Roseanne and America’s White Victim Complex - and Why Canceling Her Show Isn’t Enough
On Tuesday, comedian and actress Roseanne Barr took to Twitter and, as she has repeatedly done in the past, channeled the fumes of the right-wing conspiratorial fever swamp by saying that the liberal activist and financier George Soros was a Nazi collaborator.
George Soros is Jewish. Her claims about him are untrue.
Roseanne Barr then proceeded to bloviate about Valerie Jarrett, who was an Obama White House aide, saying that "muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj".
This is not the first time Roseanne Barr has compared black women to apes. In 2013, Barr said that White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice was like “a man with big swinging ape balls.”
This is who she is. Thus, Roseanne Barr's racist comments should have been expected and not at all a surprise.
The reaction to Roseanne Barr's comments was swift. She was publicly shamed and mocked. ABC immediately cancelled her new highly-rated TV show "Roseanne," a revival of the beloved 1990s classic of the same name.
Roseanne Barr offered the obligatory apology. Predictably, Barr's apology was also profoundly insincere. By Tuesday evening she was retweeting messages from her racist supporters which claimed that Valerie Jarrett was not really "black," how Roseanne is actually "more black" than her and that Jarrett is part of a secret Muslim plot to take over America.
The public script that is adhered to when a white celebrity (or other public figure) has revealed themselves (again) to be a racist unfolded as expected.
Roseanne Barr's racism is like catnip for white Trump voters and other conservatives. Sensing their excitement, former Donald Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo has already offered Barr a TV show on his proposed on-demand right-wing TV network.
Barr claimed that she was just joking and this is all some type of misunderstanding. As sociologists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Joe Feagin and Leslie Picca have shown in their research, hiding behind humor and suggesting that "I was just kidding" are common deflections summoned by white racists in "colorblind" post-civil rights America.
Beyond superficial offense, mean words and insults, there is so much more that is contemptible, unacceptable and problematic about Roseanne Barr's racial slurs of Valerie Jarrett.
Roseanne Barr's verbal assault was but one more example of how white people have for centuries taken it upon themselves to try to rob black people of their agency by demarcating the boundaries of blackness in America (some examples: the "one drop rule" of slavery and Jim Crow; Barack Obama and how some whites, both liberals and conservatives, could not accept that he was a proud and confident black man who happened to have a white mother).
Barr equated black women with apes. As historian Winthrop Jordan argued in his widely read and highly respected book "White over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro," this is violent, dehumanizing and white supremacist language which claims that black people — unlike whites — are not fully human. This is the logic that legitimated the murder and enslavement of millions of black people during the centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, Jim and Jane Crow, and American Apartheid.
This belief that black people have more in common with apes than human beings also made possible the lynchings of at least 4,400 black people — men, women, boys and girls — across the American South and elsewhere during the 19th and 20th centuries. More than 150 years after the formal end of chattel slavery the racial stereotype of black people being ape-like still lingers on in America and around the world.
Writing at The New York Times, Brent Staples summarized the horrible implications of depicting black people as apes in the following way:
Hitler found quite a bit to admire about this country during its apartheid period. Writing in the early 1930s, he attributed white domination of North America to the fact that the “Germanic” peoples here had resisted intermarriage with — and held themselves apart from — “inferior” peoples, including the Negroes, whom he described as “half-apes.”
He was not alone in these sentiments. The effort to dehumanize black people by characterizing them as apes is central to our national history. Thomas Jefferson made the connection in his notorious book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in which he asserted fantastically that male orangutans were sexually drawn to Negro women.
By defining Negroes not as human beings but as beasts, the nation rationalized subjugation and cruelty — and justified laws that stripped them of basic human rights. The case for segregation itself rested heavily on the assertion that animal origins made Negroes feebleminded, smelly and intolerably offensive to white sensibilities.
Psychologists have shown that white people subconsciously connect images of apes to black people. Moreover, when white people are shown images of apes they are subsequently more likely to support the death penalty against black people.
Other research has demonstrated that this process of dehumanization is also operating when police use excessive force and other violence in disproportionate ways against black people, the latter being a group who many whites do not believe to be fully human and somehow possessed of extraordinary strength, imperviousness to pain and other magical powers.
Roseanne Barr's use of ape imagery to slur black women is also an example of how racism and sexism intersect with one another. Valerie Jarrett and Susan Rice, like so many other black women (most notably Michelle Obama) who have been slurred as being like apes, are being robbed of their femininity and thus made into masculine caricatures. Such a gendered understanding of race in America and Europe has historically deemed that white women are the quintessential example of "femininity" and "beauty" and are to be protected because they are "weak" and "vulnerable." Black women are offered no such safeguards. By that logic, black women can be marginalized, exploited and otherwise abused without guilt or other negative consequences because of both their race and gender.
