ seeking to ally Obama with persons or ideologies that are crudely lumped together as fascist. Again, the fact that Hitler’s final solution (here symbolized by the camp gate the cars enter) was in large part sponsored by notions of an Aryan race and racial purity, or more broadly that race is often used as a political tool to consolidate power, is suppressed. Obama’s eyes are closed, supplanted by the gaze of the men who surround him and apparently work through him (as well as by the unending gaze of the surveillance cameras). Again, the excess of his racialized identity is signified through comparisons with excesses of political power.

The North Iowa tea party billboard, which received U.S. media attention in summer 2010 (and was at least publicly rejected by the co-founder of the North Iowa tea party and taken down in July 2010), also follows this path of conflating Obama with Hitler as a purported ‘critique’ of the former’s ’socialism:’[75]

Fig 8: North Iowa Tea Party Billboard. (AP Photo - http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38228744/ns/politics-decision_2010/)

Here we see Anne Norton’s idea of the multiple signification of the presidency in action. This image makes a more explicit connection between Obama and the Democratic party than the images previously discussed, enacting the President as leader of his party. Thus, this image broadens the attack beyond the person of Obama to conflate the Democratic party with fascist and ’socialist’ parties.

At least one mainstream journalist has characterized the use of ’socialist’ as an epithet against Obama as a coded statement about race. Phillip Kennicott argued in The Washington Post that posters of Obama as the whiteface Heath Ledger Joker from the film The Dark Knight (2008) underlined that ‘[t]he charge of socialism is secondary to the basic message that Obama can’t be trusted, not because he is a politician, but because he’s black.’[76] (Similar to the signifying practices of the Hitler images, the joker image Kennicott references uses whiteface to evoke Obama’s political ‘excess.’)

Public intellectual and critical race analyst Tim Wise has similarly argued that labeling Obama socialist has raced undertones. Wise traces the implicit racism of white opposition to the allegedly socialist health care legislation as a misconception that such legislation is essentially ‘welfare.’ Wise cogently argues that for many ‘white’ Americans of the tea party ilk, the notion of welfare exclusively evokes images of ‘black’ people. Wise cites comments by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh likening the legislation to ‘reparations,’ thus implying that it is for the benefit of ‘black’ people only. (More recently, Newt Gingrich referred to Obama as the ‘Food Stamp President’ in the course of his brief 2012 run for the presidential nomination, a phrase which ‘races’ social programs while reinforcing Obama’s black racial signification.)[77]

Regarding the implicit racism in tea party opposition to the health care legislation, Wise argued that the conflation of Obama with Hitler triggers an association in ‘white’s’ minds between genocide and ‘whiteness’: ‘When you portray Obama as Hitler…we think of Hitler as not just a fascist, but a racial fascist….[so that] the question that gets begged in a lot of white people’s minds is ‘hmm, I wonder what race he’s going to come for; oh yes, us…’’[78]

(d) Re-Othering & De-Nationalizing Obama

The Hitler meme has proven to be virally adaptive to the Internet age, attaching to every imaginable cultural moment.[79] Yet the above images function not just to ‘Hitlerize’ Obama, but also to ally him with leaders from other countries, appealing to a xenophobic American demographic. Reading this gesture within the context of current reaction against undocumented immigrant workers, and the so-called ‘Birther movement,’ which challenges Obama’s American citizenship, it’s clear that part of the message is that Obama is a foreigner, a national Other. (Indeed, some of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates sought to gain traction against Obama during the campaign by remarking  that he has more in common with ‘foreign leaders’ than with past U.S. Presidents).

Lest there be any doubt that racial anxieties about Obama are linked to fears of the destruction of the nation itself, consider the motto which graces the ‘Birther’ website: ‘Dedicated to the rebirth of our constitutional republic.’ [80]Thus, the ‘Birthers’ explicitly style Obama’s allegedly foreign birth as a threat to the nation, necessitating a new birth for the nation itself. While the ‘Birther’ discourse typically assiduously avoids explicit racial references, it is clearly using foreignness–national otherness–as a stand-in for racial otherness. As journalist Mark Shields noted on the PBS Newshour in April 2011, when Obama assented to demands that he produce his birth certificate, “If his father had been born in New Zealand, this wouldn’t have happened.” [81]

