On his radio talk show the night of February 19th, notorious Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said the following in response to a caller who had characterized Michelle Obama as a "militant. . . angry woman":
"I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's
evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that's how
she really feels -- that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever
-- then that's legit. We'll track it down."
Even after his apology, O'Reilly left the country wondering why "lynch" was an appropriate action verb in this statement? Not to play Oppression Olympics here, but it certainly left me wondering whether or not O'Reilly would have used such a verb in relation to someone who was not of African descent.
Considering the history of lynching in the United States, oftentimes its basis linked to allegations of black men flirting with, having a relationship with, or even sexually assaulting a white woman. The torture was also reserved for black men who were considered "uppity," men who overstepped their bounds in terms of success or decided to engage in interactions with whites that did not sink to a level of dehumanization. If black men decided to take on their Constitutional right as "men created equal," they were subject to harassment, torture, and death.
It's odd that now, in 2008, as so many critics and fans alike of Barack Obama assume that his ascendance to the presidency will allow for a transcendence of race in this country, that we must still deal with the racism thrown at black leaders. It comes as a reminder that yes, blacks and many anti-racist allies still flinch when they hear the term lynch, it's effect far more powerful than a racial slur as it implies the collaboration of Racism with a Violent Act. Lynching was America's answer to the Holocaust, a blind terrorization of people on the basis of their ethnic background, and often geared by a fear of miscegenation and, ultimately, economic threat. Frozen in time, a bleak period in the post-slavery U.S., lynching parties ("party" in this case meaning both a mob of people and a cause for celebration) as found in references from sports commentators to "news" anchors like Bill O'Reilly have been regurgitated into the present, mentioned lightly as if the word has no power. But much like references to atrocities committed toward other groups of color, varied religious background, and sexual orientations, this word still bears considerable power.
What is ironic in O'Reilly's use of the word, however, is that he geared his verbal vitriol to a woman, a black woman, nevertheless, but still a woman. Lynching, though not reserved exclusively as an act of violence toward men as women and children were lynched too, was more commonly carried out against black men and is more frequently used to address violence of that era toward men. His use of a term related to violence more often reserved toward black men in relation to Michelle Obama only goes to proving the point that society does not view black women or even women in positions of power, period, as "real women." Somehow, donning a powersuit and a briefcase masculinizes them, allows them to simultaneously divorce themselves of their femininity. Despite the efforts on the part of the Obama family to provide America with the image of themselves as the New Camelot, as Wayetu notes below and to which even Caroline Kennedy, daughter of JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, attested when she announced her endorsement of Barack Obama for president in the New York Times piece "A President Like My Father," the media continues to go after Michelle Obama's ability to be...well...a woman.
Yet for some reason, I hear little from feminist groups on this. In fact, a particularly loud silence comes from the Gloria Steinem's corner. After her piece on Hillary Clinton in the New York Times, I am surprised Steinem has not stepped in to Michelle Obama's defense. Steinem, in the piece that many a POC blogger tore to bits and pieces, notes [emphasis mine]:
So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as
long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.
Michelle Obama, though not running for president, must also encounter this double-edged sword. Despite glaring examples of her devotion to her husband and family, her perfectly coiffed hair and firmly pressed skirt suits, Obama's femininity is questioned left and right. Now that race in thrown into the mix, there are even more questions raised. Can a black woman in power ever be a woman? I'd like to see what Steinem has to say about that. But for reasons unknown to me, she's nowhere to be found.
- Wendi Muse