How Conservative Elites Stoke Racist Anxieties to Gain Power and Split Blacks and Whites
The 2012 primary campaign has repeatedly demonstrated that Republicans are trying to mobilize their voters by tapping into racial anxieties.
Newt Gingrich calling Obama a “food stamp president,” Rick Santorum implying that African Americans are parasites who leach off of white people, and Ron Paul’s old newsletters, which describe black men as monstrous beasts (“ giant negroes” who stand ready to attack whites at any moment), are examples of this phenomenon on the national stage. However, Republican candidates for lower office have also pulled a page out of this playbook.
As their subtle dog-whistles escalate into clarion calls of overt racism to the Tea Party faithful, Mark Oxner, Republican candidate for Congress in Florida, has chosen to join the proverbial band. What is his contribution? A campaign commercial featuring President Barack Obama as the captain of a slave ship which is heading for inevitable doom as it sails over a waterfall -- and bringing all of “us” down with it.
Mark Oxner’s ad is a marvelous example of right-wing propaganda; it is carefully crafted and rich with provocative imagery. For example, in keeping with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus’ recent suggestion that President Obama’s leadership is akin to Captain Schettino's (the captain of the capsized Italian cruise ship Costa Condordia, on which 17 people were killed), Obama is depicted as irresponsible and negligent, abusing the child slaves who are forced to row the mighty vessel.
It is important to emphasize the choices made by the producers of Oxner’s video. They decided to use a colonial-era vessel driven by wind and powered by slaves, as opposed to a modern cruise liner, a steamship, or even an airplane. They chose to cast the children as slaves who are monitored by a whip-carrying overseer. And Oxner’s ad was designed to feature one image above all others -- that of children, most of them white, being abused by a gleeful and indifferent black man. The inversion of the expected image, one where a person of color enslaves whites in their own version of the Middle Passage, reinforces the idea that something is unnatural (and inherently wrong) about this relationship of domination and subordination.
Despite the fact that white people control almost every major social, financial, economic, and political institution in the United States, the theme of white oppression by minorities is popular in the age of Obama. And while reasonable conservatives may not believe they will literally be made slaves like the children on the ship, there does appear to be a sense on the Right that whiteness and white people are somehow under siege.
The channeling of these fears is not new. The language of white oppression has loomed large in the American political imagination for centuries. In the 19th century, America’s war against the Barbary pirates was ostensibly to prevent white people from being “enslaved” by Arabs. There was a great moral panic during the early 20th century about white women being sold into slavery by newly arrived European immigrants, blacks, and other "undesirables."
Moreover, the terrifying idea of white people being enslaved or oppressed by non-whites has done potent political work in this country since before its founding. Conservatives have been skillfully mining it for quite some time, and this habit continues into the present. Some in the Tea Party (with their fondness for dressing up in colonial-era clothing in order to signal their fetish for the Constitution) believe they are fighting a tyrannical government led by a “traitor” named Barack Obama.
In addition, the Tea Party has conducted rallies where white people have been referred to as “slaves” of Barack Obama and the federal government. A prominent member of the Tea Party was famously caught with a sign suggesting that Congress is a group of “slave owners” and that the American people were its “niggers.”