Not surprisingly, the ‘Birthers’ also make Hitler comparisons: ‘Lenin and Stalin had the ‘Bourgeois,’ Hitler had the ‘Untermenschen,’ Pol Pot had the ‘Intelligentsia,’ and now Obama has the ‘Birthers.’ People like this have always needed someone to blame for their own inadequacies, a scapegoat for their failures.’[82] These comparisons seek to frame Obama as a national Other, more akin to foreign leaders than other U.S. presidents. And in the implicit framing of the Birthers as potential victims of whatever ‘genocidal’ program Obama allegedly supports, they embody Tim Wise’s observation that the subtext of the Hitler smear is that Obama is targeting white people. (Orly Taitz, so-called ‘Queen of the Birthers,’ is a naturalized American Citizen whose ancestors are Holocaust survivors. She has in the past invoked Third Reich imagery in regard to Obama, including alleging he was creating forced labor camps).

The Birther discourse is consistent with the imagery exemplified in figures 7 and 8. Not only are Obama’s policies depicted as inimical to the ‘American way of life,’ he himself is allied with non-American leaders. This perspective is not just expressed by the Birther movement, Internet images, or armchair bloggers, but by politicians of some influence. Consider Newt Gingrich’s 2010 statement to the National Review that Americans should be concerned that Obama is ’so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior’ can you understand his actions. [83] Gingrich clearly seeks to to portray Obama as non-American, and thus ‘un-American.’

Gingrich’s on-again/off-again 2012 presidential campaign continued to employ numerous Othering discourses in referring to Obama. Gingrich’s seemingly one-note strategy was to portray Obama as national, ideological, and religious Other. He confided to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February 2012 that ‘we can not trust [Obama]. We know who he really is.’[84] On CBS’ ‘Morning Show,’ he characterized Obama’s foreign policy as ‘dangerous to America’ and his energy policy as ‘outrageously anti-American.’ [85] And at a pre-Louisiana primary campaign appearance, Gingrich blamed Obama for public misperceptions of him as Muslim, alleging that his apologies to Hamid Karzai for Koran burning incidents and civilian atrocities in Afghanistan were to blame: ‘Why does the president behave the way that people would think that [he is Muslim]? You have to ask, why would they believe that? It’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because they watch the kind of things I just described to you.’ [86]

David S. Owen finds traces of the national othering of Obama in the unprecedented 2009 State of the Union address incident in which Congressman Joe Wilson shouted, ‘you lie!’ during Obama’s speech:

In shouting during Obama’s address, Wilson enacted a form of disrespect that was not deracialized. Wilson’s action symbolically situated Obama as outside of what normal decorum demanded; the message being that Obama does not deserve such respect….the racialized import of his action was to reproduce the historically embedded norm in the U.S. that blacks are not deserving of white respect. [87]

To disrupt Obama’s performance as state leader in such a public forum, in a fashion that is unprecedented in American political life, is to deny Obama as president. Wilson was saying not just that Obama was lying about the health care legislation, but that he himself, as non-white President, is a lie, a cognitive and political impossibility.

On one level, these invocations of foreignness essentially attempt to ‘re-other’ Obama. That is, Americans typically think of the President as the embodiment of nation yet, in populist narratives activated by most political parties, just an average guy; someone with whom you might want to have a beer.[88] Thus, by becoming President, Obama would appear to evade status as an Other and instead be heir to the plurality of referents attaching to the President, from the personification of nation to the ‘guy next door.’ But for those Americans experiencing racial panic, Obama’s ‘non-whiteness’ threatens the ‘white’ hegemonic norm of the nation’s highest office (and maybe even notions of who the guy next door actually is). Thus, the whiteface and Hitler images in part channel anxieties about Obama’s potential destabilization of notions of a ‘white’ American nation by paradoxically deracinating and simultaneously de-nationalizing him.

Conclusion

The title and epigraph of this article are obviously an homage to the 1990 Public Enemy album and song ‘Fear of a Black Planet.’ I choose this title, invoking the powerful progressive voice of (pre-’Flavor of Love’) Public Enemy, as a reminder that simply because the U.S. has answered ‘yes’ to the question of whether it can elect a ‘black’ president, the inauguration and service of such a president does not mean an end to the fear of a non-white president. That fear about what a ‘black’ president will ‘do’ to the country persists into Obama’s presidency, and can rise to the level of racial panic, expressed in part through whiteface/blackface visual signification.

