US racial stereotypes flourish

2009-03-30 22:13

Washington - In a country long divided by race, Barack Obama argues that Americans generally have been colour-blind in judging him. Yet old racial stereotypes and internet-fuelled falsehoods flourish about the first black president.

In Obama's first two months in office, a New York tabloid took heat over a cartoon appearing to portray the president as a monkey; a California mayor resigned after distributing a picture of watermelons on the White House lawn; and an e-mail making the rounds refers to Obama as "the magic mulatto," with exaggerated ears and nose.

Disproved and disputed claims about his religion and citizenship, namely untruths that Obama is a Muslim and isn't US-born, zip across chat rooms and dominate the blogosphere. Fringe critics largely are responsible for perpetuating the lies, but even elected officials have raised them.

A centuries-old racial divide

All that underscores how the accomplishment of one man who broke the highest racial barrier hasn't entirely changed the dynamic of a country founded by slave owners. It also shows how far the nation has to go to bridge its centuries-old racial divide.

In truth, Obama probably will continue to be dogged to some degree by entrenched stereotypes and viral fallacies.

"There's certainly no lessening of racially charged barbs aimed at the president," said Anita L Allen, a University of Pennsylvania law school professor who has studied race relations for years. "In fact there may be more, some vicious and cruel by his enemies and some distasteful and playful by his friends."

The reason, she said, is that "our legal culture says it's OK and our ethical culture is disparate".

Obama argues that Americans are assessing him by his efforts to reverse the recession - and not by his skin colour.

"Right now the American people are judging me exactly the way I should be judged, and that is are we taking the steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep America safe," Obama said at a news conference on Tuesday.

It 'lasted a day'

Still, he added, "Obviously, at the inauguration I think that there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country. But that lasted about a day."

Overt and subtle attacks on Obama's race, religion and patriotism - true or not - are certain. Some opponents on the far right try to undercut his presidency, much as the ultra left attempted with George W Bush.

And, above all, there remain some people in the United States unable to accept that the country elected a self-described "skinny kid with a funny name" who was born in Hawaii to a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas.

Exit polls from the election between Obama and Republican John McCain, who is white, found that 19% of all voters and 17% of white voters said the race of the candidates was a factor in how they voted. Of those whites, nearly two in three voted for McCain.

Consider some of these incidents since Obama took office January 20:

- The New York Post apologized in the wake of protests over a cartoon that appeared to portray Obama as a violent chimpanzee gunned down by police. The tabloid said it was mocking federal efforts to revive the economy and making light of the animal killed by Connecticut police after it mauled someone. Critics said the cartoon echoed stereotypes of blacks as monkeys.

Faux pas

- The mayor of Los Alamitos, California, Dean Grose, forwarded an e-mail showing a watermelon patch on the White House lawn. "No Easter egg hunt this year," it said. Grose had said he wasn't aware of the stereotype that blacks like watermelon. He stepped down from his job anyway.

- A police detective in Harrison, New York, was suspended over racial comments on his Facebook page. Rich Light reportedly wrote on the social networking site that under Obama, the Rose Garden "will be turned into the watermelon garden," that there will be a "KFC set up right in front of the White House". Another stereotype is that blacks like fried chicken.

- An e-mail apparently in wide circulation refers to the biracial Obama as "the magic mulatto" and shows a cartoon of him with large ears and a wide nose as it mocks his policies as liberal and "commie"-like. It also alleges that Obama's birth certificate is a fake.

In an argument popular on the internet, Obama's critics claim he is ineligible to be president because he is not a "natural-born citizen," as the Constitution requires. Critics assert that his Hawaiian birth certificate, which Obama's campaign posted online last summer, isn't authentic and that Obama was actually born in Kenya, his father's homeland.

Questioning Obama's citizenship

A federal judge threw out a lawsuit questioning Obama's citizenship and said the case was a waste of the court's time. But that hasn't stopped such allegations.

In February, an Alabama newspaper reported that Senator Richard Shelby, Republican-Alabama, was asked during a constituent meeting whether the Obama citizenship rumour was true. According to the account, he said, "Well, his father was Kenyan and they said he was born in Hawaii, but I haven't seen any birth certificate. ...You have to be born in America to be president." Shelby's aides later said the senator had also said he was confident Obama is a citizen.

Florida's Bill Posey, a Republican, has drafted legislation that would require presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates, a move Democrats say is intended to question Obama's citizenship. Posey's measure led the Florida Democratic Party chairperson, Karen Thurman, to send a fundraising e-mail accusing Republicans of "smearing" Obama.

- AP

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