Return of the Scary Black Man

Amidst all the speculation over the extraordinary emphasis that the Romney campaign has placed on its distorted version of the president’s “you didn’t build that” remarks, some of us (myself included) may have paid too much attention to the words, and not enough to the audio and video. And Jon Chait thinks that’s what it’s really all about:

The key thing is that Obama is angry, and he’s talking not in his normal voice but in a “black dialect.” This strikes at the core of Obama’s entire political identity: a soft-spoken, reasonable African-American with a Kansas accent. From the moment he stepped onto the national stage, Obama’s deepest political fear was being seen as a “traditional” black politician, one who was demanding redistribution from white America on behalf of his fellow African-Americans.

Looking at the particular Crossroads ad Chait’s talking about, it is striking that all the “small business owners” who are reacting with horror to the highly edited Obama excerpts are white, and are watching him on what appears to be an iPad–like you’d watch some scary figure–maybe a criminal–in a distant news event. One through gritted teeth growls that she “worked–for–every–thing–we’ve–gotten”–a sentiment you hear often from middle-class retirees as well as “job creators.” So maybe Chait’s got a point when he says Romney and his allies are tapping into one of the more ancient and disreputable conservative themes of the last half-century:

The entire key to the rise of the Republican Party from the mid-sixties through the nineties was that white Americans came to see the Democrats as taking money from the hard-working white middle class and giving it to a lazy black underclass. Reactivating that frame is still the most mortal threat to the Democrats and to Obama. That is why Obama is reacting so urgently to reestablish himself.

I still think Obama’s new “The Choice” ad reflects a “pivot to the agenda” strategy his campaign has planned all along, but it’s probably true its soft, reassuring tone was motivated by fears that Republicans were determined to use every expression of passion (or even raised volume) by the president to depict the Return of the Scary Black Man.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.