Well played Mr. Romney. Very well played indeed.
Mitt Romney's "Barack Obama Isn't Working" campaign is a genius political move. Less clumsy than the infamous Willie Horton ad, it is a more elegant and refined racial appeal for a slightly more civilized "colorblind" age.
As such, Mitt Romney's suggestion that Barack Obama is "not working" deftly draws on a set of stereotypes from the American popular imagination where black people, and black men in particular, are depicted as lazy and not self-sufficient. This is one of the core attributes of what social scientists have termed "symbolic racism."
This stereotype is central to contemporary right-wing political discourse, and can trace its lineage back to the Southern Strategy under Richard Nixon, and through to Ronald Reagan's mobilization of anti-black sentiment with his allusions to "welfare queens" and "strapping young black bucks" who buy steaks with food stamps. As part of this pattern, the 2012 Republican campaign has featured such onerous moments as Rick Santorum's suggesting that black Americans are parasites who live off of white people, as well as Newt Gingrich advising young people of color (because they are especially lazy and pathological) that they should be janitors in order to learn a "work ethic."
The polite and more refined bigotry that drives Romney's "Barack Obama Isn't Working" campaign is more careful than that of his Tea Party GOP brethren. However, it still plays off of the same sentiments and crude racial stereotypes about African Americans. Moreover, Romney's more "polite" racism resonates because it exists in a right-wing imaginary that considers Obama a "Socialist," wallows in birtherism, and has marshaled faux populist zeal in order to mark out clear boundaries of civic belonging where to be a "real" American requires that a person be White.
In all, the right-wing echo chamber is unapologetic in its use of racial stereotypes, mobilization of white racial resentment, and outright race prejudice. Romney can fly above the racist fray, but still benefit from how such attitudes have helped to prep the political battlefield for his success.
Romney's devious narrative about President Obama's lack of success, incompetence, and implied laziness is masterful on a number of levels.
1. The claim that Barack Obama isn't working has a veneer of plausible deniability. Romney claims that the slogan is "historical" in nature, borrowing from Thatcher's anti-Labour campaign in the United Kingdom during the late 1970s. Through this logic, there is no racial animus at work; racism cannot possibly be present in the suggestion that Barack Obama isn't working because the slogan is inspired from events both decades ago, and in another country.
In the United States, and given how the color line has structured American life, operates in the country's collective subconscious, and provides a set of scripts which impact our perceptions of one another, the wellsprings of Romney's slogan are of little importance.
Question: would be an equivalent silence if a politician campaigning for high office suggested that his Jewish rival was cheap? Or that his Asian-American competitor for the same office was devious, sneaky, or untrustworthy? Here, I would suggest that the precarious position of blacks in American society makes them uniquely vulnerable to the use of racial appeals in political discourse.
It is also important to note how language involves both the transmission, reception, and circulation of ideas between a speaker and the audience.The repeated suggestion that a black man "isn't working" signals to deeply held biases that link together the black body, black personhood, and stereotypes about poverty, work ethic, and respectability. A listener, or in this case a voter, does not have to be conscious of how these concepts motivate his or her behavior. As research on racial attitudes and political behavior has repeatedly demonstrated, white voters "get" these racial cues and are quite responsive to them--conservatives and right-leaning independents especially so.