Race Baiting

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so did the late Harriet-the-Cat here, but that wasn’t quite the same thing. There’s the physics of the equilibrium of states, and entropy, and the mathematics of regression to the mean over large data sets, and then there’s the uncomfortable silence at the family dinner table, where someone sooner or later has to say something, however inane, to break the tension – and then there is the slow news day. We just had one of those. That Malaysia Airlines plane is still missing, and it has been a month of “not yet” on the twenty-four-hour news channels reporting on the impossible search for something that may never be found. What is there to talk about – even more of the technical details of one more arcane search technique, or the five-hundredth theory of what “might” have happened, or how outraged and devastated the families of the missing still are, or the nature of the Malaysian political system that generated decades of clueless stiffs in nice suits?

There’s no news there, just idle small talk, and Putin hasn’t yet rolled the tanks into the Ukraine to take it back for Mother Russia – but he might, but he hasn’t. The only thing to do is report the worry, and Obamacare is now working better than anyone at Fox News ever expected – and Republicans, one by one, are falling silent – so the only news to report is their silence, and silence isn’t all that interesting. Everyone knew this was going to happen. It did. And Jeb Bush may run for president, but he may not.

There was nothing there, but the Senate did finally pass an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, to keep two or three million Americans from dying in the streets. That’s cool, but the House says it will NOT be “bullied” by the Senate – they’ll pass no such thing. Those still looking for work in this wreck of an economy will just have to look harder, because the government should never have been in the business of subsidizing losers and whining moochers in the first place. Right – got it – heard you the first time. The Senate bill will die in the House.

What is there to report there, that nothing has changed in Washington? And Iran still doesn’t have even one nuke, and the Israelis are never going to agree to even a framework for talks with the Palestinians, and that short strange man in North Korea is still as strange as ever, and mostly harmless. And this just in – General Francisco Franco is still dead, and that irritating actor James Franco isn’t. Only his career is dying.

But the news cycle abhors a vacuum as much as nature does, so it was a day to discuss the latest thumb-sucker, a term of art in the news business for a deep-background piece that offers the “long view” of things, from a new and startling perspective, if possible. It’s something to get people talking, or even thinking – two different things in America at the moment. The eighteenth century gardener-poet William Shenstone explained that – “Zealous men are ever displaying to you the strength of their belief, while judicious men are showing you the grounds of it.” There’s been a lot of that going around lately, and a slow news day is a perfect day for judicious men.

All you need to do is to find one of those and get everyone talking about what he just explained at great length and in excruciating detail, calmly and without partisan zeal, about what really underlies what is going on in this sorry world. It could be that in America’s now utterly dysfunctional politics, the problem is race, and always has been race, and always will be race. No one wants to admit that, but race is screwing up everything, still after our Civil War and all the years since.

That was why everyone on this slow news – Monday, April 7, 2014 – was talking about the long essay from Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine – The Color of His Presidency – with a provocative subhead:

Optimists hoped Obama would usher in a new age of racial harmony. Pessimists feared a surge in racial strife. Neither was right. But what happened instead has been even more invidious.

Chait’s thesis seems to be that instead of possible sweet harmony or inevitable dreaded strife, we got name-calling and bullshit, and from the start you can see where he’s going with this:

A few weeks ago, the liberal comedian Bill Maher and conservative strategist and pundit Bill Kristol had a brief spat on Maher’s HBO show, putatively over what instigated the tea party but ultimately over the psychic wound that has divided red America and blue America in the Obama years. The rise of the tea party, explained Maher in a let’s-get-real moment – closing his eyes for a second the way one does when saying something everybody knows but nobody wants to say – “was about a black president.” Both Maher and Kristol carry themselves with a weary cynicism that allows them to jovially spar with ideological rivals, but all of a sudden they both grew earnest and angry. Kristol interjected, shouting, “That’s bullshit! That is total bullshit!” After momentarily sputtering, Kristol recovered his calm, but his rare indignation remained, and there was no trace of the smirk he usually wears to distance himself slightly from his talking points. He almost pleaded to Maher, “Even you don’t believe that!”

“I totally believe that,” Maher responded, which is no doubt true, because every Obama supporter believes deep down, or sometimes right on the surface, that the furious opposition marshaled against the first black president is a reaction to his race. Likewise, every Obama opponent believes with equal fervor that this is not only false but a smear concocted willfully to silence them.

