Sociology Focus
BridgetW
Author: Bridget Welch

Giving the Finger: Authority, Legitimacy, and Race

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was recently caught on film pointing angrily into Obama’s face. When we look at this incident and the numerous like it we can see a pattern. In this post, Bridget Welch connects the dots between these incidents to show how racism has been utilized to attack President Obama’s authority. 

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Last week a photo of Arizona Govenor Jan Brewer pointing her finger in President Barack Obama’s face made it into the news. Many people who saw the video asked as anchor Martin Bashir did, “Is this how we are supposed to treat the president?” Here is what Gov. Brewer had to say about the confrontation after the event:

“What’s the big deal?” you may ask. It’s just a finger in the face.” To fully understand the incident we need to take a step back and examine similar incidents to see if a pattern emerges.

A brief history of similar events in Obama’s presidency:

  • At a 2009 joint session of congress, Representative Joe Wilson, Congressman from South Carolina, interrupted the President by shouting “You lie!” An outburst that has never happened before or since.
  • On Jan 20th at a rally for Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum refused to correct a woman who claimed: “He is an avowed Muslim and my question is, why isn’t something being done to get him out of our government?” Santorum only responded: “Believe me … I’m doing everything I can to get him out of the government.”

  • It’s not just the anti-Muslim rhetoric we see in her comments. There is also a strain of “birther”-ism coming through. You know, those people who keep trying to say that Obama wasn’t born in the United States even though he has released his birth certificate several times (heck, you can buy it on a mug sold to raise money by the Obama 2012 campaign). Oh, you thought this had disappeared? Nope. Last week Obama was subpoenaed in a Georgia hearing to determine if he could appear on the ballot.

All of this, compounded with the racist comments and imagery you can find of Obama everywhere and held high at anti-Obama rallies (not to mention the racist attacks against Michelle Obama), points to one thing – an attempt to delegitimize Obama as president.[1]

In sociology, power is commonly understood as the ability to get others to do what you want, even if they don’t want to do it. According to Max Weber, there are three sources of power. These are force (use of coercion), influence (making someone want to do what you want), and authority (power that has become instructionally accepted). Coercion is problematic. Forcing people to your will can only last as long as you are able to control them. And, as events like the Arab Spring show, coercion is doomed to fail in the long run.

The second source, influence, is awesome, but there are limits to how much any of us can persuade others.

Authority is the backbone of our political system. Of course there is a certain amount of influence and coercion going on. Yet, a lot of what allows things to get done is the acceptance that it is right that the person in charge makes certain decisions that we should trust because we legitimated his/her position when he/she was elected. As evidenced by our last president referred to himself as, “The Decider”

Weber has a classification of authority that includes:

  1. traditional authority (based on custom and the history of practice)
  2. rational-legal authority (based on formally held laws and practices)
  3. charismatic authority (based on emotional and personal appeal of the person in power directly).

The first, traditional authority, mainly applies to nations where leadership is given by historical practice. An example of this are monarchies (e.g. King Henry the 8th) or autocracies (Kim Jung-Il passes away and leaves the nation to the son he named as successor). The new leader is accepted by the people because that’s the way it’s always been.

Yet, a lot of what allows things to get done is the acceptance that it is right that the person in charge makes certain decisions that we should trust because we legitimated his/her position when he/she was elected.

Traditional authority is not the way in the United States (although some may point to some political families as making us similar to a monarchy…). In the U.S., the president rules by consent of the governed. We elect the leader through a series of legally sanctioned practices.

Lastly, as the overwhelmingly popular public reaction to the last week’s State of the Union clearly showed, Obama is full of charismatic authority to the extent you already liked him. That’s pretty much par for the course in the history of presidential charisma.[2] Of course, Obama does have some charismatic authority. As such, those who want to challenge Obama’s claim to power thus frequently attack his rational-legal authority and his charismatic authority.

Critiques that Obama was not born in the U.S. are problematic because if he wasn’t born here, he LEGALLY cannot be president of the United States. Therefore, he has no rational-legal authority to lead. There are a few things the “birther” movement relies on for their claims (I’m not going to go into the whole conspiracy here).

Obama’s name and race are often used to weaken his authority as well by painting him as an outsider or what sociologists call an “other”. It’s no accident that many hate ads/cartoons highlight his very “Other” sounding middle name, Hussein.[3]

As for attacking his charismatic authority, even before he was elected Obama’s race was used as an issue to delegitimize him as president. The Reverend Wright scandal, remember? Barack the Magic Negro – have you had a listen (warning: it will get stuck in your head). Having the audacity to shout “You lie!” during a joint session of congress is unheard of! Not to mention the links above about politicians referring to him as a “tar baby”, showing him as belonging to a “family of monkeys”, or calling him “boy” to name a few.

The concept of status inconsistency can help us understand where these attacks on his authority and attempts to undermine his charisma are coming from. People have many different social positions (called statuses) that vary in the amount of social respect and prestige afforded to them. Some of these statuses, called master statuses, outweigh all of our other statuses in organizing how others think about us. Some of these include race, occupation, and sex. Obama is president (high status), male (high status), and black[4] (low status). When you have mixed statuses (like a female professor or black president), the lower status can be utilized to delegitimize you and justify any manner of ill behavior that would never occur if all your statuses were held in high regard. Because of Obama’s status inconsistency, disrespect has seemed to flourish as a tool to call both his rational-legal and charismatic authority into question.

Let’s go back to the Gov. Brewer incident. Who points their finger in another person’s face? Where else do we see this sort of behavior? What message is that saying about the power relationships between these two individual? As described by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Professor of English at University of Oklahoma):

  • “Have you ever seen a mother (of any cultural background) in the mall with her disobedient toddler? She finally gets exasperated and leans down and begins to scold the child—by pointing her finger in his or her face. And what happens? The toddler starts crying, and then gets it together and starts behaving better. Thus, the finger point in the face is not a gesture between equals. She who does the pointing is establishing herself as a superior to the person being pointed at.”

That’s really it, isn’t it? Only if you thought the president was beneath you in some way, only if he had been delegitimized and was a figure that didn’t claim the amount of respect due to the holder of the highest office in our land, would you dare to put your finger in his face. Obama may not say this is a big deal, but now that you’ve looked at it from this angle, do you think it’s a big deal?

Dig Deeper

  1. Obama does not speak about race much.From what you’ve learned here, why do you think this may be the case?
  2. Are you status inconsistent? Have you ever been treated with disrespect as a result? If you are not status inconsistent, have you ever witnessed an event where someone was disrespected because they were? Explain what happened.
  3. Obama’s one big speech on race was given in response to the Jeremiah Wright scandal. Watch the speech and write about how you think the historical processes he addressed may have lead to the disrespect faced by Obama today.

Additional reporting by Nathan Palmer


[1] Heck, I’m sick of linking. Just go here.

[2] In fact my historian husband informs me: “Historically charisma is seen as kind of problematic or kinda problematic for presidents. If you look at some of the men considered our best presidents (Lincoln, Washington, or Jefferson), these were not charismatic men. They cared a power or presence and message, but many wouldn’t characterize them as charismatic.”

[3] Because I don’t want to give traffic to such hateful sites; I’m not going to link. Just Google it if you don’t believe me.

[4] Actually, he’s biracial. However, he is racialized (or “read”) as black by most Americans. This is an example of master statuses as discussed above.

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