Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Racist Images

As this post goes to press, Senator Barack Obama needs only four more delegates to ensure the democratic nomination for president. For Obama supporters, this will be a night of celebration, a moment unrivaled in the social narrative of the United States--perhaps one of the least racist days in American history.

And so it seems fitting for today's SemiObama post to examine those images tonight's news will transcend.

Visual propaganda has a long history in the United States, a country that has often revealed a tendency to be swayed by images rather than data, emotion rather than reason. One aspect of visual culture the mainstream media has tended to avoid is the plethora of anti-Obama propaganda--often shockingly racist images--that are circulating the Internet. One one hand, it might seem counterintuitive for this site to give space or credence to such texts, but SemiObama's mission is to examine the power of semiotics. To ignore anti-Obama visual culture is to downplay just how powerful his image really is. One only satirizes that which is dangerous; so, one could argue that even the most disturbing images actually speak to Obama's potential to subvert them and to inspire America to rise above them.

What Senator Clinton and Obama share is the tendency for opponents to caricature their non-political attributes: race and gender. In the case of the image to the left, an image found on the desk of South Carolina representative Bill Sandifer, there is a silent attempt to frighten viewers by linking Obama's ethnicity to one of the great stereotypes of modern culture--the black thug. Yes, it's disturbing, but beyond that, it's just poorly executed and profoundly unconvincing.

Another classic stereotype is the African American = Muslim = terrorist mentality. Some of the more inflammatory images exploit--or at least try to exploit--the semiotics of fear some Americans tend to associate with anyone of Arab or Middle-Eastern descent. These tactics are old, and, generally, unsuccessful, but they prey on the anxious and uneducated, and they try to manipulate not through any connection to reality but through association and exaggeration.

The image above and to the right pretends to be funny, but it's really about instilling fear--fear of the angry African. The rapper stereotype in the image below and to the right, tries to do similar work. Its text is harmless humor. It's subtext is the same as the overt text of the first image Rep. Sandifer likes so much. It's always reassuring to see what visual cues some people deploy to send messages. I'm surprised, for instance, that the artist stopped at the bandana and the grills. Why not go for the bling? The baggy pants? The Tommy shirts? The basketball jerseys? Oddly enough, the lameness of this image actually sends a very different message: this person is a bad reader of culture. You can't take the message seriously, because the author has no authority.

In fact, the crudeness, the simplicity, and the ineptness of these images all reveal the ineptness of the rationale behind them. They have no teeth. Even more interesting is how these images have remained on the peripheries. Perhaps they have circulated privately, but no one of any real weight has given them credence. Thankfully, the larger, more inclusive, more democratic, more populist semiotics of Obama are what have captured America's visual consciousness.

--D. R.

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