Last night the Republican Party doubled down on its decades-long history of using racism in an effort to appeal to white voters. Yesterday evening, right-wing sensationalist Matt Drudge started promising readers that an explosive, anti-white-people video featuring Barack Obama was about to drop. On Tuesday night, the video headlined Sean Hannity’s reliably wingnut program on Fox News. It turned out that Drudge and Hannity’s big news was a tape featuring Obama’s 2007 remarks criticizing the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. The speech was widely covered five years ago, including by Fox News.
Hannity and Drudge touted the video as racially charged. It is not. They promised an angry black man. Obama’s criticism of the Katrina response was both measured and mainstream. According to Reuters’s Anthony De Rosa, Hannity even performed a “faux black voice” on air. The Daily Caller, a wingnut ‘news’ site co-founded by Tucker Carlson and a former Dick Cheney aide, added as much racial invective as it could, reminding readers that New Orleans is “majority black.” It tried to tie Obama’s remarks to Kanye West’s remarks about George W. Bush’s disregard for black people. And that’s just the beginning of The Daily Caller’s race-baiting.
The entire exercise is a wallow in racist stereotype: The black guy who hates whitey. The angry black man of whom you should be afraid. And these are not the first racist stereotypes in which Republicans have trafficked during this election season.
Earlier this year Republican-led state legislatures passed a range of voter ID laws, each of which has had the clear intent of disenfranchising previously registered poor, urban voters, namely people of color. (Courts have routinely thrown out the new laws. For more on the issue, see Talking Points Memo which has covered the issue smartly and voraciously.) Support for these racially motivated laws was even included in the Republican party’s 2012 platform. Last month the sponsor of Pennsylvania’s restrictive voter ID law said that people who didn’t meet the law’s new voter requirements were just “lazy,” a plain reference to — you guessed it — the racist stereotype of the lazy African-American.
Last night’s strange news cycle sent me back to Carrie Mae Weems’s “Ain’t Jokin'” (1987-88) series, which confronts audiences with visualizations of common racist stereotypes. Works from the series are on view now at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville as part of a Weems retrospective that will travel to Cleveland, Portland, New York and to the Bay Area. On the occasion of the show, Weems is the lead guest on this week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast. (Download the program here.)
Each picture in “Ain’t Jokin'” pairs a photograph of a black person looking at the camera (or in one case beginning to look back at the camera), with a caption referencing a stereotype. The year Weems completed the series was a presidential election year. In June, 1988 Republican nominee George H.W. Bush used the ‘angry black man’ racist stereotype to try to scare up white votes, most famously through a television ad that featured a felon named Willie Horton. (I don’t know if that campaign motivated Weems, but now I wish I’d asked her when we taped The MAN Podcast.)
There are days on which “Ain’t Jokin'” can seem like a dry bit of conceptualism, like tightly wound art limited to a single read, a one-liner from which you can move on once you understand what’s going on. Then along comes a night like last night, when current events opened up the work, made it real, present and even urgent. Last night taught me that while “Ain’t Jokin'” may seem obvious to some people, even didactic, to the Sean Hannitys and Tucker Carlsons of the world it is a mirror in which they may see themselves and the representation of their fears.
Related: See the series on Weems’s website. Images: Carrie Mae Weems, Black Man Holding Watermelon and Black Woman With Chicken from “Ain’t Jokin'”, 1987-88.