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No Laughing Matter: The Tea Party GOP's Depictions of President Obama as an Ape are Motivated by Violence and Hate

Conservatives and the Tea Party GOP find great humor in depicting President Barack Obama as a monkey. Thus, it is no surprise that Marilyn Davenport, an elected member of the Orange County California Republican Party's Central Committee (and a Tea Party acolyte), was caught last week sending out racist emails about President Barack Obama that depicted him as a chimpanzee (while pressured to resign, to date she still refuses and cries that she is a "victim"). This is not the first of such racist escapades by Conservatives. Since at least 2008, The Tea Party GOP and its supporters have been obsessed with depicting Barack Obama and his family as being either subhuman or savage. From signs at Tea Party rallies that portray the President of the United States as an "African witch doctor," to Palin rallies where her supporters mocked then candidate Barack Obama for being a "monkey," to a series of emails that recycled tired and hackneyed stereotypes of black men as pimps and the White House as a watermelon patch (implied to include the obligatory piccaninnies), Republicans and the Tea Party GOP have flown the flag of white racial resentment with great zest and zeal. Critics have lambasted these episodes as merely constituting moments of poor judgement by misguided individuals. Conservatives have won the language wars in America. Thus, they have succeeded in introducing such nonsense phrases as reverse racism and white oppression into our vocabulary. The result of this move has been that voices who dare to utter sharp truths about the centrality of white racial resentment in the heart of contemporary Conservatism have been kowtowed by the big lie that is false equivalence: "George Bush was mocked as a monkey or gorilla too, so what is the difference?" For deniers of the obvious racial invective underlying the attacks on Barack Obama, the "they did it too" defense has become a convenient redoubt. I do not give safe harbor to such lazy thinking. The depictions of President Obama as a monkey or ape are no laughing matter. They are rooted in more than a deep antipathy towards the idea of a black man being President and the accompanying upset which this reality has caused for the White Racial Frame. In fact, while the Marilyn Davenports of the world and the other assorted Right-wing mouth-breathing ilk who traffic in these images may be in fierce denial of the demons that lurk in their collective self-conscious, research in cognitive and social psychology has indicated that these caricatures are prefaced on a deep hatred of Black people. Ultimately, images which link Barack Obama to apes and gorillas are integral elements of a centuries long project of White racial violence against people of color in this country and abroad.We cannot forget that Colonialism and Imperialism were predicated on a belief in the superiority of Europeans over other peoples of the world. To legitimate this project, a narrative which naturalized superficial human differences as deep, intractable, and impossible to overcome had to be created. The history here is quite rich. Black Africans were imagined by white Europeans as being part of a different species, one that was not quite human. In fact, respectable European anthropologists and scientists hypothesized that black people were the result of copulation between humans and apes. As a complement, white European biologists constructed the "chain of being"--a metaphorical tree of human types where Europeans were "naturally" at the "top" and black Africans (because they were closest to beasts) at the "bottom." During the three centuries of slavery in the United States and the struggles over Reconstruction and against Jim and Jane Crow, images of black people as gorillas and apes were used to alternatively depict African Americans as either childlike and simple--or like the Irish before they earned their Whiteness--as violent brutes who were unassimilable and by implication a threat to the White body politic. By depicting black people as subhuman primates a two tiered system of citizenship was legitimated where separate but equal was understood to be common sense, and mass violence by whites against a not quite equal and fully human racial Other was accepted practice. Jumping forward to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the violent impulses that are legitimated by depicting black Americans as apes and gorillas continues to this day. Researchers have found that test takers who are first shown pictures of apes are more likely to subsequently exhibit anti-black sentiment. In a second, and even more chilling example, white men were shown comparable videos of police brutality against two individuals, one black and one white. In contrast to the white victim, after being shown pictures of apes, the test takers felt that police violence towards the black suspect was justified. The Tea Party GOP's love of depicting Barack Obama as an ape or gorilla is not simply an outlier or interesting curiosity and artifact of "old school" racism. Rather, it is a stark example that serves as the connective tissue tying together much of the "take America back," "real America" narrative which drives the contemporary Tea Party GOP imagination. Consider: at least 50 percent of Republicans believe that President Obama was not born in this country. And serious attention is given to the premise that America's first black President is somehow controlled by his dead father's Kenyan voodoo politics or that Obama himself is a Manchurian candidate, and some type of Mau Mau who wants to kill white people. As an additional data point, public opinion surveys suggest a deep divide where Tea Party Republicans show even higher levels of anti-black sentiment than baseline Republicans, two groups where such sentiments are not at all modest in their scale. Echoing and reinforcing these beliefs, the mouthpieces of popular Conservatism such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, suggest that white people are oppressed and that Obama's voting base are "savages" and "walking human debris." In total, the opposition against Barack Obama is premised on both ideology and racial hostility. If the New Right's cries of States' Rights and Nullification are dog whistles, the depictions of black people as apes and monkeys are clarion calls to the sick racial id that drives the White Conservative Soul. The portrayals of America's first Black President as an ape or gorilla are racially explicit examples of a broad assault on his legitimacy and authority. In the eyes of contemporary Conservatism, Obama is not fit for the Presidency because he is not one of their tribe. This belief is reinforced by a deep notion that his blackness places him outside of being fully American...and perhaps even the human family. In a moment when the election of America's first black President has resulted in a rise in militia activity, a record number of assassination threats, and a resurgence in the popularity of White Nationalist organizations, these images of Obama as a monkey or ape are matters of the most utmost and dire seriousness. Let me be specific, careful, and precise. My claim is not that the Marilyn Davenports of the world (and those on the Right and elsewhere) who find these images funny are going to personally indulge in racially motivated violence. However, the energy they channel, and the history which the white racial reactionaries of the Right draw upon for aid and comfort, does legitimate the worst and not the best of America's national character. Because humor reflects social norms, as well as legitimates (and also at times subverts) conventional wisdom, it is a potent force for both good and evil. I do not know Marilyn Davenport personally. But I do understand her type. They may not hold the noose in hand, or personally light the fuse that sets the fire, but "backstage" bigots of that stripe would not run from the lynching tree. Instead, they would watch in mass and take a picnic (as many thousands of white folks did) as the ruinous energies channeled by the dark heart of Whiteness ran their inexorable course and strange fruit was made to hang by the town square. They hide their unrepentant ugliness behind humor and laughs. Yet despite their best efforts, the guffaws are based on a deep seeded prejudice which they cannot easily or long mask.