Senator Obama as “Foreign” and Alien: The Frame Again

Mike Allen at has a significant story August 10, 2008 on “Clinton told to portray Obama as foreign.” According to this account, which reports on an article coming out in the Atlantic magazine:

Mark Penn, the top campaign strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign, advised her to portray Barack Obama as having a “limited” connection “to basic American values and culture,” according to a forthcoming article in The Atlantic. The magazine reports Penn suggested getting much rougher with Obama in a memo on March 30, after her crucial wins in Texas and Ohio: “Does anyone believe that it is possible to win the nomination without, over these next two months, raising all these issues on him? … Won’t a single tape of [the Reverend Jeremiah] Wright going off on America with Obama sitting there be a game ender?”

Allen then adds from the Atlantic article that

Penn, the presidential campaign’s chief strategist, wrote in a memo to Clinton excerpted in the article: “I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.”

Allen and the Atlantic article focus on conflict within the Hillary Clinton campaign organization and her/their inability to act on various strategic recommendations, but the greater story is, once again, the white racial framing of Senator Obama.

This idea of the “foreign” and “weak values” character of African Americans is very old in whites’ racial framing of African Americans so as to rationalize slavery and Jim Crow segregation, as well as contemporary discrimination, for white minds and consciences.

For example, in a 1690s preamble to a South Carolina colony’s slavery law the elite white lawmakers, slaveholders, comment on enslaved Black Americans: They

are of barbarous, wild, savage natures, and . . . constitutions, laws and orders, should in this Province be made and enacted, for the good regulating and ordering of them, as may restrain the disorders, rapines and inhumanity, to which they are naturally prone and inclined.

The terms “barbarous, wild, savage” serve a double framing purpose. They not only conjure up notions of African Americans as foreign and uncivilized, the early cultural stereotyping, but also views of the latter as dangerous, rebellious, and criminal, ideas applied recently in the Dr. Wright case too.

In the 1700s influential Christian ministers also articulated views of African Americans as foreign and alien. Important in this regard were ministers like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, the earliest North American intellectuals to aggressively defend the racial hierarchy and white racial frame of the new colonies. They too viewed African Americans as inferior “uncivilized savages.” Thus, the English colonists often spoke of themselves as “Christians” and of “their negroes” (sic) as non-Christian “heathen.”

Later, these ideas were celebrated by white leaders in the 19th century like Nathaniel S. Shaler, prominent scientist and Harvard dean, who argued that African Americans not only were inferior, uncivilized, and an “alien folk” in the United States but also but would eventually become extinct under Darwinian evolutionary processes. Again and again, we see that the dominant racial frame was not something on the margins of an expanding and powerful United States, but rather something arising from its intellectual, political, and cultural center. (on this history, see here) Like modern political campaigns.

For centuries white Americans have insisted that they were the “modern” and “civilized” people and have had to contend with “foreign,” “backward,” and “uncivilized” peoples. And now we see it again from some Clinton advisers.