There’s obviously too much zeal here, and no judicious thinking at all, on either side:

Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world. Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.

What? They’re both right? That’s what has everyone talking, along with passages like this:

If you set out to write a classic history of the Obama era, once you had described the historically significant fact of Obama’s election, race would almost disappear from the narrative. The thumbnail sketch of every president’s tenure from Harry Truman through Bill Clinton prominently includes racial conflagrations – desegregation fights over the military and schools, protests over civil-rights legislation, high-profile White House involvement in the expansion or rollback of busing and affirmative action. The policy landscape of the Obama era looks more like it did during the Progressive Era and the New Deal, when Americans fought bitterly over regulation and the scope of government. The racial-policy agenda of the Obama administration has been nearly nonexistent.

But if you instead set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before. Hardly a day goes by without a volley and counter-volley of accusations of racial insensitivity and racial hypersensitivity. And even when the red and blue tribes are not waging their endless war of mutual victimization, the subject of race courses through everything else: debt, health care, unemployment. Whereas the great themes of the Bush years revolved around foreign policy and a cultural divide over what or who constituted “real” America, the Obama years have been defined by a bitter disagreement over the size of government, which quickly reduces to an argument over whether the recipients of big-government largesse deserve it. There is no separating this discussion from one’s sympathies or prejudices toward, and identification with, black America.

Chait has muddied the waters here. The racial-policy agenda of the Obama administration has been nearly nonexistent, so he’s not talking about race, ever, and all domestic policies, underneath, are really about race. Black and brown folks are going to get stuff that white folks won’t get, even if many white folks don’t need that stuff – food stamps or a rise in the minimum wage or special jobs programs to get them back into the economy – in the first place. The white folks are pissed.

Still, liberals should just back off:

Once you start looking for racial subtexts embedded within the Republican agenda, they turn up everywhere – and not always as subtexts. In response to their defeats in 2008 and 2012, Republican governors and state legislators in a host of swing states have enacted laws, ostensibly designed to prevent voter fraud, whose actual impact will be to reduce the proportion of votes cast by minorities. A paper found that states were far more likely to enact restrictive voting laws if minority turnout in their state had recently increased.

It is likewise hard to imagine the mostly southern states that have refused free federal money to cover the uninsured in their states doing so outside of the racial context – nearly all-white Republican governments are willing and even eager to deny medical care to disproportionately black constituents. The most famous ad for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign depicted an elderly white man, with a narrator warning bluntly about Medicare cuts: “Now the money you paid for your guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that’s not for you.”

Yet here is the point where, for all its breadth and analytic power, the liberal racial analysis collapses onto itself. It may be true that, at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical. It would follow that any conservative argument is an appeal to white racism. That is, indeed, the all-but-explicit conclusion of the ubiquitous Atwater Rosetta-stone confession [his famous explanation of the GOP’s sublimated racial appeals]: Republican politics is fundamentally racist, and even its use of the most abstract economic appeal is a sinister, coded missive.

Impressive though the historical, sociological, and psychological evidence undergirding this analysis may be, it also happens to be completely insane. Whatever Lee Atwater said, or meant to say, advocating tax cuts is not in any meaningful sense racist.

At the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore isn’t so sure of that:

So Chait suggests that liberals be more careful about alleging conservative racism if they don’t want to produce a self-fulfilling reality via a conservative zeitgeist that denies there can ever be any such thing.

I half-agree, but not because I think it’s necessarily wrong to attribute ignoble motives to conservative ideologues. Chait offers, as a data point for conservative non-racism, the observation that Obama isn’t being treated more savagely by the Right because he is an African-American. He acknowledges quite a bit of anecdotal evidence of specific anti-Obama racism; it’s certainly what I hear every time I go back to Georgia. But after all, Republicans treated Clinton worse, at least until such time as they try to impeach Obama.

Kilgore doesn’t think that’s much of an argument, or too simple a one:

Personally, I’ve always thought exceptional hostility towards Obama on the Right was mostly a supplement to a more fundamental hostility to a perceived alliance of pointy-headed white elites and minorities determined to fleece virtuous hard-working white folks (along, of course, with their exemplary minority counterparts, the “good blacks” who refuse special treatment or government benefits). Being both pointy-headed and at least half-black, Obama was simply too convenient a devil-figure to resist. But it hasn’t been all about race.