The perceived ‘excessiveness’ Obama imports into the presidential sign is managed by simultaneously deracinating him (e.g. putting him in a whiteface or Hitler ‘mask’) and reasserting his otherness through a displacement of his national identity. In a sense, this gesture shifts racial otherness in Obama’s bodily particularity to national otherness in the presidential sign. Thus, the internal contradictions and paradoxes of these images are not merely incidental, but rather can be seen as acting out white panic about racial mutability or hybridity. These images grapple with imagined paradoxes such as does Obama’s bi-racialism make him black or white? How can the leader of ‘white’ hegemony be ‘non-white’? If the President is figured as a ‘white’ occupant of the White House, where does the excess of his ‘blackness’ go? And so on. On the simplest level, these representational strategies underscore that notions of ‘blackness’ in America (and indeed non-whiteness in general) continue to provide a screen upon which ‘white’ hegemony may project racialized meanings, whatever narratives of post-racialism may abound. The exceptional figure of the president does not escape this practice.

Notes

1. Peter Hamby, ‘McCain Campaign Pulls Ads from Some Anti-Obama Websites,’ CNN, July 1, 2008, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/07/01/mccain.ads/index.html?iref=allsearch[↑]

2. User ‘Liberty’ (a name which suggests the question is a plant from a political organization) asks ‘Obama and Hitler? Do you see any similarities or differences?’ See: Yahoo! Answers, http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080221165049AA62vw5 (2008). [↑]

3. Associated Press, ‘Iowa Tea Party Group’s Sign Links Obama, Hitler,’ MSNBC, July 17, 2010, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38228744/ns/politics-decision_2010/[↑]

4. ]Consider for example the image of Obama’s ‘minions’ marching in Nazi uniforms, presumably in support of his ‘national socialist’ healthcare plan, yet holding signs that say ‘If you disagree with us, you’re a Nazi.’ The People’s Cube, http://thepeoplescube.com. [↑]

5.  ‘Racial Panic, Taboo, and Technology in the Age of Obama,’ Trans-Scripts 1, 2011.  [↑]

6.  Obama clearly was read differently by the white electorate and the non-white electorate. As Eduardo Bonilla-Silva noted, ‘…he and his campaign meant and evoked different things and feelings for his white and non-white supporters. For the 45% of whites who supported Obama, he was the first ‘black’ leader they felt comfortable supporting because he did not talk about racism; because he reminded them every time he had a chance he is half-white (signification and history); because he was so ‘articulate’ or, in Senator Biden’s words, echoed later by Karl Rove, Obama was ‘the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy’; because Obama kept talking about national unity, and because he, unlike black leaders hated by whites such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Maxine Waters, and, of course, Minister Farrakhan, did not make them feel guilty about the state of racial affairs in the country.’ ‘The 2008 Elections and the Future of Anti-Racism in 21st Century Amerika or How We Got Drunk With Obama’s Hope Liquor and Failed to See Reality,’ Humanity & Society, 227, 2010  [↑]

7. As discussed more fully below, I am in part invoking Eric Lott’s description of racial panic, as evidenced in post-Civil War minstrelsy; a panic Lott defines as constituted by ‘a white obsession with black (male) bodies that underlies white racial dread to our own day….’ ‘Love and Theft: The Racial Unconscious of Blackface Minstrelsy,’ Representations, 23, 1992.  [↑]

8. W.J.T. Mitchell, ‘Obama as Icon,’ Journal of Visual Culture 8 (2009): 125-127. [↑]

9.  Abel, Ibid., 8. [↑]

10. Max Blumenthal, ‘Behind the Obama-Hitler Slur,’ The Daily Beast, August 24, 2009, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/08/24/behind-the-obama-hitler-slur.html[↑]

11. Chaitkin’s entire statement can be seen on LaRouche’s Internet ‘television’ program, LPACTV, which is posted on YouTube (last visited November 2010): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCYfWrg4WKY.  [↑]

12. See a clip of the exchange posted by ABC News on YouTube: ABC News, Barney Frank Floored By Nazi Insult at Town Hall, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjF4YjvJLe4 (August 20, 2009). While Blumenthal does not articulate how he knows this woman is a LaRouche supporter, she holds in her hand a LaRouche downloadable poster (‘for mass distribution,’ as the LaRouche website proclaims) of Obama with a Hitlerian mustache superimposed on it and is surrounded by others holding the same poster. See Figure One. The poster is available online at Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee, Poster for Mass Distribution: I’ve Changed!, http://www.larouchepac.com/node/11422 (August 13, 2009). [↑]

