Recently, some members of the comic book community were called out by MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell for a comic strip depicting Michelle Obama scarfing down hamburgers and bullying her husband. The strip is part of a series called “Obama Nation” by James Hudnall and Batton Lash, published on Andrew Breitbart’s site Big Hollywood. O’Donnell’s outrage was forced and there is no doubt that his naming of Lash’s wife and basically calling on people to harass them was despicable. Lash and his wife, good people who are active in the comics community, do not deserve the hateful treatment they’re receiving.
My initial reaction to the commentary was that this particular strip was just dull, not racist. However, upon looking at other “Obama Nation” strips (such as this and this one), I find that its variety of political “commentary” feeds the worst proclivities of political disagreement in this country. They stoke racial, religious, and class anxiety — encouraging people to distrust the Other and believe that there is a Manichaean struggle in all aspects in life; those who disagree with you, they say, are out to destroy you — they are your enemies.
The writer and artist have responded to the criticism, but I am less interested in the particulars of the criticism and defense than in those anxieties themselves. I really want to have a conversation about the most fraught of these anxieties: racism. Can we try?
Specifically, I want to explore the differences between the liberal and conservative conceptions of what constitutes racism. In his response, Hudnall uses the “aren’t those who are calling me racist the real racists?” argument that never works but is so often used. It is a manifestation — but not a clarification — of the very difference I hope to discuss.
I think it’s only fair that I try to explain my own definition of racism, which is, like most things about me, a work in progress. I think, however, that it closely aligns with “typical” liberal thinking. Here are the concepts that underly my definition of racism:
Racism is privileged. When you hear people say something like, “black people can’t be racist,” this is the underlying assumption — which if you do not share, makes such a statement seem outright ludicrous. What it means is that racism is perpetuated by people in a group that historically has been in a position of power against people who are in a group that has historically not been in such a position. This is not to say that minorities cannot be bigoted — they can be, and they can be hateful. But this concept holds that racism is something different from just bigotry or hate. In fact, outright enmity may be absent from expressions or manifestations of racism. That is because —
Racism is systemic. This is what people talk about when they refer to “institutional racism.” The history of racism in our country has lasting, residual effects. Minorities, kept out of positions of power due to overt racism, continue to be underrepresented in such positions. This creates the perception that they don’t belong in positions of power, and this perception may be conscious or unconscious. Either way, people may act in ways that maintain the power structure. Thus, minority points of view and minorities themselves are marginalized, seen as the “Other.” Everyone in a society where racism has existed institutionally is affected by it, and one of the key ways to end racism is to not deny this fact but to learn to be aware of it. Otherwise, we run into the problem that —
Racism is self-perpetuating. The function of racism — whether those perpetuating it are conscious of it or not — is to justify and perpetuate the existing societal power structure.
(Bonus: This framework also works with sexism!)
In my next post, I will use this framework to analyze why a particular “Obama Nation” comic (not the one O’Donnell commented on) can be interpreted as being racist and write about how I perceive conservative conceptions of racism.