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.


  1. mordy

    Insightful post Joe… I am not sure whether my ensuing point will make the framing better or worse, but one gets the distinct impression that Penn and the rest of Clinton’s demonstrably failed cadre of advisers were framing their position in purely political terms. That this would be a strategy that would succeed, as opposed to purposefully furthering a racial/racist agenda. Maybe at the end of the day it is a distinction without a great deal of difference

  2. Joe Author

    Mordy, you are surely right. Whites like Penn probably, mostly, do not think critically about these issues. The white racial frame, for most whites, is like the proverbial water goldfish do not see that they swim in. They think from the frame, with its many stereotypes, and really come to believe much of this stuff. Or, sometimes, they consciously use it for venal purposes, as you suggest. Either way, we have the impact of systemic racism…..

  3. Seattle in Texas

    In terms of core thinking resting upon American values, Obama has demonstrated numerous times that his does. He’s praised the founding fathers, Lincoln, etc. and has preached many elements of their very philosophy, even though it was originally crafted for Anglo’s only.

    Immigrants (associated with “foreign” and “alien”). I have to laugh. Who’s the “immigrants” or “foreign” or “alien”? The music world addressed it:

    (softer remake of the “Immigrant Song”):


    Followed by,

    (softer re-make of “Run to the Hills):


    Genocide, slavery…based on greed and illlusions of “ownership” and “citizenship”…It sickens me to hear of white people (particularly those who can trace their ancestry back to the 17th and 18th centuries in the U.S.) discussing conceptions of “Immigrants” when they don’t even look at their own roots and history. It’s all discussed with that strong sense of superiority and inherent entitlement. This nation needs to go far beyond a hallow apology to both African American and American Indian groups. Further, at least in my area, it has to correct for Chinese slavery and currently, wage slavery among the undocumented working communities from now on into the last several decades. In my opinion U.S. land needs to be governed by the original Natives of this nation, particularly with relation the environment. The white world and white politics only cares about money and it is not until they can find a way to profit off of some type of newer fuel, etc., that is “environmentally friendly” that they will become semi or pseudo environmentalist. Only if they can profit. This nation has much to correct for in way of reparations…for two main issues that tie back to the beginnings (American Indian genocide/brutality/land theft and destruction and slavery and Jim Crow for African American groups–both for contemporary ongoing inequalities and environmental wrongs)…then more for other groups on into contemporary times. I ask again, “who” are the “immigrants”, “alien” and “foreign”? The definitions of “immigrant” are racist by nature because one has to believe in conceptions and the illusions associated with land “ownership” and “citizenships” for it to have not only the meanings associated with “legitimate coloinization” followed by its history, but also allow for the social enforcement of the conceptions to be followed through in the material world so they continue to serve to benefit whites and result in ongoing lethal consaquences for other groups…. (I haven’t posted in a while so some of this is also addressing earlier posts, etc.)

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