When you see this
you probably don’t think this,
but you should.
It’s become commonplace to describe contemporary racial ideology in the United States as ‘colorblind racism.’ Since the civil rights movement, overtly racist language has become unacceptable in public life. As a consequence, those dedicated to upholding white suprmacy in the US have had to shift their rhetoric. While once Reagan could expect to make political hay by blaming Martin Luther King, Jr. for his own assassination (he said it was a “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break”), by Nixon’s time the president realized that such sentiments needed dressier garb (According to Nixon’s chief of staff, Tricky Dick “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to. [Nixon] Pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true.”) Thus was born the rhetoric of colorblindness, putatively race-neutral language that works nonetheless to achieve the same results of black subordination. Code words (or dog whistle politics) such as ‘welfare queen’ or ‘crime’ are only the most familiar of this genus of race talk.
This is a familiar story, and much good work has been written exposing what’s behind the facade, from Michelle Alexander’s social physiology of the criminal justice system to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s investigation of “the linguistics of color blind racism.” There is one gesture, however, in the rhetoric of colorblindness that has been wanting for attention – the provocation, as epitomized by Glenn Beck’s little outburst above.
Now, it will be patently obvious to those reading this that the comparison of Obama’s America to the Planet of the Apes is racist. There have already been a whole host of incidents in which various reactionaries made similar comparisons. Two things distinguish Beck’s use of the image, however. First, he is a major media figure, not some provincial GOP peckerwood forwarding an email. Second, and more importantly, he is a (slightly) more discrete. Rather than directly comparing one of the Obamas to an ape, he deploys a metaphor. It’s true that one must only go a few stops on the associational train (Planet of the Apes is ruled by apes -> America is like a planet ruled by apes) to get to the point, but Beck and his gormless followers can nonetheless feign surprise at the outlandish associations made in the minds of their progressive persecutors. Making a crazy leap of logic like that…they’re probably the real racists!
Given the racial scrutiny Beck has been subject to (ever since he talked about putting Muslims in concentration camps and expressed fear that Obama opposed white culture), it seems obvious that the Planet of the Apes metaphor was chosen with some care. There are, after all, innumerable other filmic metaphors which could make substantially the same point (through the looking glass, the Twilight Zone, the Land of Oz, etc etc). Why choose one which will certainly draw condemnation from places like Media Matters, even if plausible deniability is built in?
The obvious answer is that it throws red meat to the resentful white Fox viewership, bunkered down in their own personal Fortress Americas and savoring whatever expressions of white privilege they can get their hands on before the rising tide of color sweeps them all away. There’s certainly something to this, and I’ll return to the white libidinal investment in these sorts of things shortly. But I think it’s also important to recognize that Beck’s metaphor is governed by a more strategic logic as well. This is where the trap comes in. The comparison of Obama’s America to Planet of Apes was designed precisely to elicit the predictable condemnations. I’m not the only one to notice this dynamic. One of Beck’s defenders, taking note of the accusations that quickly appeared, described the metaphor as “exotic liberal bait [given how] quickly as liberals have grabbed it to scream racism.”
The way it works is like this: Beck makes a comparison that is supposedly race neutral, but unmistakably grounded in racist symbolism. When liberals and antiracists call him on it, he accuses them of being racist against white people for assuming Beck was saying something racist. For Beck and his viewers, it is one more instance of how true (white) Americans are the victims of system in which any complaint they have is dismissed as racist. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has described how projection is a key rhetorical device for colorblind racism, allowing whites to blame any evidence of racial disparity on Blacks themselves (“they like to be with their own kind” as an explanation of residential segregation, for example). In this context, provocation can be seen as a kind of auxiliary gesture, one that works to enable the projection by eliciting ‘evidence’ for its claims. As such, the wide eyed innocence with which Beck and his associates meet their accusations is like recent Israeli diplomacy – a lie whose true content is its own unbelievability.
For the right wing, this kind of provocation is a good deal of fun. Dave Weigel has nicely encapsulated the impulses going into this sort of play, noting that “Extremism — theories about race, right-wing European politics, anti-immigration rhetoric — is seen in these circles as something of a lark. It’s forbidden knowledge. It terrifies liberals.” Since everyone knows there’s no more racism in America (except against white people), baiting liberals and people of color is a game, one that at once mocks their perception of reality and affirms the intellectual superiority of the provocateur. By deploying rhetoric they know will cause an uproar, people like Beck and his confreres on hate radio get to feel as if they are pulling the strings, demonstrating how easy it is to whip the dusky herd up into a frenzy over what’s really nothing at all.
So what should be the proper response of antiracists to this blatant provocation? Simply don’t take the bait? I would hope, dear reader, that you know me better than that. Trying to avoid the trap is simply not an option, for a number of reasons. First, the result of not responding is the mainstreaming of racist language, the re-entry into public discourse of the kind of race talk that has been banished (to a degree) for a generation. In light of the persistence of racist discourse outside the environs of official politics, some might be tempted to say that it would be a good thing if politicians today were as honest as Strom Thurmond in 1948. It means something real, however, that openly racist discourse is no longer an accepted aspect of American political life. It matters that African Americans on television aren’t treated like Malcolm X was in the 1960s, an object of open scorn and derision. Moreover, given that half the fun of this sort of provocation is getting caught, it’s not as if Beck and company will desist when their efforts don’t achieve the intended result. They’ll just push a little harder.
As such, there’s really no choice here except to take the bait. If it helps the provocateurs make the case that the elites are keeping real Americans down, so be it. Whatever aid our response gives our enemies in organizing their side, it is the sine quo non of organizing our own. A movement to dismantle what Manning Marable calls the new racial domain will get nowhere by ignoring racist abuse. As the exit of Mark Williams from the Tea Party shows, it is possible to put a real price on this kind of talk. If organized, we really can take their toys away.