George H.W. Bush’s 1988 “Willie Horton” campaign ad is infamous for racializing fears of crime, encouraging stereotypes of African American men as violent and threatening. The ad is widely believed to have destroyed Michael Dukakis’s chances for winning the presidency, presenting him as soft on crime. It’s a classic example of race-baiting in political campaigns — ads that present racial/ethnic minorities as threatening. Jesse Helms took a different approach with his affirmative action ad, which draws on some Whites’ fears that they are losing out on jobs because of affirmative action.
This election cycle, a number of candidates have produced ads that clearly attempt to stoke and benefit from anti-Hispanic immigrant sentiment. Talking Points Memo posted a mailer sent out by the Yuma County, Arizona, Republican Party as part of its campaign against Democratic state Representative Rae Waters. One side shows a stop sign full of bullet holes and makes a link between immigrants and neighborhood crime:
To drive the message home, the other side of the mailer contains an image of a blond child, looking a little disturbed, and again links opposition to SB 1070 to “drugs and violence”:
Here in Nevada, Senate candidate Sharon Angle is currently running this commercial that calls Harry Reid the best friend of “illegals,” who are “putting Americans’ safety and jobs at risk.”
The commercial ends with this image:
She has a second commercial that plays on the same themes:
In West Virginia, this ad against Nick Rahall, a Christian Lebanese-American, prominently displays the phrase “Arab Americans” (he chaired Arab Americans for Obama) while scary music plays in the background:
If you have other examples of racialized or anti-immigrant imagery in current campaign ads, let us know.
UPDATE: S. Elle let us know about this ad by Senator David Vitter, of Louisiana, which is very similar to the Angle commercials:
History isn’t fact, but a narrative. Nations narrate their own histories, telling the stories about themselves that they prefer. Holidays are one way in which these stories are told and re-told.
At www.america.gov, the U.S. government illustrates Columbus day with the image below and describes it as a”commemoration” of Columbus’ “landing in the New World” (they astutely avoid the term “discovery”) and initiating a “lasting encounter” between the mis-named “Indians” and Europeans (no mention of genocide or the stealing of land).
Contesting this particular version of history, an organization calling itself Reconsider Columbus Day is asking Americans to adopt an alternative national narrative, one that both acknowledges and emphasizes the oppressive and unjust outcomes of the ongoing “lasting encounter” between American “Indians” and Europeans-now-Americans.
The narrative and counter-narrative is an interesting example of how nation-founding memories are not set, but always potentially changing as the national ethos and distribution of power shifts underneath them.
In this video, suggested by Dmitriy T.M., photographer Aaron Huey powerfully illustrates the history of the relationship between the U.S. and the Lakota of the Sioux Nation. It includes the making and breaking of treaties, the use of the idea of private property to strip the Lakota of their land, the Battle of Wounded Knee, the stealing of the Black Hills, and the socio-economic (and related) disadvantages faced by the Lakota today.
Rick T. sent in a link to a post at Global Research about some new U.S. Census data about 2009 poverty rates. As is usually true, children suffer higher levels of poverty than other age groups:
Poverty is significantly higher for African Americans than for the U.S. population overall — notice the Y axis goes up to 45%, whereas above it ends at 30%:
From the post:
Being American gives you a one in seven chance of being poor. Being young raises this chance to one in four. Further, being black in America means a one in four chance of being poor. Being young and black raises your chance of being poor up to one in 2.5.
Not surprisingly, poverty is highly related to education level:
I went to the original Census report and grabbed some more images. This graph makes the over-representation of children among the poor even more obvious:
There’s tons of information in the report if you’re interested in the demographics of poverty in the current economic recession.
Angi S. alerted us to a cartoon that ran this month in Eastern Michigan University’s student newspaper, The Echo.
The ensuing conversation is a good example of how claims that materials are racist are dismissed by their producers. After receiving criticism, The Echo made the following “response” (here):
We understand the “You Are Here” cartoon may have offended some readers. We apologize for the lack of sensitivity some felt we showed for publishing the piece. The cartoon points out the hypocrisy of hate-filled people. Its intent was to ask how can someone show affection for one person while at the same time hating someone else enough to commit such a heinous act as hanging. We wish to remind readers that they are free to express their opinion on our discussion boards and we hope to continue to foster free thought and open discussion on campus and in the community.
– The Eastern Echo
First, notice that it is a typical “we are sorry that you were offended” non-apology. The first sentence acknowledges that some readers “may have [been] offended” and then says that “some felt” that there was an insensitivity. It does not say that the cartoon was offensive or insensitive.
Second, it also explains that the intention was to point out the “hypocrisy of hate-filled people,” not make light of lynching, without interrogating the relative importance of intent and reception. One could argue that cultural producers are at least somewhat responsible for the myriad of ways that an item could be reasonably interpreted.
Third, it backs into the free speech corner by claiming to be open to all opinions (using the word “free” twice in one sentence).
The Detroit News covered The Echo’s response and also added that while one African American student objected to the cartoon, another thought it was funny. So…
Fourth, the coverage relied on the idea that if just one member of the relevant group is not offended, then maybe the rest are over-reacting.
Julie M. came across a bow and arrow set for sale at a Wholesale Sports store in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. The set is called the “Lil’ Sioux.” Notice any oddness about the description?
It’s the Lil’ Sioux…and also the “Sherwood Forester” set. What’s Sherwood Forest? Why, where Robin Hood and his Merry Men hung out. Because when you’re appropriating Native American cultures, you might as well conflate them with mythologized, and possibly entirely fictional, noble outlaws from another continent.
But given the popularity of “Native American” fashions these days, I guess it shows restraint that the kid isn’t wearing a feathered headdress.
