Yesterday we asked "How Racist Is the Obama Phone Video?" It turns out that we didn't just need to explain the degree of the racism, but whether it was racist at all. After rallying around a video of a black woman explaining (incorrectly) that Obama had given her a free cell phone as a sure-fire way of boosting Mitt Romney's campaign ("I could see that video turned into an incredible ad. No voice over needed. Just let it play and at the end, 'I'm Mitt Romney and I approved this message.' Landslide."), some folks acted outraged that we would notice that they were trading in horrendous racial stereotypes. While there are plenty of studies investigating the way racial code words are used in political advertising ("inner city," for example), this is not coded. This video, if placed in a Romney ad, would make George H.W. Bush's 1988 Willie Horton ad look subtle by comparison: the other guy is supported by scary black people, vote Republican!
The "Obama Phone" video is not being used by the Romney campaign. So we can't say that it's a racist attempt to get votes in the election. Right now, it sits in the middle ground between "stuff on the Internet" and "serious political issue." But it took one big step toward becoming a serious issue when, on the same day, Rush Limbaugh played it repeatedly on his radio show and the Drudge Report posted it at the top of his page. They'd probably call it humor? Limbaugh finds a lot of things funny about Democrats, like how fat Michelle Obama is. And an Obama voter who seems to be dumb? That's comedy gold, or as he described the "Obama Phone" video, "That's not Saturday Night Live. That is a real Obama voter." Because a video of a black woman with bad teeth and a poor grasp of the history of the Universal Service Fund proves that Democrats are stupid, lazy, and, oh, black. "That is a real Obama voter." We say, that's racist.
Through email, Twitter, comments, and various links to yesterday's story, we've heard from conservatives shocked that we reached that conclusion. So let us walk through their arguments.
How is interviewing someone racist?
It's not. And we never said that the person who made the tape was racist. We don't even know who the person holding the camera was. BigFurHat of the site iOwntheWorld, who claims to have posted the video, made this defense: "I have no idea how it could be construed as racist because it’s simply a woman speaking for herself, you know, like voting." True enough! But the racism comes in when Drudge, Rush, the people who giddily retweeted the link, do a mental calculation that if enough people would just see this video they would support Romney, because it plays on the same racist stereotypes that are usually trotted out this time of the election cycle. The video posted on Drudge and played on Limbaugh was a black lady who has all the standard visual cues of being poor -- messed-up teeth and skin, her waistline, her yelling. Oh, and if cues aren't enough, she talks in racial terms: "Everybody in Cleveland, all the minorities got a phone. Keep Obama president, you know, he gave us a phone, he'll give us more." Drudge has a particular habit of, as Slate's Dave Weigel put it, "hyping up tabloid news that makes black people look like violent dopes who'll do anything for more goodies from Obama." The violence of "CHICAGOLAND" is a favorite trope.
Why are you making this about race?
This is a he-who-smelt-it-dealt-it argument. Or, as Stephen Colbert's persona likes to say, "I don't see race." This line of argument wants to change the subject to something, anything other than race. Hey, what about free phones?! Patterico at Patterico's Pontifications tried defending the video, saying, "The above video is hilarious. It is representative of a group of Obama voters who feel entitled to handouts from government. It does not matter what the color of the speaker is. It’s news... Conservatives should not have to shy away from such amusing examples of entitlement mentality simply because the particular proponent of that mentality happens to be black." This is intellectually dishonest, at best. We await Patterico delving into the minutiae of the Universal Service Fund. Until then, it's just "hilarious." Specifically, it's hilarious because it uses one person to portray a huge group of people in a negative way is. The point of the video -- and the reason Drudge and Limbaugh hyped it -- is to say, this is what Obama voters look like: black, poor, stupid, and after your money. The video's subject wasn't picked out because she "happens to be black," she was picked out because she is black. Lee Atwater, strategist for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, explained how this works way back in 1981 -- better to talk about cutting taxes and bussing, because it's "a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Ni***r, ni***r.'" Of course, this Internet meme isn't all that abstract.
Every time anyone criticizes Obama, you say it's racist!
Actually, no. The argument that the FCC's Lifeline program is mismanaged or wasteful could be made. (In fact, we'll be making exactly that argument on Monday) "Yes: Taxpayers are forced to pay $1.6 billion — billion, with a 'B' — to provide free cellphones for Obama voters," Robert Stacy McCain writes. "And if you don’t like it, you’re a racist!" That's wrong in three ways. One, the program is supported by surcharges on phone bills, not tax dollars. Two, income level, not political affiliation, is what qualifies you for the Lifeline program. Three, opposing the program is not racist. And the video wasn't on Drudge because Drudge is advocating getting rid of the program. Again, it's racist because the point is to portray poor black people as stupid, and lazy, and dupes for Obama. At The Daily Caller, Jim Treacher writes sarcastically, "Well, sure, it must be racist because this woman is black. If a white Romney protester was yelling into a camera about Obama giving out phones, nobody would have any problem with it and it wouldn’t be cited as evidence of the '47%' mentality." We'll be sure to note the next Drudge splash of a white Romney-bashing voter. We're expecting this video, posted by the same YouTube user as "Obama Phone," to hit Drudge any minute.
Why bring Stormfront into this?
If you want to know whether something is racist, why not go to the experts? "You’ll be glad to know that Reeve backs up her leading question by citing those mainstream conservatives at, um, Stormfront," writes Treacher. Members of a "white pride" forum are, after all, not offended by being labeled as white supremacists. And if they cheer the "Obama Phone" video as proving their "racial inferiority" hatred, then, you know, we'd say that's pretty good proof that the video is trucking in racist stereotypes. "The Atlantic [Wire, ahem] then takes a comment made by an individual from StormFront... in order to paint generalizations about the right," BigFurHat, originator of the video, writes. "And they do this without any sense of self-awareness whatsoever." Actually, we did this with total self-awareness. Here are the very last words of our post:
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.
There are really two points here: First, it is not fair to equate all conservatives who laughed at the "Obama Phone" with white supremacists. Second, however, is that those who insist they're not promoting racist stereotypes and also argue the video is hilarious are wrong on one of those counts.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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