Minstrel Politics or "He Speaks Too Well:" Rhetoric, Race, and Resistance in the 2008 Presidential Campaign

Article excerpt

Old Zip Coon is a very larned scholar Sings posum up a gum tree an coony in a holler ...

--"Old Zip Coon" (traditional lyrics) (1)

... the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature ... Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

--James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Barack Obama's historic election as the 44th President of the United States prompted some to ponder and others to argue that we were finally witnessing the dawn of a new "post-racial America."(2) Obama's eloquent rhetoric, on whose inspirational wings the goal of this post-racial state depended, was frequently discussed in the media as well as within academic discourse (Frank & McPhail, 2005). Since bursting onto the national political scene as a keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, Barack Obama's oratorical skills have been a staple of national political discussion. Political pundits in print, on radio and television, and on the Internet have scrutinized his rhetorical style and his content, often praising it as "soaring," "lofty," "inspirational," and "operatic." But his rhetoric has not been beyond criticism either. Some have described it and Obama himself as occasionally "wonkish," "professorial," "superficial," "repetitive," "disconnected" or "workman-like." Since the campaign and now months into his presidency, Barack Obama's political adversaries have even more harshly attempted to diminish or negatively frame his gift of communication and rhetorical skill as evidence that he possesses an excess of style but a shortage of substance (Connolly, 2009; Frederick & Malcolm, 2008; Zeleney & Healy, 2008).

Thomas Hollihan (in press) analyzed Obama's rhetoric during the 2008 campaign, and argued that he used terms such as "journey" and "march" to invoke the struggle for civil rights and discuss the issue of race without actually talking directly about race. (3) Hollihan's argument is that this campaign to elect an African-American man to the presidency was embedded in and burdened by more than two centuries of public memories of American slavery and the struggle for civil rights. Thus, 'given this troubled history, in order to succeed Obama and his opponents used seemingly benign yet coded discourse. My essay builds upon that analysis to focus less on the language used by Barack Obama than on the language about Barack Obama. My central questions are what have the messages about Obama during the campaign and in the first few months of his presidency taught us about current attitudes toward race in America? What, if anything, does the rhetoric about Barack Obama tell us about the hopes often attached to him? A critical examination of the rhetoric that has shaped the public discussion about Obama will help us better understand and recognize the social and political constructions of racial narratives that lie embedded within the cultural fabric of America.

The narratives about race that surfaced during the 2008 campaign were often only thinly concealed in the discourse. Consider, for example, the McCain campaign's sarcastic reference to Barack Obama as "The One." David Gergen (2008), a media analyst and an advisor to both Republican and Democratic administrations argued on ABC News' This Week with George Stephanopoulos that such rhetorical phrases were purposefully used as a racial code to cast Obama as an "uppity" Black man who "ought to know his place." Gergen's swift and blunt explication of this term and what it aims to communicate provides a perspective into the way in which racial narratives may be activated through public discourse. …

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