By Michael D. Harris
That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
“Justice” by Langston Hughes
Black males are brutes, child-like Sambos, criminals, irresponsible no-accounts, brainless athletic bodies, absentee fathers, and emasculated uncles. Each of these stereotypes is a placeholder; an idea meant to keep blacks in their “place.” There is imagery built over the past two centuries to reinforce these stereotypes and still is used in movies, newspapers, and in television shows as a subtle code, though in smaller and smaller doses. Visual stereotypes amount to the one-dimensional quality of a silhouette, like those of a Kara Walker artwork. President Obama has morphed that silhouette of nappy hair and big lips into the irregular abstraction of a Rorschach ink blot and the responses to him can be read as a revelation of the psychology of the person responding.
The 2012 presidential election is a culmination of deeply ingrained white fear evoked by the image of a black president. Even though he is a mulatto and, because his father is African, has no slavery in his family history. Blackness over the centuries has been reduced to symbols, signs, and codes of ineptitude, inferiority, intellectual limitations, and dialectical use of the language; a slide from Ebonics to hip-hop Boyz in da hood.
The occasional Black Exception like Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, and even Colin Powell has been given room to exist, but the President has aroused shocking levels of white racist anger, even as he makes exceptional efforts to transcend race in his behavior and rhetoric and policies.
My belief is that the President has exploded the visual signs of blackness by inhabiting the most powerful position on earth with an integrity not seen often since the Jimmy Carter presidency. He is not alienated from his children as was Mr. Reagan. His devotion to his family defies all the old stereotypes of black male irresponsibility and is in contrast with the dalliances of Bill Clinton. His intellect and command of language has driven George W. Bush into hiding.
Now, here’s the punchline. The stereotypical images and symbols of blackness have been drained of power and racism – itself a primitive 18th century concoction – can never again effectively make use of the old assumptions. The emperor has no clothes! Racism is the intellectual core of white supremacy and its undeserved privilege and self-esteem. And mortal wounds to this idea have brought closet racists out into the open howling. The symbolic structure of racist assumptions has begun its collapse.
Mitt Romney belongs to a religious organization that has only recently tinkered with its structure to remove racist doctrines, something that somehow has not come up in his campaign for president. The Romney-Ryan ticket, and the Republican convention that sanctioned it, did not bother to suggest diversity and Romney’s speeches have directly or with coded references told lower class white males that, if they vote against their economic interests again, Romney will defend them against women, illegal aliens, blacks, and taxes as he privatizes the United States.
When Barack Obama was inaugurated as President, the visual signifier that has been Negro, colored, blackness or whatever you might call it, including mulatto or octoroon, was mutilated and crippled. I perceive the coded white rage against him, the attempts to delegitimize him about his American birth, the unprecedented disrespect of the office of President with derisive shouts in Congress, people calling him Obama in public instead of President Obama, to be the spasms of white supremacy in a death wheeze.
The symbol has been cracked and can never function again to evoke Sambo or the black buck or the mythological rapist threatening white womanhood. Obama has the most important job in the world. He speaks more coherently than his processor. He is very public about his respect and caring for his wife and family. And he has limited the access of the wealthy to the US Treasury.
Justice, according to Langston Hughes, is blind, but we know that it is not. It can still see color beneath its blindfold. Sadly, so many whites still see in Barack Obama the color of his heritage rather than the content of his character and they would rather burn down the house than let him occupy it. Those responding to the image of President Obama in this way seem to have festering sores on the soul.
Michael D. Harris is Assoc. Professor of African American Studies at Emory University