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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.

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

One Comment leave one →
  1. Harriet permalink
    September 19, 2015 6:43 am

    I don’t understand why anyone would be surprised Obama doesn’t fit an African American stereotype.

    Firstly, he is also half white so he is of dual heritage, as opposed to African American. However, it is not skin-colour which determines one’s culture, but upbringing. Obama did not experience the ‘stereotypical’ African American upbringing so he should not be expected to fit an African American paradigm any more than his non-African American predecessors.

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