Just How Racist Is the 'Obama Phone' Video?

There was a video leading the Drudge Report on Thursday afternoon of a poor black woman with messed-up teeth saying she's voting for President Obama because he gave her a free phone, and perhaps you have some questions about it.

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There was a video leading the Drudge Report on Thursday afternoon of a poor black woman with messed-up teeth saying she's voting for President Obama because he gave her a free phone, and perhaps you have some questions about it. Questions like: Is this video racist? Is Obama really giving away phones? Is anyone really bothered by these Obama Phones? And, come on, this is just blatant racism, right? We'll try to answer them.

Update: If you're just joining us late, and have questions like "How is interviewing someone racist?" or "What does Stormfront have to do with this?" or "Why are you bringing up race, anyway?" we have answers for you over here. Welcome!

Is this Obama Phone phone real?

Sort of. The Federal Communications Commission has a program called Lifeline that provides low-cost or free phone service. The agency's website says this is because it and Congress "recognize that telephone service provides a vital link to emergency services, government services and surrounding communities." Who qualifies varies by state, but "in general," to qualify you must have an income that  is no more than 135 percent of the federal poverty line, or be enrolled in assistance programs like Medicaid, public housing assistance, discounted school lunch, or yes, food stamps. (This Factcheck.org piece has a good overview of the issue.) Strictly speaking, it's not a government-funded program: the telephone companies make payments to a fund administered by a non-profit called the Universal Service Administrative Company, but anyone with a phone bill chips in through a surcharge on their service.

Is the Obama Phone Obama's doing?

No. The universal service requirement dates back at least to the Communications Act of 1934. The Lifeline program specifically was started in 1984 under President Reagan and was expanded in 1996 under President Clinton to allow qualifying households to choose to apply the benefit to either a landline or a cell phone. So no, it's not an Obama handout.

Shockingly, despite the bipartisan origins of the service, the idea of an "Obama Phone" for the undeserving has existed for a long time. A couple email forwards, debunked by Snopes.com, were circulating in October 2009 and described poor people shamelessly showing off their free phones:

Is this video racist?

Let's start by saying it's racial. The Obama Phone video belongs to a genre popular on conservative blogs in which poor people, usually black, confirm conservatives' worst 47-percent fears by saying they can get something for nothing because Obama's in office. The message is, "Here's what Obama's supporters really look like."

The standout in the category is "Obama money": Back in October 2009, big lines formed formed for Detroit housing assistance applications after the city underestimated how many people would show up to apply. The scene was chaotic, and local TV reported there were rumors that $3,000 checks would be handed out.

The meme on rightwing blogs became that it was an angry mob in search of "Obama money." A Detroit radio station interviewed people in line for "Obama money." One woman says, "I don't know where he got it from but he's giving it to us. ... O-BA-MA O-BA-MA!" Rush Limbaugh excerpted the audio, saying, "This is the model citizen in Barack Obama's vision." He continued:

"These are the people who would be wealthy and rich today were it not for the fact that the achievers of this society since this country was founded stole everything they had. And so Obama looks at these people as victims of an unjust and immoral country, and by God, he's going to make sure that they think he's making it all good for them. And they all do. Dumb, uninformed, shockingly, saddeningly stupid, the model citizen for Barack Obama and the Democrat Party."

Drudge's only commentary with the Obama Phone video is "OBAMA HAS MY VOTE, HE GAVE ME A FREE PHONE," but the conservative internet quickly picked up a broader electoral theme: this is what the 47 percent -- the people Mitt Romney referred to as "dependent upon government"  at a secretly taped fundraiser -- looks like. Some samples:

  • "The 47% that Romney referred to," Matthew Moosavian tweeted.
  • "The choice in this election! Psss along," conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas tweeted.
  • "Romney's '47% of Americans don't pay income taxes' wasn't a gaffe. Many of those people want their 'Obamaphone' from the govt," Katie Johnson, of the Wisconsin College Republicans, tweeted.
  • "I'm paying for the #ObamaPhone but I can't have one. The 47% aren't the victims. We 53% really are!" Rob Barrett tweeted.
  • "Obama voter. G-d help us," the Steve Malzberg Show tweeted.

OK, but is the video just blatant racism? 

Romney was not the originator of the 47 percent meme; like several other talking points he's used this election, he appears to have picked it up from conservative blogs. But as "inelegant" as Romney says his comments were, they're measured, thoughtful, and considerate compared to where they came from. For example, the racists over at Stormfront just love this story. One reader posted the video under the headline "Negro Obama Voter Says 'Vote for Obama because he gives a free Phone,'" and added, just in case the subtext wasn't obvious, "First I thought this was a joke but it's real. Racial inferiority on display." The aggressively racist responses have included, "The media tries not to show scum like this because then it would be easier to see what non-whites are really like" and "what does this talking baboon mean by free? When I pay my taxes it sure as hell ain't free." So, yes, it's totally and obviously racist according to some racists who rushed to a "White Pride" Internet forum as soon as they heard about it on Rush Limbaugh's show. To any conservatives offended at being associated with such vile people, let us say it for you: Using one mockable person you found on the Internet to make generalizations about half the country is lazy and stupid.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.