Some time ago, a fellow scholar, Summer McDonald, asked me if I thought the current political atmosphere in the US reminded me of another period. We talked about it, and agreed that it seems reminiscent of the reconstruction and redemption periods just after the civil war. As I roughly outlined it once (edited for clarity and to add background links):
• Black people are perceived as having greater political power (particularly through the figure of President Obama).
• Some white people, especially white southerners, begin to clamour for "home rule" and talk of "taking the government and/or 'our' country back."
• They are determined to do all they can to undermine the government and cling steadfastly to the idea that (federal) government is the problem.
• They're no doubt waiting to get rid of "black rule" and then produce generations of books and films talking about how horrible and unfair it was and how noble them restored order and home rule.
So, yes, I was already struck by the historical precedent. Then, I saw a cartoon, the "creative" work of a conservative blogger, that depicted the aftermath of the rape of the Statue of Liberty by President Obama. My first thought was, oh, hello, yet another idea reinforced during reconstruction and redemption – the myth of the sexually violent black man. This "brute" was a particular danger to white women and this myth was used as one of the primary justifications for the belief in black inferiority (uncontrollable, animalistic natures) and institutionalised segregation. White women had to be protected, at all costs, from interaction with black men, who would not be able to resist their purity and beauty.
The cartoon is just another example of "a layer of antagonism towards Obama that lies well beyond the boundaries of reasonable political debate". He had to have a Secret Service long before any other presidential candidate. He received more threats than any other president-elect. Since he's taken office, the threats of violence have continued. During the debate over healthcare reform and the since the passage of the healthcare bill, the threats have escalated into actual attacks. For the president himself, there have been calls for his assassination. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin even encouraged "commonsense conservatives and lovers of America" not to retreat, but to reload.
The juxtaposition of this cartoon and the violence/assassination threats are significant, as well, in historical context. One of the primary reasons given for mob action that resulted in the death of black men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the accusation that a black man had raped a white woman. The cartoonist has accused President Obama, figuratively, of that crime – say what you want about Liberty's greenish hue; women who historically represented the US, from Columbia to other depictions of Liberty, were white. Obama, according to the cartoonist, has violated this symbol of both white womanhood and America. This serves as more justification for retaliating violently against him.
More than a hundred years ago, anti-lynching activist Ida B Wells revealed the dubious nature of this common set up, calling it an "old racket". In an 1893 editorial, she proclaimed that, when it came to excuses for lynching, "Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that negro men rape white women." The real problem, according to Wells, occurred when African-Americans stepped out of "their place", when they prospered or presented competition to whites.
Much like the "uppity," "arrogant" Barack Obama has done.
As Frank Rich notes, the rage is not about healthcare or any other Obama initiatives:
"The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House – topped off by a wise Latina on the supreme court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman – would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play ... When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan 'Take our country back!,' these are the people they want to take the country back from."
The sentiment behind the cartoon, and fuelling many of the threats and the attacks are alarming, but they are not new. In fact, they have quite a long history.
One other significant, appalling thing about that cartoon? It captures some conservatives' casual use of rape as a metaphor for anything of which they do not approve. This is not solely a conservative phenomenon; you can see the trivialisation of rape in the larger culture of many places. But conservatives seem to have a particular fascination with it of late, a fascination that is, again, occurring under the presidency of a black man.
FYI: the healthcare act is not just like rape. You know what is just like rape? Rape. We shouldn't diminish the trauma of that assault or the experience of the victims by implying anything else.