13. David Niewert, Obama Equals Hitler, http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2008/02/obama-equals-hitler.html (February 14, 2008). Note that this reference significantly pre-dated the La Rouche supporters public appearances Blumenthal describes as the origin of the slur in The Daily Beast.  [↑]

14. Media Matters, Fox News Radio’s Tom Sullivan aired ‘side-by-side comparison’ of speeches by Hitler and Obama, http://mediamatters.org/research/200802130016 (February 13, 2008). [↑]

15. Frank Schaeffer, Crazy for God (Da Capo Press, 2007). [↑]

16. Interview with Jerome McDonnell, Worldview, Chicago Public Radio (NPR), September 9, 2009, http://www.chicagopublicradio.org/content.aspx?audioID=36671. [↑]

18. Evan Coyne Maloney, Hitler Comparisons and Media Reporting: Then and Now, http://brain-terminal.com/posts/2009/08/20/hitler-comparisons (August 20, 2009). See also: Harold Edwards, What Does the Republican National Committee Not Want You to Know About The Comparisons Between Hitler and Bush?, http://www.mninter.net/~hedwards/bush/hitler-bush.htm (August 2004); zomblog, Bush as Hitler, Swastika-Mania: A Retrospective, http://www.zombietime.com/zomblog/?p=612 (August 14, 2009) (containing a good list of many Internet links to images of President Bush as Hitler). [↑]

19. See Megan Gallagher, The President Nazi: How U.S. Presidents and Their Political Parties are Compared to Hitler and the Third Reich, http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/projects/media/AnalogiesUSPresHitlerMegan.htm (December 10, 2005), a website developed by Gallagher for a course on Interdisciplinary Holocaust Studies taught by Prof. Marcuse at UC-Santa Barbara. For specific cites to New York Times articles analogizing U.S. presidents to Hitler, see the companion paper: Jennifer Green, Hitler Analogies in the New York Times, http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/projects/media/AnalogiesNYTJenn.htm (December 10, 2005). [↑]

20. Perhaps not as common a depiction is that of President as Messiah, but at least one anonymous blogger has devoted an entire website to images with implicit and explicit connections between Obama and a Messiah or Christ figure. Is Barack Obama the Messiah?, http://obamamessiah.blogspot.com/ (2006). [↑]

21. Richard Coniff, ‘In the Name of the Law,’ Smithsonian Magazine, October 2007, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/last-oct07.html. See also: Usenet, How to Post About Nazis and Get Away With It, http://www.faqs.org/faqs/usenet/legends/godwin/ (October 7, 2003). [↑]

22. Wikipedia, Reductio ad Hitlerum, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_Hitlerum[↑]

23.  Though as Bonilla-Silva notes in his analysis of Obama’s own embrace of the post-racial narrative and avoidance of a progressive agenda, ‘…the seeming contradiction between the fact that race matters in America in every aspect of our lives, yet we elected a Black man as our President, is but an apparent one.’ ‘The 2008 Elections and the Future of Anti-Racism in 21st Century Amerika or How We Got Drunk With Obama’s Hope Liquor and Failed to See Reality,’ Humanity & Society, 223, 2010. [↑]

24.  Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic Monthly, The Daily Dish, http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com (November 5, 2008). [↑]

25.  The Rachel Maddow Show, (MSNBC, Nov. 5, 2008)  [↑]

26.  The Situation Room, (CNN, Nov. 5, 2008.) [↑]

27.  ABC’s This Week, May 11, 2007. [↑]

28.  Michelle DeArmond, Inland GOP Mailing Depicts Obama’s Face on Food Stamp, The Press-Enterprise, Oct. 16, 2008, http://www.pe.com/localnews/inland/stories/PE_News_Local_S_buck16.3d67d4a.html[↑]

29.  Rebecca Sinderbrand, cnn.com, RNC Chairman Candidate Defends ‘Barack the Magic Negro Song, http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/12/26/rnc.obama.satire/ (December 26, 2008). [↑]

30. Ian Haney López, ‘Is the Post in Post-Racial the Blind in Colorblind?,’ Cardozo Law Review, 822, 2011.  [↑]

31.  Bonilla-Silva, Ibid., 224.  [↑]

32.  Haney López, Ibid., 830.  [↑]

33.  Bonilla-Silva, Ibid., 227. [↑]

34. Ian Haney López, White By Law (New York: NYU Press, 2006). Obviously, Haney López made these observations before Obama’s campaign and election. See also Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, ‘Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation,’ American Sociological Review, 1997. [↑]

