OP-ED: The Unspoken Racial Politics of “Creepy Uncle Sam”

By Lawrence Grandpre | Op-Ed

Nov 14
"Creepy Uncle Sam"

“Creepy Uncle Sam”

Given the right-leaning nature of the Daily Caller, I was not surprised when they praised the so-called “Creepy Uncle Sam” commercials . These online anti-Obama Care videos show an eerie, smirking Uncle Sam menacing attractive but naïve young men and women during “intimate” medical moments. What surprised me was how flippantly the Daily Caller  dismissed the notion that these commercials had anything to do with race by claiming such a charge was “delusional.” It reflects a growing belief that unless a statement is overtly racist race plays no role at all. We need to unpack this dismissal  if we are to properly understand the motivations behind the calls to dismantle Obama Care and the more general growth of nationwide anti-government sentiment.

President Obama As Uncle Sam

President Obama As Uncle Sam

The difficulty in understanding the racial messages in “Creepy Uncle Sam” stems from its use of the coded language of whiteness and not the more explicit Ianguage of racial bias. W hiteness is an essential part of American politics (and the American political imagery), yet few people really understand what it is and how it functions.Whiteness is an unarticulated or subconscious assumption that bestows a sense of cultural unity on Americans of European descent and views non-white bodies as inherently deviant. (Mills, 97). Whiteness forms this sense of unity by referencing a set of ‘shared’ values such as individualism, freedom, and the privilege of being ordained to rule (ibid).

Since the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of multiculturalism, whiteness has changed its mode of expression from the overt claims of white manifest destiny and moral superiority to more covert messages. University of California-Irvine professor David Goldberg explains how the current neoliberal notion of privatization, shrinking government in favor of free markets, can only be understood as a new form of nationalism that ironically views the state (i.e. Federal Government) as a threat to the lower case “n” nation. In other words, the obligations that the state has to a broader constituency, including non-white peoples, becomes a threat to the imaginary unity and superiority of whiteness. He writes:

“At the macro level neoliberalism expresses itself in terms of the nation over (even at the expense of) the state. The state is to stand for protecting me and those like me—my national family—and the rest be damned. The traditional language and objects of racial humiliation, expunged from social characterization because it is at odds with the rabid individualized communalism, are not so much erased as similarly structurally transformed. They now silently reference those who threaten their fiscal well-being (notably the perpetually unhealthy) or the social security of the nation (namely those deemed death approaching, mainly young Muslim men and those, even entire nations, identified as or with them).” (Goldberg, 2007)

These “silent references” code those who use government services as threatening the fiscal well-being of the nation.  This discourse clearly parallels the Obama Care debate. Goldberg goes on to explain how the illegal immigrant (taking “our” jobs and using “our” services) and the welfare queen (the Black mother doing drugs and having sex while collecting her welfare check) exemplify the racial dynamics of this framing. The Nation is coded as white and thus is threatened by Black and Brown bodies.

He goes on to explain how this codes the government itself as non-white, specifically Black

“…racial meanings have animated neoliberal attacks on the welfare state…attacks on affirmative action reveal a deeper critical concern for neoliberals troubled over race. In the U.S., neoconservative critics of the state implicitly identify it as representing blackness and the interests thought most directly to advance black life. As a result both of serious application of antidiscrimination legislation and of affirmative action policies, the state became the single largest employer of African Americans. The perception among critics of these programs accordingly devolved into the view that black people are either employed as beneficiaries of affirmative action or they are supported by welfare. In short, from the 1970s on, the state increasingly came to be conceived as a set of institutions supporting the undeserving (recall the identification of Bill Clinton as “the first black President,” first by Toni Morrison but taken up quickly by neoconservatives out to do him in). Fear of a black state is linked to worries about a black planet, of alien invasion and alienation, of a loss of local and global control and privilege long associated with whiteness. Neoliberalism, therefore, can be read as a response to this concern about the impending impotence of whiteness. ” (ibid).

This quote penned in 2007 before Obama’s victory is essential to understanding the rise of the Tea Party. The movement is more complicated than outbursts of angry white men; it is a system of political framing that hinges on attacking the dangers of big government in allegedly neutral terms while drawing upon white racial fears.

