It would appear that we have gone "Black to the Future" and the Reagan era.
Mitt Romney's newest ad suggests that President Obama is creating a society of dependence by giving out free stuff to those poor black and brown people on welfare. In the post-truth era inaugurated by the rise of Right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and the conservative blogosphere, it is irrelevant that Romney's latest campaign ad is a willful misrepresentation of the facts. The Fourth Estate has abandoned all pretense of being guardians for the truth; they have been bullied into submission by Conservatives and their invention of their catch all propaganda phrase "the liberal media."
Consequently, with few exceptions, the mainstream news media runs away from calling Mitt Romney what he actually is--a willful, almost pathological, liar.
Mitt Romney is also a racist liar. To some folks, that language is strong, frightening, and offensive. This is expected: we live in a bizarre, post racial, post Civil Rights moment, where to call a white person--especially a Conservative--a racist is a bigger sin than racism itself. The public needs to be reminded that racism is not just mean words. Racism is not defined by intent (the common "he or she didn't mean it that way" defense). Racism is not limited to the KKK, skinheads, or signs that say "Colored Drinking Fountain," or "No Mexicans, Negroes, or Dogs."
Racism is also about disparate outcomes, structures, institutions, and power. The media and social scientists have invented a whole vocabulary in order to avoid talking plainly about the type of racism being exhibited by Mitt Romney's campaign at present, the Republican Party since the 1960s, and the Tea Party GOP during the Age of Obama. We talk about dog whistles, coded signals, white racial resentment, symbolic racism, and racial affect. In our efforts to be subtle and precise, the obvious is often overlooked.
As I wrote here, in this election cycle Romney and his fellow Republican candidates have been using racial air raid sirens that are direct appeals to white racism in order to win over white voters. The Tea Party GOP and its candidates are rarely held accountable because the news media is afraid of being called "racist" or "biased" by the Right's pundits and foot soldiers.
To help navigate these muddy waters in the public discourse, The Christian Science Monitor recently offered up a nice set of criteria for determining if a political campaign is using racism to further its electoral goals.
Mitt Romney's Barack Obama is a "welfare king that wants to take stuff from white people and give it to undeserving black and brown poor people" meets several of these guidelines. My suggestion that Mitt Romney is a racist liar gains further traction when you place his most recent ad in a broader context.
The patterns are very revealing:
1. Romney's campaign channeled one of the oldest stereotypes about black personhood in American society with his "Obama isn't Working" ad. This allusion keys off of long standing stereotypes about black laziness and poverty that go all the way back to white fictions about the Southern Slaveocracy and the happy old plantation. Here, Romney is transparently suggesting (in a very smart and sophisticated ad) that the President is a lazy black man.
Given that the Right-wing media has repeatedly reinforced the idea that Barack Obama is partying, playing golf, not working, and has turned the White House into a hip-hop basketball themed thugged out barbecue, Romney's Obama is a lazy black man narrative finds resonance throughout the conservative media-sphere. It is also echoed by prominent Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner who repeatedly assert that Barack Obama has "never had a real job" in his life.
2. Romney has repeatedly suggested that President Obama is an alien Other who does not understand American values, and is outside of the American political and social tradition. In a party where a significant percentage of Republican voters still believe that Obama is not a United States Citizen, and is a closest "Mooslem," Romney is channeling a type of xenophobic, nativist, white racism that conceptualizes "American" as synonymous with "white."
Moreover, during his recent trip to the United Kingdom, Mitt Romney doubled down on this ugly, scurrilous blood and soil narrative where through a senior adviser he argued that the country's first black president is incapable of understanding the special "Anglo-American" relationship because Obama's father was born in Africa. Black people are not "real" American citizens in the white Right-wing imagination; Romney is simply playing off of this implicit understanding of the boundaries of "real" American identity to win voters.
