Racism, in forms both overt and sly, appears to be rearing its head higher than in the 2008 election campaign, when voters took the historic step of electing the first African-American president in the nation's history.
Already there's been some nasty stuff. Chief among them: an online video that went viral over the weekend, which shows a car sporting a bumper sticker that says "Don't Re-N-- in 2012" (fill in the blanks with half of the word that many African-Americans consider to be perhaps more inflammatory than any other). Some question whether the video depicts a real or a photo-shopped car and slogan, but the fact remains that the bumper sticker is the No. 1 best-seller at Stickatude.com, where it sells for $3. Stumpy's Stickers, until the site went down over the weekend, also peddled the design, one with a caricature of a black man's face missing a tooth and another with a picture of a chimpanzee that reads, "Obama 2012."
These and other racially loaded campaign materials point to efforts to make an issue of President Obama's race in this election, say analysts. Such calculations are born of frustration and even rage against both the president and his policies, which some perceive to have a pro-black slant, they say. While such virulent expressions may play to the racist sentiments of a subset of Americans, they are also likely to offend a vast many more voters and could have the opposite effect of what their creators intended.
He cites a video produced by the late Andrew Breitbart, conservative blogger and provocateur. It included film footage of a young Barack Obama embracing Derrick Bell, then a Harvard law professor and an architect of critical race theory, which holds that racism remains deeply embedded in US laws and institutions despite – and even because of – efforts to redress it. Mr. Breitbart had promoted the video as a "bombshell," suggesting that it proved Mr. Obama to be a “race warrior” intent on righting the wrongs of history on the backs of white Americans. But the Obama-Bell video fizzled, says Professor McLaughlin.
Still, such efforts are designed to turn up the heat on racial issues in this election, he says. “We are not in a post-racial America,” McLaughlin adds. His prediction: “This is going to be the nastiest election cycle we’ve ever seen.”
To Mark Naison, professor of African American studies and history at Fordham University in New York, the difference between the 2008 and 2012 campaigns is that the racial messages now are cruder and uglier.
There is "an added edge to it," he says in an e-mail, "because Barack Obama is a powerful, incumbent President who is the odds-on favorite to win the 2012 election.” This gives what “racist expressions that do come out an air of desperation, rage, and quite frankly, startling self destructiveness,” he says.
He reminds, though, that racism was apparent in the 2008 contest, too, citing a Sarah Palin rally in Johnstown, Pa., a month before the election, during which a man in the audience held aloft a monkey doll with an Obama sticker wrapped around its head.
Most Americans do not want to go back to the Jim Crow past, when it was common to use animal metaphors to degrade African-Americans, says Professor Naison. Earlier this month, the chief US judge for the District of Montana, Richard Cebull, apologized to "anyone who was offended" after he forwarded on his office e-mail system a derogatory joke about Mr. Obama. “A little boy said to his mother; ‘Mommy, how come I’m black and you’re white?’ ” the joke in the e-mail said. “His mother replied, ‘Don’t even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark!' "
There is no better way to drive independent voters or disillusioned liberals into the Obama camp than to use racist appeals, "many of them crude and atavistic," to attack the president, says Naison.
Many conservatives, however, argue that Democrats cry racism to avoid discussing topics about which there are legitimate differences of opinion. “With all due respect, I find it offensive when people refer to Americans' dislike of Obama as race-based,” says Klea Theoharis, a New York-based financial adviser who blogs about government waste on her website, taxdollarwastewatch.wordress.com. She supported GOP candidate Herman Cain. “It insults our intelligence. For those interested enough to care about the issues and America's future, it has nothing to do with race, but policy,” she adds.
Nonetheless, others suggest that GOP presidential candidates are intentionally stoking racial fears even as they make a policy point. At an Iowa event prior to the caucuses, Rick Santorum contrasted himself with Obama this way, telling a mostly white audience that "I would not make black people's lives better by giving them other people's money." Newt Gingrich told a Plymouth, N.H., audience that he would attend the NAACP convention and explain "why the African-American community should demand paychecks instead of food stamps."
The former House speaker also has suggested that children from housing projects should be hired to clean bathrooms in public schools to learn there are jobs besides pimping and drug dealing.
But what to some listeners is a tough-minded proposal to teach a work ethic is to others an example of coded racism that plays to old stereotypes.
This sort of racial rhetoric allows politicians “to tap white anxieties that blacks are un-deserving of any government assistance because they would rather collect benefits than work,” says Charles Gallagher, chairman of the sociology department at La Salle University in Philadelphia, in an e-mail. "This new variation on The Southern Strategy works as a way to tap deeply ingrained stereotypes that whites have about blacks; simply put, that whites have a work ethic and blacks do not.”
Now that a black man runs the White House, he adds, “politicians have more latitude to discuss public policy in a distorted and racist way and do so in a way that is simply given as a critique of government.”
Democrats, too, must take responsibility for playing the race card when it suits them, says Republican strategist David Johnson, who worked on Robert Dole’s 1988 presidential campaign. With support for Obama lagging behind 2008 levels, he says, Democrats such as Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York work to rally the party's political base by suggesting that the other side is racist.
“It could make the difference [for] a Democrat who may not vote for a Republican candidate but ... also may not vote at all,” he says. Rousing such voters by charging that the president is being attacked because of his race can be a winning strategy for Democrats, Mr. Johnson adds.
The race issue intensified Tuesday amid reports that actor Robert De Niro, speaking at an Obama fundraiser attended by Michelle Obama in New York on Monday, questioned whether the "country is ready for a white first lady." The Gingrich campaign denounced the comment.
"The crowd approved," said Gingrich senior adviser Kiron Skinner, in a statement. "The media and many others would decry an equivalent comment by a conservative or a Republican supporter of a presidential candidate.
"As a senior adviser in Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign and as an African American woman, I stand against comments like DeNiro’s."
The Obama campaign on Tuesday characterized De Niro's comment as "inappropriate."
The most egregious race-baiting often finds its widest audience through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Some of it remains anonymous, such as the owner of the domain name behind Stumpy’s Stickers. Stickatude is run by a Georgia paint-ball field owner, Paula Smith, who told Forbes.com over the weekend that she didn’t find the "Re-N--" sticker racist, but rather sees it as “cute.”
As with the swift immolation of the Stumpy's Sticker website after outrage mounted over the weekend, social media can cut both ways. The slogan in question first appeared on a T-shirt two years ago on zazzle.com and was taken down in response to criticism.
While the viral power of an online video can spread hate messages faster than at any time in history, the technology can also help mitigate its impact, says media pundit Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” Outcry over racist or polarizing messages rises just as quickly as the original objectionable message, he says. “While new media can be used to amplify a hate message, it can also be used to shut it down.”