UPDATE: In response to my comment about the kid not wearing a headdress, reader Jessica B. pointed out that a team of Italian researchers developed a robot that is capable of shooting a bow and arrow, and made sure to dress it appropriately:
We know that U.S. stereotypes associate black people, especially black men, with criminality (for examples, see our posts on who looks suspicious, racial profiling, and race-sensitive trigger fingers). But a new study by sociologists Aliya Saperstein and Andrew Penner shows that being convicted of a crime sometimes shifts people’s racial self-perceptions in related directions. Saperstein and Penner compared the self-identification of people in 1979 and 2002. Reflecting the social construction of race, it is typical for there to be some mis-matches between people’s reported race at different times; but the researchers discovered that the experience of being incarcerated shaped if and how one’s racial identification changed.
The Table below compares the self-reported race in 1979 (far left column) with the self reported race in 2002 (next left column). The third and fourth columns show the reported race of people in 2002 who were not incarcerated and incarcerated, respectively. We see that, among people who were not incarcerated, 5% of the people who identified as “European” in 1979 identified as “Black” or some other race in 2002. Among people who were incarcerated, however, we see a much greater defection from whiteness; only 81% of those who identified as white in 1979 still did so in 2002.
Saperstein and Penner argue that this shows that “…penal institutions play an important role in racializing Americans…” The experience of being incarcerated somehow makes people, even people who feel white, feel somehow less white.
As you may have heard, this week the Republican Party released what they’ve termed a “Pledge to America,” a document that lists their agenda for the next legislative session. Erin Echols, a student at Kennesaw State U., took a look at it and was struck by the contents, particularly the images.
Of the 48 total pages of the document, 14 consist of images, either a single one or a collage of several. Of course, in a document of this sort, you’re going to have the required patriotic images — the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Capitol and other buildings in D.C. Nothing surprising there. But Erin points out that the cowboy seems to be a recurring theme. There’s a full-page silhouette:
Two pages prominently show people wearing cowboy hats (these are both from collages):
It reminded me of a post by Macon D. over at Racialicious a while back about some ads by a Republican primary candidate for Agricultural Commissioner in Alabama:
The hat, the horse, the rifle, the sweeping music that makes me think of old Western movies…it all evokes what Macon D. calls the “Independent (White) Cowboy Myth,” a version of rugged, stand-alone, honest manhood. Macon D. quotes Mel at BroadSnark:
In this mythology, the cowboy is a white man. He is a crusty frontiersman taming the west and paving the way for civilization. He is the good guy fighting the dangerous Indian. He is free and independent. He is in charge of his own destiny.
Here’s the follow-up ad he made after losing:
And, for the record, I’m not arguing this presentation of Dale Peterson is necessarily fake; for all I know he dresses and acts like that all the time. People do; I’m related to some of them. I’m not saying Peterson is a fraud who really wears tuxes and has never been on a horse. That’s irrelevant. What I’m interested in is the power of a particular cowboy mythology, the one on display in Peterson’s ads.
As Macon D. points out, Ronald Reagan actively appropriated the cowboy persona, often wearing cowboy hats and jeans, sometimes alongside a horse (he had also played cowboys in a couple of movies). He openly identified with the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” an effort by groups in the western U.S. in the ’70s and ’80s to stop designation of federal lands as protected wilderness areas, push for more mining and livestock grazing rights on public land, and oppose some other environmental and land use regulations, depicted as impositions from distant elites.
Macon D. quotes Sarah Watts on the appeal of the White cowboy myth when Theodore Roosevelt first used it:
…he met the psychological desires in their imagination, making them into masters of their own fate, propelling them into violent adventure and comradeship, believing them at home in nature, not in the hothouse interiors of office buildings or middle-class homes.
The cowboy myth, then, arose partly to allay deep anxieties about changes in American society. But the myth is just that — a myth, a romanticized notion largely unmoored from the realities of cowboys’ lives. Mel says,
Cowboys were itinerant workers who, while paid fairly well when they had work, spent much of the year begging for odd jobs. Many did not even own the horse they rode. Frequently, they worked for large cattle companies owned by stockholders from the Northeast and Europe, not for small family operations (a la Bonanza). The few times cowboys tried to organize, they were brutally oppressed by ranchers.
This isn’t true just in the past. I know people who work as hired hands on ranches now. They love many aspects of the life. But most of them aren’t particularly well-paid; they don’t have retirement benefits or health insurance; they aren’t on a path to being able to buy their own ranch and be a self-reliant family farmer. Some become managers, with more responsibility and money, as in any occupation. But sometimes what initially seemed like a great deal — getting free housing as part of the job — turns out to have downsides, such as being expected to be available round-the-clock since you’re right there on the property, or fearing that if you piss off your employer and get fired, you’re out of a place to live immediately as well.
The examples I’ve given here have all been Republicans. Democrats use the cowboy mythology as well — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is well known for often appearing in a cowboy hat and nearly always wearing a bolo tie rather than a necktie. However, Republicans seem to appropriate the cowboy persona more often, or at least more successfully.
Anyway…back to Erin’s analysis of the “Pledge to America.” The other interesting feature of the images is their overwhelming Whiteness. Some examples of group photos:
This one has what in a larger version appears may be an Asian-American woman, in the red dress on the lower left:
The photo on the second tier on the right here looks like it might have a Black woman in it, seated second from the right:
Overall, the photos show a sea of Whiteness. As Erin says, whether it’s an unintentional oversight or a calculated choice, the resulting message is that America’s citizens, the hard-working, patriotic folks who matter and to whom the party is making pledges, are White. Given the current racialized tone of much of our political debate (especially regarding Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, a racialized group often conflated with “Arabs”), it’s a portrait of America that is likely to speak to, and soothe, the fears of some groups more than others.