Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

White Paranoia, 2011 Edition

It’s difficult to read Butler’s essay on the video of Rodney King’s brutal beating and the subsequent trial of the LAPD officers who beat him without thinking of the corrosive rhetoric surrounding President Obama. Butler’s eloquent explanation of the ways in which the jurors were able to “read” the video of King’s beating as a reasonable response to the imagined threat that King, an African-American man, posed to their safety, equally accounts for the bigoted and racist accusations leveled at the President since his campaign in 2008.

I am not referring to political difference with the Democratic Party, nor am I referencing objections to the President’s policies or his abilities in the executive branch of our government. Reasonable people may disagree about public policy or President Obama’s actions since becoming president, or even his professional qualifications to hold that office. I am instead to referring to the blatantly racist, abusive, and, frankly, abhorrent remarks that cast into question Barack Obama’s citizenship, his religious beliefs, and his political ideology, as well as remarks pertaining to his wife and children. Since the national presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008, politicians, pundits, news outlets, aspiring candidates, and private citizens have openly stated that Obama is un-American (his birth certificate is a fake), a possible terrorist (his weak ties to African-Americans that are seen as radical and dangerous), a secret Muslim (given his father’s religion and his early education in Indonesia), a socialist, and the second coming of Hitler. The fact that the president or his advisers felt it necessary to release publicly his birth certificate highlights how mainstream this rhetoric has become. Added to that are the comments that have been made about the likelihood of Michelle Obama turning the White House garden into a watermelon patch and equally racist comments about Sasha and Malia Obama’s hairstyles.

These comments reveal the pernicious legacy of racism and slavery in this country, even at the same time as the election of the nation’s first African-American (both in terms of race and in terms of his parents’ origins) president has been hailed as the dawn of a “post-racial” America. Those who claim that Barack Obama is ineligible or unfit to be president and a danger to our country, and everyone who cannot recognize what those comments are really about, are so conditioned by centuries of racist and homophobic rhetoric that has cast the African-American man as a singular threat to white, heterosexual, male American hegemony that they cannot even entertain the possibility of another reality: that Barack Obama is an American, that he is eligible to President of the United States, and that he is not actively working to undermine the safety and well-being of Americans through collaboration with terrorist groups (even though there are millions of Americans who think his policies and actions may end up undermining the economic and national security of the country).

Yet they aren’t the only ones blind to the realities of race in America.  Progressives and moderates of both parties who wish that Obama would assert himself more strongly, or knock heads in Congress the way that Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton did to bring about legislative ends, do not understand that the president, even if he wished to (which is not a given), is constrained from certain rhetoric and action by the prevailing assumptions that govern how we read African-American masculinity in this country. The looming specter of the Angry Black Man lurks within our collective consciousness.

If anything, the accusations hurled at the president reveal how little has changed in the last twenty years since Rodney King’s violent beating and the acquittal of his tormentors. If we truly aspire to be a “post-racial” society, then we must begin by questioning how we read race and gender as a society and as individuals, and try to stretch to consider alternative readings, equally possible and viable.

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