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Don't Talk to Strangers: Obama as Other

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It is wise advice for parents to tell their children not to talk to strangers. It was not until this week, however, that such an admonishment was applied to listening to a speech by the president of the United States.

Barack Obama plans to give a "back to school" address on Tuesday "about the need to work hard and stay in school." In such a polarized political context, it is refreshing to have a visible leader speak about something on which folks from every political persuasion can agree. Except that with this president, in this context, conservatives are suspicious about the content, demanding to see the text of the address in advance.

One-time Republican presidential hopeful Gary Bauer called the speech an "unprecedented" use of power." He was not making a cheeky reference to President George W. Bush's surveillance of U.S. citizens, Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeus corpus or any of the invasions of sovereign nations that the U.S. has undertaken over the years. He was being completely sincere, and so was the chairman of the Florida Republican Party in a memo that accused the president of using "taxpayer dollars . . . to spread President Obama's socialist ideology." A Republican state lawmaker from Oklahoma is quoted as saying, "As far as I am concerned, this is not civics education it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality. This is something you'd expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein's Iraq."

Of course, such an argument is wholly without merit. There is certainly a "cult of personality" around the U.S. president for school children, and there always has been. Fred Greenstein's groundbreaking work with children in the 1960s revealed that presidents are perceived as "benevolent leaders" to children, irrespective of their parents' political beliefs. There have always been portraits of the current president hanging in schools, courthouses, post offices and other public spaces. Portraits do not invite "a critical approach" to presidents, as the Arizona state schools superintendent said should happen; indeed, they invite "worship" of our nation's top leader in the name of patriotism.

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Is this paranoia racially driven? A solid case could probably be made for that, but we are not going to make it. What we will do, however, is explain how these accusations work to erode Obama's image as part of a larger push to portray him as "other." We will take the social science approach and focus on the effects of this communication rather than the intent of the folks who are crafting and delivering the message.

Social science research reveals that racist messages in political campaign communication almost never occur as a result of a candidate using direct ("explicit") racist language. Rather, there is a combination of images and code words that are effective because they activate deeply-held racist predispositions in the minds of voters (not just White voters). Again, this work speaks to the way that such messages have the potential to affect voters; it makes no claims as to whether such appeals were intended by the candidates or their campaign teams. In some case (like the infamous Willie Horton ad from 1988), we can know intent because the architect (in that case, Lee Atwater), admitted as much (in that case, after he knew that he was dying -- far too young -- of cancer), but for the most part, we cannot, as President George W. Bush used to say, know what is in their hearts.

In our most recent work, we found that there is a tendency to use in-group/out-group language to indicate "otherness," a tactic which has the potential to be greatly exacerbated when the "other" is a member of a racial or ethnic minority group. Such language often comes by way of the choice of first person pronouns in combination with images that suggest the race of the in group. For instance, if a White candidate is running against a Black candidate in a district that is majority-White, he or she might run an ad that includes only White citizens, with language about "our values" or "our priorities," signaling that those priorities are different than those of a candidate of color. There is nothing inherently racist about candidates trying to convince voters that they are more "relatable" than their opponents; as a result of the way race has worked in America, however, the priming of group identity with images in combination with such language can work to the advantage of a candidate who employs such a strategy.

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We can see this very clearly in Barack Obama's opponents over the past two and a half years. From the Democratic primaries through the election through the first six months of his presidency, detractors from all political persuasions have used language that pushes Obama into the category of "other." The specific elements on which Obama is accused of being different change (quite frequently, in fact): He has been labeled as un-American in at least these ways by political elites: communist/socialist/Marxist, elitist, corrupt, terrorist sympathizer, foreign-born, a thug, fascist and racist (ironically, this is considered to be un-American). None of these labels are racist in and of themselves (even "racist"), but when leveled against a person of color, the dynamic is inherently different.

Does that mean that any attack against a person of color is racist? Certainly not (though Obama's opponents have used that argument, as well). First, even if the messages are racist by these scholarly definitions, that does not mean that those who crafted the message did so intentionally (did we mention this already?). Second, there are all sorts of ways that a person of color can be criticized on political grounds without playing into preexisting negative stereotypes about that person's race or ethnicity. Suggesting that Barack Obama is trying to deceive people has a racist effect because African Americans are presumed to be shifty, dishonest and criminal. To argue that Barack Obama's health care proposal is bad for America because small businesses would have a difficult time with the provisions, for instance, is wholly non-racial. Some progressives have argued that all of Obama's opponents are playing on race because the overwhelming visible criticism of him has been based on fear appeals related to negative stereotypes about African Americans.

This latest criticism over the education speech is no different. The argument is that Obama is trying to play a shell game with the American people, to "get at" our children, and to be dishonest about his true intentions. Such a criticism aimed at a White president (or official or candidate) carries no racist associations, as Whites are not, as a group, commonly assumed to have such characteristics. Since such stereotypes do exist about Blacks, however, the effect of this charge is different.

Former Republican Speaker of the House (and likely 2012 presidential hopeful) Newt Gingrich came out in support of the president's speech on Sunday, but implied that his support was related to the fact that he believed that the text of the speech would be made available so that parents could choose whether to allow their children to be exposed to the message. This is consistent with the calls from many of those who have criticized the speech, suggesting that Obama is trying to hide the content from parents. We do not know how common it is for presidents to release the text of their speeches weeks or days ahead of time (though it is quite common for text to be released to the press hours ahead of time for publication assistance), but in the larger context of conservative attacks on Obama over the past year or so, the request is troubling, as it signals that Black folks -- even the president -- cannot be trusted to talk directly to our students without parents having the chance to censor.

Adults talk to our children everyday without our input: teachers, firefighters, police officers, other children's parents on "career days," etc. Presumably there is no opposition to such speakers because those folks are not "strangers" -- they are members of our community. In the past, presidents of the United States were very much considered to be members of our community -- even largely in communities of color.

But this president will never be accepted as "family" or even as legitimate to many Whites. Once that is understood, it is not surprising that parents would not want their children to hear what he has to say unless and until they approve the content ahead of time. If you are not "one of us," you do not get to talk to our children.


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Stephen Maynard Caliendo is associate professor of political science at North Central College. Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book "Race (more...)

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