Roseanne Barr's recent behavior has also made it even more clear how white women have historically in the United States and elsewhere not been the stalwart and universal allies of nonwhite women. White women may experience sexism but they also benefit from white privilege; white women have also been partners with white men in both maintaining and benefiting from both institutional and interpersonal racism.
* * *
The public shaming and condemnation of Roseanne Barr is necessary and deserved. When racists and other bigots are taken down from their public perch, many decent people experience a feeling of cathartic victory. But exiling Roseanne Barr from the public square is an insufficient act in an anti-racist struggle if the ideas, narratives and larger political imagination she was channeling are left unchallenged.
It is a given that Barr's slurs towards Valerie Jarrett are tacky and ignorant. But the allusions Barr chose to make were not accidental or random examples pulled out of the American popular imagination. In reality, they signal to deeper questions of power, politics and identity in Trump's America — a moment of white backlash and white anger, where Whiteness is drunk on paranoia about being under siege from the Other.
"Planet of the Apes" is one of the greatest science fiction films ever made (and would inspire sequels, a TV show and two reimaginings of the original films). As Eric Greene explains in his definitive work "Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture," the original 1968 "Planet of the Apes" was a powerful critique of racial conflict in America during the tumultuous 1960s and the crescendo of the civil rights movement. Subsequent "Planet of the Apes" films would deal even more explicitly with questions of racial conflict, social alienation, the Vietnam War, nuclear Armageddon, political fanaticism and how liberals and conservatives struggle with the "race question."
As an allegory, "Planet of the Apes" intervened against the immorality of white supremacy by inverting the power dynamic between majority white society and black Americans: The apes would be stand-ins for black people while white people — the latter now mute and "primitive" — would be hunted down, exiled and treated as being unintelligent, savage and not worthy of worthy of rights or dignity.
Instead of understanding the "Planet of the Apes" series as being a stinging indictment of racism, the meaning of those films has been reimagined and distorted by white supremacists and other right-wing reactionaries. They instead view the "Planet of the Apes" films as a warning of existential threat and inevitable "racial" annihilation if nonwhites are given equal rights with white people.
Roseanne Barr's mention of the "Islamic Brotherhood" echoes similar existential anxieties. In the white right-wing fantasy world that Roseanne Barr inhabits, "Islam" is code for "terrorist." For Barr and many other conservatives, the "Islamic Brotherhood" is akin to a group of super villains, hiding under the beds of good decent white folks — especially right-wing evangelical Christians — waiting for any opportunity to do them harm.
If "Planet of the Apes" can been reimagined and twisted into a cautionary tale about black on white oppression, the Islamic Brotherhood is a natural part of this fantasy.
As historian Edward Said described in his seminal work "Orientalism," "[T]he Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominions) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible."
Collectively the "Islamic Brotherhood" and "Planet of the Apes" are the pictures inside of their heads, key fixtures in Donald Trump's and the broader White Right's life worlds and political imaginations.
In a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute poll, 60 percent of whites reported that racism against white people in America is as big a problem than racial discrimination against nonwhites.
Those white Americans who are most anxious about group power and maintaining the superior social status of white people over nonwhites in America voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.
White voters who want to keep America a white Christian nation were also much more likely to vote for Donald Trump.
Donald Trump is a professional white victim. His voters and allies are attracted to and support him because of that fact. They share his perverse and unfounded anxieties and fears of white obsolescence and white oppression.
And what does Donald Trump have to say about Roseanne Barr's public racism debacle?
On Wednesday via Twitter, Trump complained that:
Bob Iger of ABC called Valerie Jarrett to let her know that 'ABC does not tolerate comments like those made by Roseanne Barr. Gee, he never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC. Maybe I just didn't get the call?"
His pronouncement is further proof that Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist as well as a racist who minimizes the slurs used against Valerie Jarrett by focusing the attention on his own personal grievances. Roseanne Barr has shown herself to be a racist as well. Trump's voters — who are the target demographic for Roseanne Barr's now cancelled TV series — are also more likely to be racist and hostile to black people than other white Americans.
At the core of racism is a type of collective narcissism which deems that one's "racial" group is somehow inherently superior to another "racial" group. In that respect, Roseanne Barr, Donald Trump and their public are in perfect union with one another.
Ultimately, white victimology is endemic to American society. Roseanne Barr exemplified this Wednesday when she declared that, “I’m not a racist, I never was & I never will be. One stupid joke in a lifetime of fighting 4 civil rights 4 minorities, against networks, studios, at the expense of my nervous system/family/wealth will NEVER b taken from me.”
This is a remarkably dangerous sentiment. Nothing good has ever come from when members of a dominant and powerful group believe that they are somehow victims. Such feelings buoyed Donald Trump to the White House and now threaten to tear down American democracy. Roseanne Barr may be "just" an entertainer. But like Trump — who was a TV celebrity (and in many ways still is) before he became president — Roseanne Barr speaks for tens of millions of white Americans who feel that they have "lost" "their America." Popular culture is deeply political. One forgets that truth at his or her own peril.