Negative Racial Framing of Senator Obama

On Rush Limbaugh’s radio show recently here a caller phoned in thus:

“Hey, listen, my 12-year-old daughter, her statement last week was who cares what the guy’s middle name is, he looks like Curious George.”

Then Limbaugh replied:

“Don’t make me laugh. I can’t laugh. The point I was going to make to you is, you’re going to have to be very careful. You don’t have to disabuse Republicans of Obama . . . .”

He appears to want Obama to stay in the political race, apparently to enhance Democratic Party conflicts. Next Limbaugh asserts that he did not know that Curious George was a cartoon and toy monkey, and adds an apology:

“I’ve seen the pictures of Curious George, everybody is telling me about Curious George. So I wish to apologize to both Senator Obama and Senator McCain. It was not my intent to bring dishonor and guttural utterances into this campaign. “

Later Limbaugh adds:

“You see, ladies and gentlemen, I’m doing this as an illustration for you of how really uptight and tense everybody is going to be with any kind of criticism of Barack Obama on the Republican side. I think we may set a record in this upcoming campaign. If Obama is the nominee, we may set a record for the number of apologies to him and his campaign by various Republicans and so forth. “

This revealing commentary hints at the tension over the backstage racist commentaries about Black Americans common among many whites and the fear (“uptight”) that some of these backstage views and discussions will get into the public sphere and force whites constantly to apologize. Senator Obama seems to have become a trigger for backstage racism to come to the forefront, perhaps more often than one might otherwise have expected in these days of “colorblind” public performances by many whites.

Interestingly, later callers criticized Limbaugh and suggested he was lying about not knowing that Curious George was a monkey figure, and some significant discusssion ensured.

One of the older racist images in the centuries-old white racist frame is that of Black people as apelike or monkeylike, which apparently arose from early white traveler’s wild and stereotyped accounts of people and animals in Africa. In his famous book, Notes on the State of Virginia here, even the fabled Thomas Jefferson perpetuates such extreme racist stereotypes.

US whites and others have drawn on such derogatory images for centuries, and Limbaugh certainly knows about these old stereotypes. Yet, although he did apologize to Senator Obama (and, oddly, to McCain too), he did not discuss or condemn the vicious character of this old racist imagery or its continuing role in some/much white thinking today about Black Americans.

In this political season, if Obama has a chance of winning the presidency, this and similar racial framing needs to be taken out of the closet and attacked for the vicious racism that it is.