Decoding the Racial Rhetoric of GOP Candidates
By David J. Leonard
Some days it feels like race is everywhere – central to American life, race and its corresponding signifiers is indeed ubiquitous to American life. Racial language, narratives, and stereotypes are circulated with tremendous frequency. This has been especially evident during the Republican Presidential primary. From Newt Gingrich’s “food stamp president” and constant demonization of Black youth to Ron Paul’s newsletters, Rick Santorum’s constant denunciation of “illegals,” Michelle Bachman’s celebration of slavery, and the commonplace frame of returning to a 1950s America, the GOP has hitched its hopes to racial fear, racial ideas, and racial rhetorics. Although often transparent and clear as night and day, much of the arguments and frames are articulated through racial codes. Affording GOP candidates a certain level of deniability, it is therefore crucial to understand the power and prevalence of racial rhetorics.
Enter Kent Ono and Michael Lacey, whose new collection, Critical Rhetorics of Race (New York University Press, which provides readers with the necessary perspective and tools to decipher and understand, challenge and decode the ways in which race is circulated within the GOP, as well as from other political, media, and cultural spheres. In the introduction to the text, Raymie McKerrow describes the work as a “critical perspective on the ways symbols perform in addressing publics.” Challenging the dominant ideas of a post-racial society where race is declining in significance or only present when inserted into the discourse, the collection offers an important intervention. “Contemporary U.S. media culture represents race in ambivalent, contradictory, and paradoxical ways. Media tell us that the United States is a post-racial society, in which race and racism are passé relics of a bygone era,” writes Michael G. Lacey and Kent A. Ono in their introduction to Critical Rhetorics of Race. “Yet, those same media sources bombard us daily with spectacles of racial violence and disturbing racist images that serve as evidence that race and racism are alive and well in the United States” (p. 1)
Examining how racial “discourse masks and mystifies power to oppress and liberates people,” produces knowledge, and legitimizes, “sustains, resists, or disrupts hegemonic interest” (p. 13), the collection provides great insight into a variety of issues, examples, and spectacles, all while providing readers with the necessary tools to unmask the ongoing racial realities of American culture. It brings together a range of schools all committed to examining and reflecting on the powerful ways that race, and daily utterances of race, penetrate, define, and shape contemporary culture.
The book is divided into four distinct sections: (1) racialized masculinities, where authors explore hegemonic representations of men of color, and particularly Black men, are constructed as criminalized villains. Examining new reports, two chapters focus on Hurricane Katrina and Virginia Teach and Columbine respectfully, with a third dealing with “how dominant media stories” so often “pit and rank” “one marginalized groups against another (LGBTQ) by highlighting the anti-gay epithets made by black male celebrities, who serve exemplars for the larger black U.S” (p. 9-10).
Highlighting an aversion for dealing with systemic homophobia for the sake of homophobic slurs uttered by prominent Black figures, this chapter identifies how the media’s deployed racial rhetorics turns homophobia into a spectacle used to demonize and exonerate and in doing perpetuate the systemic realities of anti-LGBTQ. “Media spectacles routinely erupt after a famous African American celebrity makes a bigoted remark about other marginalized group members (usually gays),” writes Catherine Squireso. “By doing so, the media exposes African Americans to be hypocrites, while releasing white Americans from any moral responsibility or reparations” (p. 66).