The Uncle Sam commercial clearly relies on this white racial solidarity, specifically the desire to protect innocent white femininity and virile white masculinity from a racialized threat. In the version aimed at women, a young lady, blond and attractive, has a vague look of concern on her face as she is placed on a gynecological table for an examination. When Creepy Uncle Sam  appears to menace her, the video is playing off a trope of threatening white femininity, with white femininity as the embodiment of American national progress. Dating all the way back to the iconic 19th century image of Columbia, the white female body has served as a visual proxy for the hope of the “nation”. In this famous painting, the woman embodies manifest destiny, leading settlers to the promise of wealth and prosperity by settling lands that were occupied by Native Americans. Note how the Native Americas are placed in darkness while the settlers are illuminated by Columbian light. Columbia light in this painting works as a visual metaphor for the cultural and political enlightenment that America brings as it moves West, washing away the ignorant “darkness” represented by the Native Americans.

This painting shows “Manifest Destiny” (the religious belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the name of God)

Today, it’s not Apaches who threaten the American National order, but the welfare queen and the illegal immigrant. The threat posed by ‘Creepy Uncle Sam’ lies precisely in his relation to these figures who threaten nativist whiteness. While Uncle Sam does not stroll out in Black face, he does appear in shadow, which racial analysis of film operates as a powerful subconscious code for evil and blackness (Wilderson, 2010). If Goldberg is correct and 40 years of American political discourse has racially coded perceptions of government, Uncle Sam does not need to be physically dark because he has already been discursively racialized. The smirk and the apparent pleasure the Uncle Sam character takes in “examining” the women is key. It breaks the Uncle Sam from his avuncular, WWII coding and places him into the post Civil Rights Movement racial threat coding. The protective Uncle Sam of old, the one who himself was a paradigmatic symbol of white male fraternity and patriarchal protection,  would never, for a lack of a better phrase, turn pervy like this. The commercial thus forces viewers to make sense of what they are seeing: the moral fall of a beloved icon. It also makes them search for a cause: someone must have forced him to do this…but who? Goldberg’s analysis shows how to commercials serve a duel purpose, using coded racial imagery to indict the current political order;

“I know who made Uncle Sam do this! Those darn lazy (read Brown/ Black) moochers asking him to give them free health care!

while simultaneously playing off nostalgia for an older political order when the interests of the state and the nation were aligned;

“In my day, Uncle Sam would throw you a baseball, not cop a feel. I need to get my (read “Our”/ white) country back!” 

One need only see Goldberg’s comments on the fear of losing the virility of whiteness to understand how this commercial targets men , where Creepy Uncle Sam is about to give a young man a prostate examine. Creepy Uncle Sam now threatens to emasculate the male patient, who can be read as a symbole of white masculine control, with a homosexual act, and while it tempting to read this as about homophobia as opposed to racism, they should be read as mutually constitutive, as Creepy Uncle Sam threatens the patient as a racialized subject, The sexual violation of whiteness and the threat of the Black rapist is never approach frontally, again, that would be too obvious, but it is the subconscious rebar that holds the pieces together, giving them there appeal to many who hold these assumptions.

The contemporary neoliberal moment has been explained by both the Right and Left as fundamentally motivated by profit and capitalism. The rise of the Tea Party, specifically post-Obama, and its use of subtle racial coding challenges this colorblind narrative. A great piece was written by Zach Beauchamp called “How Racism Caused the Shutdown”. I would only add that in addition to a general discussion of the southern strategy and race as wedge issue, Goldberg’s Analysis, as well as the work of Goldberg as well as fellow UC Irvine professor Frank Wilderson (Wilderson, 2010) asks us the consider the visual, psychological, and sexual politics of Whiteness and Anti-Blackness as a necessary corollary in order to understand why race is such an effective wedge issue in America and understanding how the emotion power of race in America continues to be a driving force in American politics. For example, the “Southern Strategy” and its success makes little sense in an objective, material frame since by rejecting Democrats poor whites were often voting against their economic best interest.

However if, as Charles Mills argues, Whiteness itself is seen as a material advantage, then the post civil rights opposition by poor whites, those not competing with middle class Blacks for government jobs or business opportunities and thus not directly threated materially by integration, makes sense. While not threaten materially, they were threaten psychologically: one need only look at how often the resistance to school integration revolved not around jobs or violence, but school dances and the threat of interracial romance, to see how powerful this investment into Whiteness was (Baum, 2010). Seeing the Creepy Uncle Sam as the contemporary manifestation of this investment in whiteness, it can be argued that the psychological “Wages of Whiteness” are being valued over tangible economic benefits, a dynamic that threatens not only Obama care but the core logic of most progressive/radical political organizing, and as such must be thoroughly interrogated in order to produce properly framed and effective resistance to the threat of neoliberal white supremacy.


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About the Author

Lawrence Grandpre is the Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. His focuses include criminal justice, police accountability, and community-based economic/educational development. He is the co-author of "The Black Book" and his work has been featured in The Guardian and The Baltimore Sun.