35. Haney López, Ibid., 144. [↑]

36.  Ibid., 147-148. [↑]

37.  Ibid., 148. [↑]

38.  Ibid., 151. [↑]

39. Ibid. Haney López traces this phenomenon back to Apartheid South Africa and its expansion of whiteness to allow for trading with ‘non-white’ nations such as Japan. [↑]

40.  Shawn Michelle Smith, ‘Obama’s Whiteness,’ Journal of Visual Culture 8 (2009): 125-133 [↑]

41.  Lott, Ibid., 23. [↑]

42.  Blackface performance is by no means dead. It is occasionally presented critically; see, for example, the Wooster Group’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Emperor Jones’ (1993), in which white actress Kate Valk dons blackface to play the lead role, and Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000). In addition, the contemporary pejorative concept of ‘wiggers’ (an epithet used to describe ‘white’ people who purportedly adopt ‘black’ urban hip-hop personas) may be used alternately to maintain the ‘black/white’ binary, or to assail the neo-minstrelsy of blackface performances sans paint. [↑]

43.  Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (University of California Press, 1998), p.49. [↑]

44.  Ibid., 49. [↑]

45.  Ibid., 34. [↑]

46.  That said, Rogin also discusses ‘figurative blackface’ in which African-American actors adopt the demeaning postures and performances of minstrelsy and blackface without necessarily literally ‘blacking up.’ Rogin, 18. At least one African-American stage actor contemporaneous with the height of minstrelsy in the nineteenth century occasionally donned white face to play Shakespearean parts such as Richard III and Shylock. Bernth Lindfors, ‘ ‘Mislike Me Not for My Complexion…’: Ira Aldridge in Whiteface,’ African American Review 33 (Summer 1999). [↑]

47.  Ibid., 112 [↑]

48.  Lott, Ibid. 29. This anxiety does not, of course, undermine the very real social, political, and economic supremacy of whiteness during this period and beyond. [↑]

49.  Ibid., 35. [↑]

50.  Ibid., 31. [↑]

51.  Ibid., 29. [↑]

52.  The intractable, indexical quality of whiteness’ invisibility reveals itself in a cursory Google search for ‘whiteface,’ which produces predominantly links to mountains and other natural sites, with occasional links to tips for applying clown make-up. The term ‘blackface,’ however, immediately brings up numerous narratives of race. [↑]

53.  That said, some commentators have argued that the Obama campaign intentionally activated narratives of his whiteness, undoubtedly to appeal to the white electorate. See Smith, Ibid., who suggests that the Obama campaign quite intentionally sought to exploit Obama’s ‘whiteness’ by its promotion of the narratives about his single white mother and his Harvard background. Also see Bonilla-Silva, Ibid.  [↑]

54.  I am unaware of sustained uses of whiteface other than those by black (Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, the Wayans Brothers) or white (Bozo the Clown, etc.) performers. Given the history of blackface, and the lingering obsession with the black/white binary in the U.S. there may be a more resonant quality to blackface/whiteface across black/white lines, but there is no reason that the white racial mask could not be similarly adopted by other non-white actors such as Asians or Latinos. As for blackface outside of the black/white binary, Japanese singing group and Sony recording artists the ‘Gosperats’ have drawn attention for ‘blacking up’ for their R&B-inspired stage performances. Patrick Macias, Mata Asobou Ne!, http://patrickmacias.blogs.com/er/2006/04/mata_asobou_ne.html (April 2006). [↑]

55.  Some performers may exploit that imperfection; for example, Dave Chappelle’s performance as white newscaster Chuck Taylor clearly means to reveal the slippage between racial identities rather than seeking to efface it. [↑]

56.  Dave Chappelle’s work is an excellent example of this. [↑]

57.  Anne Norton, Republic of Signs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 91. [↑]

58.  Ibid., 91. [↑]

59.  Ibid., 92. [↑]

60.  Compare this to a search on ‘Bush Hitler’ which in November 2010 brought back only 6,530,000 pages of which 1,540,000 are images, after 2 terms of a Bush presidency. [↑]

61.  Before I discuss the images, a note is in order regarding their provenance. It is difficult to trace the origin or author of many of the images below because they circulate freely from website to website with very little citation to original authorship or source. I provide an Internet address for each image, though many of them can be found on other websites as well. Where I think the website I cite actually did author the image, I indicate this by saying the image is ‘from’ this website. Otherwise, I simply indicate where the images are available. For these latter images, I am not attributing any authorship to the sites or site owners. [↑]

