In a utopian world, one would’ve expected the election of an African-American president to have spelled the end of the race debate in America.
Ironically, it only appears to have stoked new flames.
Barely has the national burp of president Obama’s beer-diplomacy—brokered to ease racial tensions between Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and police officer James Crowley—subsided than another incident has everyone talking.
This one revolves around a poster, found plastered a few days ago, on a nondescript Los Angeles wall. Next, it began to pop up in other public places, in other cities. Soon, it was spreading like a prairie fire through the blogosphere, before being picked up by mainstream media outlets.
This is the first time that a negative illustration of president Obama has received such attention as well as the right’s successful use of political street art.
The portrait in question—in which his face is painted stark white and a red gash of a mouth is open in an apparently evil grimace—is clearly intended to evoke the imagery of the Joker, the villain in the blockbuster film, “The Dark Knight” (2008). Beneath the visage, runs the word, “socialism,” in black lettering.
The poster is likely based on an image designed by Chicago student, Firas Alkhateeb, which, in turn, is based on a portrait by TIME magazine. It was uploaded to Flickr before President Obama was even inaugurated.
The intended message, one can surmise, is that President Obama is an agent of anarchy and chaos, who will unleash these forces through the instrument of “socialism.” To most Americans, the very word, “socialism,” has an offensive sting to it.
“Depicting the president as demonic and a socialist goes beyond political spoofery,” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, was quoted as saying. “It’s mean-spirited and dangerous.”
It’s “dangerous,” perhaps because the image has the potential to ignite afresh racial sentiments.
It’s reminiscent of the blackface minstrel show, which surfaced in the 1820s, where white men would have their faces blackened by a coat of burnt cork (and later, grease paint or shoe polish), pad out their lips, and often wear woolly wigs.
The Joker poster is blackface—only in reverse.
This theatrical art form, with its exaggerated make-up style, is regarded as America’s first popular culture.
But it also has the dubious distinction of embodying stereotypes that played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions of blacks, worldwide.