Racist Smear Campaigns in the 21st Century

2008 Republican National Convention: Day 2
Bridget and Cindy McCain at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Did you know that Barack Obama fathered not just one but two black children? Of course you did. Their names are Malia and Sasha Obama.

Given that Barack Obama was the first black president, this information is hardly scandalous, but substitute Obama’s name with any of his GOP rivals and suddenly that question raises eyebrows. While one famous Republican in recent memory—Strom Thurmond—actually did father a child of color, other conservatives have been accused of doing so and suffered politically as a result.

While there’s nothing wrong with fathering a biracial child, spreading rumors that Republican politicians have done so is damaging because portions of the GOP base still disapprove of miscegenation. Although underhanded political attacks are nothing new, the 21st century has seen a marked rise in race-based smear campaigns—from rumors that white politicians fathered biracial children to accusations of reverse racism with no evidence to back up the claims. In recent years, Republicans and Democrats alike have fallen prey to racist “whispering” campaigns.

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John McCain’s Black Daughter

If you lived in South Carolina in the year 2000 when the Republican presidential primary took place, the rumor that McCain fathered a black woman’s child probably isn’t news to you.

During that primary, George W. Bush’s strategist Karl Rove reportedly launched a whispering campaign insinuating that McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh, Bridget, is actually the biological child he had with an African-American.

After the whisper campaign took off, McCain lost the South Carolina primary handily to Bush.

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Barack Obama’s Birthplace

Blame the rumors about Obama’s birthplace and religion on a vile mix of racism and xenophobia. Although Obama is a practicing Christian who was born in Hawaii, a group of conservatives known as birthers refuse to believe this. Instead, they’ve insisted since the 2008 presidential campaign that Obama was born in Kenya.

Never mind that Obama has produced a certificate of live birth from the state of Hawaii, that the Honolulu Star Bulletin included his birth announcement in 1961 and that even Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a friend of Obama’s mother, says that he saw the president as a newborn, birthers insist that Obama is lying about his origins.

Why do they make this claim? Because it’s the only way they can argue that this particular black man had no legitimate right to be President of the United States. Rather than state their true beliefs, birthers argue that Obama assumed the presidency illegally and is an anti-American Muslim out to ruin the United States.

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Michelle Obama and Shirley Sherrod Hate White People

Rumors that she was a reverse racist dogged Michelle Obama during the 2008 presidential election. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh helped spread this misinformation by remarking that Michelle Obama had been videotaped using the racially charged term whitey. No such tape existed but the rumor that it had provided conservatives with the ammunition to argue that Obama was anti-white.

In 2010, Shirley Sherrod, an African-American official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture experienced a similar smear campaign when conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart doctored a videotape of Sherrod’s appearance at an NAACP event to give the impression that she’d discriminated against white farmers.

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Jan Brewer’s “Headless Body” Excuse for Immigration Crackdown

Unlike the others on this list, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer appears here not as a target of a smear campaign but because of her infamous attempt to justify SB 1070—her state’s controversial legislation to crack down on illegal immigration—by fear mongering about undocumented immigrants.

Arizona became the subject of boycotts in 2010 because its immigration law authorized local law enforcement to investigate suspected undocumented immigrants, which opponents of the law argued would lead to racial profiling. (That section of the law was later struck down in federal court). Defending SB 1070, Brewer remarked that violence along the Arizona-Mexico border was rising, as evidenced by headless bodies found in the area.

In fact, there’s no proof that headless bodies had been found in the borderlands. Arizona coroners in the region reportedly found no decapitated corpses. Brewer later retracted the statement, but her mischaracterization of border violence helped her defeat her opponent in the 2010 Arizona gubernatorial race.

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Jon Huntsman Is Chinese

Former 2012 Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman isn’t actually Chinese, but he can speak Mandarin and has lived in Asia on and off for years, serving as a Mormon missionary and a U.S. ambassador there. Add in the fact that he has two adopted daughters from China and India, and that’s all the leverage his rivals needed to suggest that he’s un-American.

Before the 2012 New Hampshire primary, supporters of Ron Paul launched an attack ad questioning whether Huntsman has American values and insinuating that his adopted daughters aren’t actually adopted.