3. Mitt Romney told the NAACP that he will not give them "free stuff" like Barack Obama. Here, he signaled once more to a repeated theme offered by the Tea Party GOP and its candidates, that African-Americans are lazy parasites whose kids should pick up mops so that they learn a work ethic, and not have to live off of good white people as adults. Romney's use of these crude and insulting stereotypes in an invited speech before the NAACP was a tactical opportunity to signal to his white conservative (and racially reactionary) base that he would be tough on "the blacks" and put them "back in their place."
4. Mitt Romney's campaign dishonestly edited a speech where Barack Obama made the obvious observation that we live in society in which entrepreneurs and others have benefited from the government and the public goods and services it provides to society. In Romney's ad, Obama was framed as an angry black man who dared to lecture (white) "job creators."
President Obama has also been called "arrogant" and "disrespectful" by Right-wing politicians and pundits. During the Age of Obama, the Right has also made the suggestion that whole portions of the country, the Red State Neo-Confederacy, should secede from the Union. These elements both sustain, as well as are prefaced upon a narrative, where Barack Obama is "uppity" and does not know his "correct" place as a black person in America. By implication, the country's first black president is insufficiently deferent to white authority (and white people). Thus, President Obama is illegitimate by virtue of his party membership and his racial identity in the eyes of the New Right and Tea Party GOP.
5. Mitt Romney's campaign has combined naked racial appeals with subtle, and very sophisticated, signals to white racial anxiety and resentment. In this way, Romney's deployment of white racism is among the most devious in recent American political memory--as such, he is generations ahead of the clumsy Willie Horton style ads of his predecessors. The following commercial is a great example of Romney's gift in this regard:
On the surface, this commercial is race neutral. However, language is critical for how we as viewers, and especially the target audience, respond to the cues--both subtle and obvious--contained in a political advertisement or other visual text.
The ad revolves around the following phrase: "He tried. You tried. It's okay to make a change."
There are two thematic elements at work. The ad offers a list of "failures" (lacking in context of course, as is expected) by Obama. In keeping with Romney's previous ads and his target audience, there are no people of color featured in the visuals presented--except for the "failed" black President.
Romney's ad is designed to give white voters, especially Right-leaning Independents, the freedom to vote against the country's first black president without feeling "guilty" or "racist" by making such a choice. The Right-wing media has repeatedly supported this move with their meme that opposition to Obama is not racism, and moreover, to suggest that racism drives conservatives' hostility to President Obama is itself racist.
Ultimately, the American people (coded as "white") out of good will, charity (and perhaps even guilt) elected Barack Obama as President of the United States. In essence, Romney is arguing that Barack Obama was an "affirmative action" candidate who was not prepared for the job and is in over his head.
This is the genius of the above ad: Romney can leverage white resentment, play off of conspiratorial political toxins such as Birtherism and Graderism, and still appear to be race neutral in how he reaches out, offering racial absolution to white voters for voting that "black bum" out of the White House. Romney's ad is the little voice pushing a white voter to follow through on the much discussed Bradley Effect...and to not feel any guilt for having done so.
Mitt Romney is playing with fire. His race-baiting may win over some Independents. It will also help to sure up enthusiasm for Romney among the Tea Party GOP base. But, Romney is walking a tightrope because as he continues to flirt with, and use naked racism, to win over white voters he is not necessarily bringing new voters in his camp. Those voters most moved by white racial appeals are going to vote for Romney anyway. In the long-run, Romney's race-baiting is simply reinforcing the demographic suicide that the Tea Party GOP, as the country's de facto White National Political Party, is facing by making the prospective base smaller and not larger.
Because of his faith and class background, Mitt Romney is especially vulnerable on questions of racial inclusion, tolerance, and diversity. The media may have avoided asking him some obvious questions about these matters. Eventually, someone will have the courage to speak truth to power, and demand some basic answers about the bigotry and racism that Romney has been using to advance his presidential campaign. When that moment comes, and he fumbles for an answer, Mitt Romney may slip and fall into the racist muck and mire that he has been playing with for months. I do hope that moment comes sooner rather than later.