Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | October 23, 2012

Anti-Obama display reminds us that racism is ignorance fermented with fear and hatred

Anti-Obama display on Foothill Avenue

Anti-Obama display on Foothill Avenue

No sooner did South County finally get out of the news as a hotbed of bigotry — after the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors’ approval of a much-protested proposal for a Muslim worship center in San Martin moved that story out of the spotlight — than we landed right back in the same predicament, thanks to Blake Lebeck.

Lebeck decorated the yard of his home on Foothill Avenue in unincorporated Santa Clara County near Morgan Hill with a display that includes a noose, watermelon, and an effigy of President Barack Obama.

Incredibly, Lebeck denied that he’s racist, according to reporter Michael Moore’s story. Instead, Lebeck claimed, “I’m trying to get a response.”

Here’s my response: Mr. Lebeck, I think that you’re full of B.S. Or, to borrow a phrase from Vice President Joe Biden, malarkey. Because your display criticizing this nation’s first African-American president includes watermelon and a noose, your denial doesn’t pass a laugh test.

Ignorance does not excuse Lebeck’s inclusion of watermelon in his display. As Keith Woods, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, wrote in 2003, “There’s no reason today, with information just a mouse-click away, why anyone should tromp blindly into the briar patch of racial stigma.” Especially when the symbol is centuries old and deeply offensive, as Woods described: “Since the earliest days of plantation slavery, the caricature of the dark-skinned black child, his too-red lips stretched to grotesque extremes as they opened to chomp down on watermelon, was a staple of racism’s diet. Over time, the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people. It became part of the image perpetuated by a white culture bent upon bolstering the myth of superiority by depicting the inferior race as lazy, simple-minded pickaninnies interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon.”

But watermelon is not the most disturbing symbol in Lebeck’s display; that distinction goes to the noose. Jeannine Bell of the Indiana University Maurer School of Law summarized the noose’s racist history in her 2010 paper, The Hangman’s Noose And The Lynch Mob: Hate Speech And The Jena Six. She wrote, “The hangman’s noose has historical roots in the practice of lynching. … Records show that 4,743 people were lynched between 1882, the year of the earliest recorded lynching, and 1968. Most of these victims—over 70%—were Black. … The noose became indelibly linked to the image of Klan terror.”

Lebeck’s display does not connect the noose or watermelon to any of Obama’s policies. The only plausible explanation that I can find for Lebeck’s decision to include them in his display is as disparaging references to Obama’s race.

But racism is not the only form of ignorance in Lebeck’s display; it also includes a fake teleprompter that instructs Obama to go back to Kenya.

I’m always stumped by the extreme right wing’s fondness for Obama teleprompter criticism. As Robert Schlesinger wrote in US News & World Report, “Teleprompters are tools. Sure they’re high tech if you’ve just emerged from the 1950s (which might explain the GOP’s fascination with them), but ultimately they’re just a medium for prepared remarks, substantively no different from a sheet of paper on a lectern. … Teleprompters are tools that every president since Dwight Eisenhower has used.” Today, most politicians — including Republicans like Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and many others — often use teleprompters when giving speeches. Does Lebeck, who has a Mitt Romney sign in his yard, criticize the GOP nominee for using teleprompters?

Romney Watches Technicians Adjust a Teleprompter For His Speech at the Republican National Convention in 2012

Romney Watches Technicians Adjust a Teleprompter For His Speech at the Republican National Convention in 2012 from the Flickr photostream of NewsHour

Then there’s Lebeck’s birtherism. The idea that Obama was not born in America is a completely debunked conspiracy theory that seems to have strong appeal to fearful Americans.

As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman wrote after Obama released his long-form birth certificate, “There has never been a shred of persuasive evidence that Obama was born anywhere but Hawaii. But thanks to rampant paranoia and widespread credulity, the myth of his foreign origins gained currency among many people who should know better. … It’s a thunderous testament to how far people will go in deluding themselves.”

In the end, Lebeck’s display is instructive, but not in the way that he likely intended. It reminds me that racism is a toxic brew of ignorance that is fermented with hatred and fear. That’s the only useful information that passersby can glean from Lebeck’s shameful display.

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