White Racist Framing in Ohio

MSNBC recently posted a story about an Ohio town where misinformation about Barack Obama is running rampant. The story begins by describing one man’s struggle with wanting to vote for Obama despite the competing narratives he hears from different sources:

On the television in his living room, Peterman has watched enough news and campaign advertisements to hear the truth: Sen. Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, is a Christian family man with a track record of public service. But on the Internet, in his grocery store, at his neighbor’s house, at his son’s auto shop, Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate’s background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The story continues, describing Obama’s efforts to confront the lies that abound about his background and personal story, and putting them in the context of the small town in Ohio where residents are mostly white, working-class, and close knit:

“On College Street, nobody wanted anything to change. As the years passed, Peterman and his neighbors approached one another to share in their skepticism about the unknown. What was the story behind the handful of African Americans who had moved into a town that is 93 percent white? Why were Japanese businessmen coming in to run the local manufacturing plants? Who in the world was this Obama character, running for president with that funny-sounding last name?”

What’s most interesting about this story is the ways that it describes—but doesn’t identify—the pervasiveness of the white racist frame in shaping the ways residents of this town (credit: fusionpanda) perceive Obama. One resident states:

“I think Obama would be a disaster, and there’s a lot of reasons,” said Pollard, explaining the rumors he had heard about the candidate from friends he goes camping with. “I understand he’s from Africa, and that the first thing he’s going to do if he gets into office is bring his family over here, illegally. He’s got that racist [pastor] who practically raised him, and then there’s the Muslim thing. He’s just not presidential material, if you ask me.”

This resident seems invested in viewing Obama through a white racist frame that suggests that as a black man, Obama is a criminalized, racial “other.” This is evident in his assertion that Obama is “from Africa” (therefore a racial other) and that his first act in office will be to break the law by illegally bringing his family here. This man’s statements also underscore an additional aspect of the white racial frame, one that has largely been neglected in much mainstream media discussion. In his statement of “the Muslim thing,” he reinforces a seemingly common idea that if Obama was a Muslim, his religious orientation would and should be sufficient to disqualify him from public office.

It is disturbing and problematic that so few media outlets, pundits, and mainstream voices have critiqued this stereotype that Muslim = terrorist. Most Muslims are not terrorists, and I think many Americans would be rightfully offended if anyone labeled extremists like David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh (who used, among other things, distorted religious ideology to justify child rape and terrorism, respectively) as typical examples of Christianity. Yet this type of religious profiling frequently goes unquestioned, and many seem to accept the implication that Muslims, by virtue of their faith alone, are persona non grata, unfit for public service, and a threat to national security. This is a dangerous line of thought that, when it surfaced in 1942, contributed to Executive Order 9066, one of the most regrettable acts of domestic policy in American history. When it comes to Muslims today, however, we seem to be repeating the same line of thinking if not (yet) the same course of action.

The racial frame also emerges in other parts of the article:

“So far, those who have pushed the truth in Findlay have been rewarded with little that resembles progress. Gerri Kish, a 66-year-old born in Hawaii, read both of Obama’s autobiographies. She has close friends, she said, who still refuse to believe her when she swears Obama is Christian. Then she hands them the books, and they refuse to read them. ‘They just want believe what they believe,’ she said. ‘Nothing gets through to them.’”

This anecdote suggests that the white racist frame that casts Obama as a dangerous racial other is so powerful that some are willing to ignore evidence that counters it:

“And they say that Obama’s moves to put distance between himself and the Muslim community, with his campaign declining invitations to visit mosques and Obama volunteers removing two women in head scarves from the camera range at a rally in Detroit last week are just a too-late effort to disguise his true beliefs.”

Again, this frame is so powerful that it seems that it seems impervious to any explanation or facts. When faced with evidence that could contradict their stereotypes of Obama, these residents simply choose to ignore it so that they can continue grounding their opinions in the white racist frame. And once more, there is no critical attention paid to the disturbing conflation of Muslim faith with terrorism. This seems to suggest that the white racial frame not only includes the creation of racial others, but that these “others” may encompass a particular swath of religious and cultural identities as well. And given how entrenched this frame seems to be, there are real and disturbing questions as to whether it will determine the outcome of this election.

The White Racial Frame and the Brain

On their blog, which discusses brain research, PhDs Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang talk insightfully about false beliefs and how they get deeply imbeded into the brain. Most of their examples are not about racial matters, but this is one they do discuss:

we now recall that there was a false belief about John McCain, dating to the 2000 Presidential primary campaign. He was doing well until the South Carolina primary, at which time rumors surfaced about a mixed-race child that he had allegedly fathered. Apparently, this did not play well with Southern voters. Shortly thereafter, his candidacy faltered.

A key point they are making about false beliefs is that they

often have staying power if they evoke a strong emotional reaction. [They then cite] a study suggesting that feelings of disgust make an idea memorable.

In addition, Aamodt and Wang make other important points about how false beliefs and the brain operate in an op-ed piece in the New York Times:

False beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way. The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned.

Notice the serious implications of this brain-imbeding process for the white racial frame, which is full of false beliefs, almost by definition: Lots of racist stereotypes and stereotyped images. One key reason the white racial frame has such depth and staying power in society is that most of it is heavily emotion-laden. Indeed, racialized emotions have been central to white framing from at least 1607 to the present day.

For centuries, whites have tried to rationalize with many false beliefs and notions the tension between their Christianity & sense of being good persons, and the age-old system of extreme racial oppression they have created and maintained.

Today, as in the past, the system of racial oppression requires that most whites contradict their own better moral precepts and live such a life that they must thus lie to themselves and others that they are highly moral and ethical. Intense and deep emotions have always been central to this process.