The "Obama Phone" Lady vs. Angry White Men with Guns
It does not take a degree in cultural theory, visual culture, or expertise in semiotics to process the differences between these two pictures.
The first image, taken from The Washington Post's story about political polarization in Virginia, is of a white gun shop owner who believes that Barack Obama is a "socialist" working to destroy America. The second image is from a video that has gone viral on Right-wing websites: it features a poor black woman who supposedly receives a "free" phone through the "federal government."
These images are representations of reality that viewers and audiences invest with meaning and value. They are also stand-ins which are not wholly accurate because the public imposes its own priors, context, and assumptions onto the people who are depicted in these pictures.
Moreover, these visual representations also carry the weight and burdens of such identities as race, class, and gender. The latter are social frames and markers that help us to locate these two people--one a black woman, the other a white man--in our own cognitive map. Bodies, and our efforts to represent them visually, do not exist in a social, political, or cultural vacuum.
Our shared political culture in the United States is prefaced upon common understandings about democracy, political inclusion, meritocracy, and the virtues of civic participation. However, this model of political consensus is being strained and exhausted by a highly polarized media, political actors that are invested in amplifying our differences about (what should be) areas of common concern, and a self-fulfilling model where Red and Blue State America are depicted as being so vastly different, that "normal" politics and compromise across divides of party and ideology are made nearly impossible.
As a construct, culture is also defined by unstated assumptions. Here, culture is those things that people in a given society do, believe, and accept as givens without much critical discussion or inquiry. Culture is the terrain of settled matters and norms which do not need to be arbitrated or worked through: it forms the social glue of a community. Cultural is ultimately a framework and lens through which we process the world around us.
In the conservative media, the black woman with her (incorrectly named) "Obama Phone" is now the subject of a meme. For the Right, she embodies all that is wrong with America, and a black president who is enabling a parasitic class of black and brown folks who live only to mooch off of "hard working" white people. For that public, and within the Right-wing Tea Party GOP conservative imagination more broadly, this woman is an alien Other, she is the undeserving poor, and an ideal-typical example of how blacks are anti-citizens who subvert American democracy. If America is supposedly a meritocracy where hard work is rewarded, the Obama Phone woman is the antithesis of these values.
That she is black, female, and poor represents a combination of attributes which are uniquely despised by white conservatives because of their addiction to symbolic racism, and a deep investment in the white racial frame. In the United States, poor black woman are counted as a group of people towards which public despise, shaming, and disgust is not just approved; rather, such disdain in the public sphere is encouraged as both a mark of middle class belonging and moral uprightness.
As Martin Gilens has deftly argued, moving the White public through appeals to Ronald Reagan's mythic Black Welfare Queen (as opposed to the corporate robber baron) is a cornerstone of contemporary conservatism, and is foundational to its efforts to destroy the social safety net, as well as drown the government in the proverbial bathtub.
In the Right-wing's dreamworld, the Obama Phone Lady is a "surplus" person with no place in an Ayn Rand fantasy, what is the Tea Party GOP's dystopian soon-to-be made true reality.
Culture is also transmitted through historical memory.
The white gun shop owner who believes that Obama is a socialist usurper represents a type ofwhiteness that is not benign. White folks imagine themselves through the lens of white privilege (where they are kind, innocent, and good). For others, Whiteness (and by implication, white people) has been a harbinger of violence, death, destruction, and exclusion.
White men with guns who are drunk on white racial resentment, and deeply proud of a gun culture that helped to do the work of both formal white supremacy, as well as Jim and Jane Crow, have historically been sources of deep anxiety for communities of color in the United States. White authority understood the power of guns and worked systematically to deny African Americans, and others, the right and privilege of gun ownership. The latter would allow us the ability to resist the regime of white terror that was the norm for most of United States history.
For example, the systematic disarmament of black men in this country after the Civil War was designed to make the African-American community especially vulnerable to white mob violence, racial pogroms, and ethnic cleansing. Even allowing for that fact, we resisted wherever and whenever possible.
As viewed from this set of cultural memories, the angry white man with a gun is not a "patriot." He is potentially a domestic terrorist, militia member, or one who is ready to take up arms in an act of devotion to the Lost Cause or some other tired, but no less dangerous, banner such as the Neo-Confederacy or "States' Rights."
If we subvert the white gaze, and by doing so cut through the white racial frame, angry white men with guns represent a potentially dangerous and lethal type of white conservative masculinity--one that is joining militias and hate groups in record numbers, who shoot Sikhs as they pray, make bombs, plot to overthrow the federal government, traffic in Birtherism and other conspiracy theories, plot assassinations, and plan to detonate an improvised explosive device at a parade in honor of Dr. King.
As we try to reconcile this conflicting set of memories, the divergent politics of representation on both the Left and Right, and how they hew closely to the color line as captured by the images of the Obama Phone Lady and the Angry White Man with a Gun, I must ask which of the two people is more dangerous to the country?
Why has Obama Phone Lady spawned a meme? Why has the Angry White Man with a Gun been greeted with silence? How is a poor black woman with a cell phone looked upon as an existential threat, while an angry white man (and the many others like him) with a gun who believes that the country's first black President is an illegitimate usurper is usually met with only a shrug, or mild curiosity, by many in the mass public?
It would seem that Whiteness is always innocent--especially when it is caring a semi-automatic rifle. By contrast, blackness (and black people) is always a threat--even more so when holding a "free" cell phone.