Who Can (and Can't) Call Out Campaign Racism?

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a good amount of racial animosity underlining this election season, and it’s been ramping up in the past few weeks.

Barack & Michelle Obama & Joe Biden
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In case you haven't noticed, there's been a good amount of racial animosity underlining this election season, and it's been ramping up in the past few weeks. There's Romney's constant focus on "entitlements" and his demonstrably false claim that Obama has gutted Clinton-era welfare reform (opens in new tab). A video on the Drudge report shows a recording (opens in new tab) of a black woman saying she'll vote for Obama because of her free "Obama phone" (referring to a federal program unrelated to the elections that George W. Bush started). Another showed "new" footage of Obama in 2007 praising Rev. Jeremiah Wright—a quote already spotlighted during the 2008 electons. Newt Gingrich recently went on Fox News (opens in new tab) and said Obama was "not a real president," calling out his enthusiasm for basketball and alluding to how much "rest" he needs. The thread extends to FLOTUS, too; a month ago, an old lady in Virginia complained "[i]t's about time we get a First Lady in there who acts like a First Lady and looks like a First Lady." A First Lady who looks like the ones who've come before her.

As Rachel Maddow pointed out (opens in new tab), the Republicans have been busy going down a list of bingo terms for incendiary racial stereotypes—all they have left to do to is find a video of Obama dancing to gangsta rap. And throughout it all, the Obama campaign has ignored it—much in the way they ignored the racially tinged rhetoric from 2008 and the emails depicting the president with a bone through his nose and pretty much every other racist insinuation since before he was elected. He finally released his birth certificate after birtherism reached a fever pitch, but no finger-wagging about its bigoted implications. Too much of the country think Obama is unlike "the rest of us," as Gingrich described in the same Fox News interview. The Obama administration isn't willing to take the risk of stirring up the pot and addressing racism directly.

But contrast this with the ease in which Republicans have called out racism in the 2012 campaign. Rep. Allen West, who once said to my face that "institutional racism in the United States is gone," (opens in new tab) was quick to point out the racial undertones of an August campaign ad (opens in new tab) showing a cartoon West punching two white women. Mia Love also felt perfectly free to condemn racist hatemail (opens in new tab) sent to her office in Saratoga Springs, Utah. Let's also not forget how speedily Republicans pounced when Joe Biden, borrowing from Paul Ryan's "shackle" rhetoric, said that (opens in new tab) Republicans' policies would "put y'all back in chains" to a heavily black audience.

There's nothing more frustrating than witnessing feigned, opportunistic outrage at bigotry from the same groups who regularly serve it up, while others feel forced to stay quiet. It happens with sexism, too. Conservatives passionately came to Sarah Palin's defense when she was subjected to sexist attacks during the 2008 elections, but have accused everyone from Hillary Clinton to Sandra Fluke of spinning imaginary misogyny. I hardly expect Obama's campaign to come out and accuse the Republican party of leaning on racism, especially after the president's first debate performance (opens in new tab) confirmed he is completely unwilling to bring the feist. So we should do it instead, and call out these moments for what they are: blatant attempts to inflame America's deepest racial fears.

Nona Willis Aronowitz is an editor and writer who thinks a lot about love, sex and politics. She tweets at @nona.