What's Wrong With This Picture? In this cartoon from the Presidential Election Campaign of 1860, Black Americans in Victorian finery are depicted as a warning of what will happen to America if the Republican Party's candidate, Abraham Lincoln, becomes President. Clothing as a status marker carries with it a powerful political charge when the person wearing it is assumed to occupy an inferior social position.
THERE WAS A VICIOUSNESS about the United States presidential campaign of 1860 that, with hindsight, seems horribly portentous. No matter how many times the South’s politicians did the political math the result was always the same. The newly-formed Republican Party was going to win a majority in the Electoral College, and its anti-slavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was going to become the sixteenth President of the United States.
In desperation the slave-owning South and their Democratic Party allies in the northern states threw everything they could at “Honest Abe”. Given the hugely divisive issue at the heart of the campaign, racial slurs abounded. Plucking the most tightly-wound string of the American electorate’s fiddle, Lincoln’s opponents accused him of believing in racial equality, miscegenation and plotting secretly to turn America into a mongrel state.
Naturally, the pro-slavery parties’ cartoonists had a field day. One of their favourite visual taunts was to portray black men and women sashaying around beneath “Honest Abe’s” approving gaze in the clothing of the upper-classes.
To racially prejudiced Americans (which in 1860 constituted the overwhelming majority of US citizens) the image of a black person decked out in the lavish Victorian finery of the period was profoundly offensive. It implied that Blacks might one day disport themselves in exactly the same symbols of economic success and superior social status as Whites.
The anti-Republican cartoons were also intended to warn voters about the Abolitionists’ determination to not only free the slaves, but also to have them declared United States citizens with exactly the same civil and political rights as their White brothers.
It must also be noted, however, that in addition to making White Americans angry these images of “gussied-up niggers” also made them laugh. The whole idea was so preposterous, so outlandish – like an ape in evening dress – that it could not be taken seriously. Racial equality was thus revealed as a wild abolitionist fantasy – proof of just how far beyond the pale the Republicans and their candidate had positioned themselves.
One hundred and twenty years later, proof of American racism’s cultural tenacity was clearly evident in the presidential election campaign of 1980. The Republican Party’s candidate, Ronald Reagan (whose party had, in one of History’s most poignant ironies, become the preferred party of the old Confederacy) launched his campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, an annual event held on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964.
The White Man's Candidate: Resplendent in his white shirt-sleeves, Ronald Reagan launches his 1980 Presidential Campaign on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where, just 16 years earlier, three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. American racism has a remarkable cultural tenacity.
America’s racists grasped the dark symbolism of Reagan’s choice immediately. He was identifying himself proudly and unmistakably as the White voters’ candidate. Not that they needed much convincing. Four years earlier, in his first run at the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan had introduced America to the person he dubbed the “Welfare Queen” – a Black American woman living on the South Side of Chicago:
“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”
Reagan’s words served a purpose identical to those 1860 cartoons’ depicting Black Americans dressed in upper-class attire. His Welfare Queen, with her “tax-free cash income” of over $150,000, played to exactly the same prejudices. The notion of a Black woman earning $150,000 was clearly preposterous: only the most egregious defrauding of the welfare system could possibly produce such a creature.
Reagan’s message was clear: Liberal America, by promoting racial equality and demanding that the equal rights of citizenship, won at such cost under Lincoln’s presidency, be enforced in every state of the union had created (at the ever-escalating expense of the long-suffering taxpayer) a feckless underclass of welfare cheats, drug addicts and gang-bangers. Reagan didn’t have to say that the people he was talking about were Black. The people who cheered him on knew that already.
Disreputable politics? Undoubtedly. But also highly effective – which is why so many politicians throughout the English-speaking world have tried so hard to emulate Reagan’s success.
Including some New Zealand politicians?
I would certainly like to think not. The idea that there might be some Pakeha politicians who, without resorting to the derogatory terms of our not-too-distant racist past, and almost certainly without reflecting on how their words were likely to be misinterpreted, might nevertheless call attention to the way a non-Pakeha person was dressed, and to how much money they might have spent on their ensemble – is a very troubling one.
To the minds of some undoubtedly oversensitive wee sausages those 1860 cartoons might be recalled, along with Ronald Reagan’s quip about welfare queens.
Just how would a racist politician say “gussied-up nigger” in 2014?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, February 04, 2014.