Orlando Patterson: Sociologist sees racist overtones in Hillary Clinton's Red Phone ad





[Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of “The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s ‘Racial’ Crisis.”]

... I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

The ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father — or by stating that the danger was external terrorism. Instead, the child on whom the camera first focuses is blond. Two other sleeping children, presumably in another bed, are not blond, but they are dimly lighted, leaving them ambiguous. Still it is obvious that they are not black — both, in fact, seem vaguely Latino.

Finally, Hillary Clinton appears, wearing a business suit at 3 a.m., answering the phone. The message: our loved ones are in grave danger and only Mrs. Clinton can save them. An Obama presidency would be dangerous — and not just because of his lack of experience. In my reading, the ad, in the insidious language of symbolism, says that Mr. Obama is himself the danger, the outsider within.

Did the message get through? Well, consider this: people who voted early went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama; those who made up their minds during the three days after the ad was broadcast voted heavily for Mrs. Clinton.

For more than a century, American politicians have played on racial fears to divide the electorate and mobilize xenophobic parties. Blacks have been the “domestic enemy,” the eternal outsider within, who could always inspire unity among “we whites.” Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy was built on this premise, using coded language — “law and order,” “silent majority” — to destroy the alliance between blacks and white labor that had been the foundation of the Democratic Party, and to bring about the Republican ascendancy of the past several decades. The Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 was a crude manifestation of this strategy — as was the racist attack used against John McCain’s daughter, who was adopted from Bangladesh, in the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000....

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