62.  This image was available on LaRouche’s website, and has been a prominent part of LaRouche supporters’ demonstrations in the past. Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee, http://www.larouchepac.com[↑]

63.  Shepard Fairey, Obey, http://obeygiant.com (June 2011) [↑]

65.  Fairey, Obey, http://obeygiant.com/[↑]

66.  Ibid. [↑]

67.  Ibid. [↑]

68.  Norton, 93. [↑]

69.  See Richard Dyer, White (New York: Routledge, 1997) on the construction of the ‘white’ subject as normative. See also Lott, 34-35, on narratives of excess in blackface performance. [↑]

70.  For a critical performance of the need to ’split’ Obama’s racial identity across two bodies, see comedians Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele’s sketches in which Obama addresses the nation with the help of his ‘anger translator,’ Luther, who carries and performs the stereotype of threatening black male anger that Obama dare not embody. Key & Peele, Comedy Central, 2011. (Both comedians frequently reference their bi-racial identity on the show).  [↑]

71.  The Confederate flag may certainly be read ambivalently by Americans depending on their relationship to the South and notions of the lost ‘glory’ of the ante-bellum period. But as a matter of public discourse, the Confederate flag is largely seen as a symbol of extreme racism and lynching. [↑]

72.  For more on this argument, see the discussion in section C. infra. [↑]

74.  See Fletcher N. Baldwin, Jr. and Robert B. Shaw, ‘ Down to the Wire: Assessing the Constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s Warrantless Wiretapping Program: Exit the Rule of Law,’ Journal of Law & Public Policy 17 (2007): 429. [↑]

75.  Jeff Zeleny, ‘In Iowa, Tea Party Trouble Over Obama Poster,’ The New York Times, July 14, 2010. [↑]

76. Philip Kennicott, ‘Obama as The Joker: Racial Fear’s Ugly Face,’ The Washington Post, August 6, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/05/AR2009080503876.html[↑]

77.  Debbie Elliott, ‘’Food Stamp President’: Racial Code, Or Just Politics,’ NPR, January 17, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/01/17/145312069/newts-food-stamp-president-racial-or-just-politics[↑]

78.  CNN, Interview with Don Lemon, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08FRQWPWRdU, August 2009. [↑]

79.  For example, the 2004 film Downfall, depicting Hitler’s final days, has been a particular target of reappropriation on the Internet, as it is reimagined and re-subtitled to represent a wide range of current events. See e.g. ‘Hitler Reacts to the Hitler Parodies Being Removed from YouTube,’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBO5dh9qrIQ April 20, 2010  [↑]

80.  http://birthers.org. [↑]

81.  Shields presumably meant if Obama’s father had been born a white New Zealander. [↑]

83.  Sam Stein, ‘Newt Gingrich Slammed for Saying Obama May Hold ‘Kenyan, Anti-Colonial’ Worldview,’ The Huffington Post, September 12, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com[↑]

84.  Matt Negrin, ‘Newt Gingrich on Obama: ‘We Know Who He Really Is,’ The Note, ABC News Blog, ABCnews.com, February 10, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/newt-gingrich-on-obama-we-know-who-he-really-is/ [↑]

85.  Ashley Kilough, ‘Gingrich Describes Obama as a National Security Risk,’ politicalticker…blog, CNN.com, February 21, 2012 http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/21/gingrich-describes-obama-as-a-national-security-risk/  [↑]

86.  Sarah Hulsenga, ‘Gingrich: It’s Obama’s Fault People Think He’s Muslim,’ Political Hotsheet, CBSnews.com, March 23, 2012, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57403734-503544/gingrich-its-obamas-fault-people-think-hes-muslim/ [↑]

87.  ‘Othering Obama: How Whiteness is Used to Undermine Authority,’ Other Modernities, March 2010. While Owen ably decodes these racialized gestures, he doesn’t address the fact that Obama is always already othered through his ‘blackness.’ [↑]

88.  Perhaps this is why Obama arranged one of the most public beers of any U.S. president when he met with Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Massachusetts police officer Sgt. Crowley after the high-profile arrest of Prof. Gates in his Cambridge home. The purported topic of discussion?: race. [↑]

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Bond is a Clinical Professor at The John Marshall Law School (Chicago), where she teaches courses on images of law in popular culture, among others. Her recent articles are available at: http://ssrn.com/author=378742.
All posts by: Cynthia D. Bond | Email | Website

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