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Why the Right Despises Obama: His Missing Racial Stereotype

February 27, 2015

Americans expect tension between the president and his opposition. But Barack Obama’s Republican opponents despise him so much they can’t work with him. They can’t compromise, particularly in Congress, and that’s unusual. No president’s drawn such fevered opposition since Abraham Lincoln presided over the nation’s bloodiest controversy ever. Why?

Obama_meets_King_Abdullah_July_2014The president’s most radical opponents offer some insight into the feelings of the rest. Conspiracy theorists have long claimed that Obama is an Arab, a Muslim, a socialist, or a communist. And the Birther movement says he wasn’t born in the U.S. Few in the right take these crackpot theories seriously, but behind them lurks a subtler concern. Many in the right do seem to feel that Barack Hussein Obama doesn’t belong in the presidency because he’s not really one of us. Newt Gingrich once asked: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Then there’s Mike Huckabee’s comment that Obama grew up in Kenya or Indonesia, “probably … hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.” Then there’s Congressman Mike Coffman: “in his heart, he’s not an American.” Finally, just last Wednesday, Rudy Giuliani said: “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up, and I was brought up: through love of this country.”

All those comments, and the crackpot conspiracy theories too, share the idea that Obama’s not really American. It’s not a conscious conclusion in most cases: just a feeling guiding hostility to the president. But why would a U.S. citizen — someone born, raised (mostly), and educated in America — generate this feeling?

President Obama is black, but he doesn’t fit any African American stereotype. He speaks like an East Coast academic, without common African American speech patterns. He’s intellectual and unemotional. And he’s international, with experience and connections abroad. None of these would make a white politician seem foreign because we’re used to those traits in elite white Americans. (The description above could almost fit George Bush, Sr.) But we’re not used to them in black Americans. Again, Rudy Giuliani: “I don’t [see] this President as being particularly a product of African-American society or something like that. He isn’t.”

I’m not suggesting overt racism guides Obama’s opposition. In fact, I doubt a black president who looks and feels more like a stereotypical African American would trigger such intense hostility (not even a Democrat). This isn’t about conscious racism. It’s about what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists”: stereotypes and biases that guide us whether we know it or not. Ironically, Obama’s problem isn’t the racial stereotype he fits; it’s the fact that he’s a black man who does not fit an American racial stereotype. So to many Americans, his style and foreign connections make him feel foreign.

No one wants to accept an opponent’s policies. But what if those policies come from an apparent outsider: from someone with no business leading our country? That’s unprecedented in American history, and that’s why the right despises the President more than any opposition has since the Civil War.




© 2015 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

European Antisemitism Isn’t Back

February 20, 2015

Islamist attacks on Jews have triggered repeated warnings about the return of antisemitism to Europe. Benjamin Netanyahu recently capitalized on the concern by suggesting European Jews flee to Israel. One American commentator went so far as to invoke Hitler’s last will and testament, suggesting the Nazi dictator’s ideology has come back far faster than Hitler himself predicted. But do these terrorist attacks really return Europe’s Jews to the dangers of the Nazi era, or to the antisemitism of Europe’s last few centuries? No. Read more…

Did Ancient Semites Father the Germanic Languages?

January 9, 2015
Could Sigurd, the legendary Germanic hero, have been a Phoenician?

Could legendary heroes of the Germanic people have been Phoenicians?

German, English, Swedish, and the other Germanic languages belong to the Indo-European family, but they’re odd members. They and Proto-Germanic, their common grandparent, have a lot of vocabulary and grammar utterly unlike other Indo-European languages. Rather, it resembles Semitic languages, like Hebrew and Arabic. That suggests a fascinating lost history, with civilized Middle Easterners setting up camp among the primitives of northern Europe’s great forests. Read more…

America’s Enemies Already Knew

December 12, 2014

Wolf Blitzer asked Senator Feinstein whether she’d feel guilty if the enhanced interrogation report led to American deaths. Many Republicans have made the same point: our enemies will now torture and kill our soldiers.

Their assumption is wrong. Our enemies already know we tortured their men. It’s a poorly kept secret, and our enemies don’t trust American democracy so much that they won’t accept clams of torture without proof. The report doesn’t reveal the truth to our enemies but rather to us: to the American people who still doubted the government of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would torture.


December 10, 2014

Every tyrant throughout all history could argue that torture prevented war, stopped terrorism, or otherwise saved lives. That’s not the point.

None of us is safe under a regime that uses enhanced interrogation — under a government that tortures.

The Walking Dead: A Tour of Prehistory

December 9, 2014

The Walking Dead offers some good prehistory. In the show’s post-apocalyptic world, humanity returns to the key life stages of our prehistoric past: [SPOILER ALERT for Seasons 1-5!] Read more…

Cheddar Man’s Family

December 7, 2014

Scientists call Britain’s oldest complete skeleton “Cheddar Man.” He lived around 7150 B.C.E., when forest covered Britain and antelope roamed, along with wild horses. Cheddar Man’s people were hunter-gatherers, and they ate the antelope and horses — along with each other, most likely. Butcher marks on his skeleton suggest someone carved him up, possibly after murdering him. Read more…


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