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By David J. Leonard | with thanks to NewBlackMan


Saturday, February 4, 2012.


Having already literally and proverbially stuck their finger in the face of the President of the United States, having already deployed the food stamp rhetoric, the GOP launched its newest attack: Barack Obama as twenty-first century slave owner.


Mark Oxner, a Republican congressional candidate from Florida, recently released a campaign advertisement that shows a group of entitled and wealthy people sipping from their gold cups.  Celebrating “bank bailouts,” “health care for life” and “corporate subsidies” aboard the U.S.S. Obamaship.  Amid the celebration, and captain Obama stifling any questions, the advertisement works to expose the underbelly and consequences of the entitlement society: enslaved children rowing the ship.  With the ship venturing toward a cliff, Mr. Oxner announces, “let’s not enslave our children.  It’s time to turn this ship around.”


Of course, this racial line of attack, one that plays on a fallacious view of history, one that denies the connection between white supremacy and the history of slavery, and that otherwise plays on “racial anxiety,” is nothing new.  A 2011 advertisement from American Future Fund warned of a future of “economic slavery,” lamenting Obama’s efforts to hand over America’s future to China.  Signs representing President Obama as slave master and “tax payers” or “citizens” (whites) as slaves have been visible at various Tea party rallies (example #1, #2#3#4).   Reiterating the thirty-year platform of the GOP – waning power of whites, the end of American prosperity, exceptionalism and civilization because racial change – the advertisement and this sort of demagoguery is emblematic of the GOP’s ideological foundation. 


Michelle Bachman, in 2011, connected the national debt to the history of slavery:"It didn't matter the color of their skin, it didn't matter their language, it didn't matter their economic status, it didn't matter whether they descended from known royalty or whether they were of a higher class or a lower class, it made no difference. Once you got here [to the United States] you were all the same.”  In her eyes, slavery has changed, with the process of enslavement merely changing alongside who is master and who is slave.  “From the time when George Washington took the presidency on his first day to the day George W. Bush left as president of the United States, all 43 presidents, if you take all of the debt combined of all of those 43 presidents, do you know that all of that debt is less than the debt that was accumulated by Barack Obama in one year? That is the level of debt and spending that we have engaged in. So this isn't hyperbole. This is facts." 


She is not alone with these types of  “facts.”  Allan West, who described himself as Harriet Tubman, denounced “Barack Obama as the ‘overseer’ of a plantation on which modern blacks are captive.”  In 2009, RedState.com published a blog post entitled, “Barack Obama, a Black Man, is Now the Most Grotesque Slave Owner in History,” where the author argues that the policies and power of the Obama administration reflects the enslavement of the (white) populace.


“If Barack Obama, the black man, and Democrats, many of whom are black, are so opposed to and horrified by the notion of slavery in our country and are determined to move the country beyond it, why then did they just vote to become the most grotesque slave owners in history?  Other despots in our history merely hated America and the Liberty she stood for and wanted to destroy the United States. Barack Obama and his fellow slave owners hate America and the Liberty she stands for yet do not want to destroy us; they want to compel us to work against our will to provide for them.  The very definition of slavery. . . . What remains to be seen is how this Master deals with the inevitable slave’s rebellion. It is coming and it will not take decades. Because I will not submit to shackles. I will not be compelled to labor for the comfort of others. I will not live a single day as less than a free man. It is my heritage and my birthright as both a Christian and an American.  I am free and will remain so. I will not be a slave. I am not alone in this. If Barack Obama and Democrats think they have won some sort of victory here they are as ignorant of history as they are of human nature.”


The troubling assault on truth, evident in the views on slavery and the debt, should give pause given the larger issues at work.


The GOP’s deployment of the “enslavement of whites card” and its use of the “economic slavery” trope is neither inconsequential nor without a larger context.  Within contemporary racial discourses, the minimization of race represents a dominant frame.  Evident in arguments about the declining significance of race, efforts to sanitize history, or claims about “the race card,” this dominant racial frame minimizes the continued importance of racism.  The minimization of racism frame “suggests that discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities’ life chances” (Bonilla-Silva 2003, p. 29).  Dismissing hate crimes, police brutality, racial profiling, unemployment discrimination, educational and housing inequalities and individual bias, those deploying this frame depict insertions of race as an “excuse” “a crutch,” or an example of people of color being overly sensitive when it comes to issues of race (Bonilla-Silva 2003, p. 29).  


This commercial, and the ubiquitous effort to represent Barack Obama as enslaving “real Americans,” embodies the minimization frame.   It embodies a widespread white fantasy about both the past and our present moment.  It reflects the increasing belief amongst whites that reverse racism is the real problem.  According to a recent study from Harvard Business School and Tuffs University, a sizable number of whites see reverse racism as a greater problem than anti-black racism.  The efforts to  construct Obama as “master” and to represent (white) children as those suffering under the shackles of contemporary slavery is yet another example of the this deleterious white fantasy that simultaneously imagines white victimhood while denying and erasing both white privilege and persistence racism against communities of color.   



David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums. His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis.  Leonard’s latest book After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness will be published by SUNY Press in May of 2012.



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