Similarly, it’s my sense that race is just a subset of conservative grievances about liberal politics and indeed 21st century (and to a certain extent 20th century) America. If you go back to the Ur-Moment of the Tea Party Movement, Santelli’s Rant, you hear a primal rage not against black or brown people, but against “losers” – i.e., those who have failed in a market economy and are using or seeking to use government to reverse the invisible hand’s righteous judgments. I feel quite sure that if pressed many Tea Folk would quite honestly say they have as much or more contempt for white as for minority “losers,” but would also claim race-based policies have immensely added to the political power of “losers” as a whole.

I’d argue the real heart of conservative rage is that government support for “losers,” whatever their color, comes at the expense not only of “real Americans'” wealth but of their sense of self-worth – the belief that whatever they have was earned via hard work and fair competition. And this assessment explains a phenomenon that baffles many liberals (and some conservatives): a fierce defensiveness about Social Security and Medicare benefits in harness with a hatred of “welfare.”

Let’s actually be judicious here:

Does this analysis absolve conservatives of any racist motives? Not insofar as (1) many really do look at minority folk and see “losers” unless there is abundant contrary evidence, and (2) self-regarding “winners” are exceptionally enraged by the idea that some of their success to this very day may be attributable to White Supremacy…

So it’s not very easy to disentangle self-righteousness from race in considering contemporary conservative attitudes. But I suppose I’m willing to stop “playing” the “race card,” accurate as it often is, if conservatives are willing to reflect more on a fundamental inability to accept the equality – not of some abstract quantity called “opportunity,” but of access to the basic necessities of life in this rich society – demanded by both our civic and religious traditions.

In short, Chait is talking about the wrong thing. Kilgore, for one, is willing to ease up on calling the folks on the other side racists quite so often, unless there’s no other possible way to explain what they just did and said. He does, however, reserve the right to call them heartless moral monsters with no sense of common decency, or even a sense of right or wrong. That doesn’t have the same immediate sting as calling someone a racist, with all its historical echoes, but it might be more accurate, even if it’s a far less effective weapon.

Salon’s Joan Welsh, however, isn’t big on pointless disarmament:

I’m not sure what to make of an article that purports to seriously examine the role of race in politics in the age of Barack Obama, and then compares liberals’ claims of conservative racism to McCarthyism (specifically: “the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the ­McCarthy years”). “Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable,” he claims.

Though Chait acknowledges that appeals to white racism have undergirded the modern Republican Party since the civil rights era, he insists liberals are bullies who refuse to “acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power.” He singles out MSNBC for special scorn (full disclosure: I’m a contributor there), while never once mentioning Fox by name. “MSNBC has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation,” Chait writes.

See what he did with that “stop-and-frisk” reference? In case you’ve missed it, police departments in some cities have been accused of infringing the civil rights of blacks and Latinos by physically stopping them, and invasively frisking them, with little and sometimes no evidence of wrongdoing. It’s kind of a big deal to civil rights liberals, of every race. So Chait tweaks them by accusing MSNBC of stopping and frisking conservatives “ideologically” – as in metaphorically and without consequence, which technically means not stopping and frisking them at all.

She smells bullshit here:

Here’s what Chait admits Republicans are doing wrong, with regard to race: Enacting restrictive voter laws in states where black turnout has risen. Refusing to expand Medicaid – which disproportionately hurts African-Americans (who vote Democratic). Lying about Obama cutting Medicare – which scares older whites (who vote Republican). Explaining the GOP’s opposition to a Western-style social safety net, he even admits: “The factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.”

And here’s what Chait claims liberals are actually doing wrong with regard to race: mostly telling the truth about all of those things, while occasionally exaggerating it.

And this is personal for Walsh:

He chastens me for suggesting that when Bill O’Reilly asked Obama “Why do you feel it’s necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity?” the question was “deeply condescending and borderline racist.” Chait acknowledges my interpretation is “possible,” but insists “it’s at least as possible and consistent with O’Reilly’s beliefs that he merely believes the United States offers everybody opportunity.”

If Chait can imagine white political figures like Chuck Schumer or Sherrod Brown being asked why they want to change American policies when they’ve been afforded “so much opportunity,” I’ll concede his point. He does make the fine point – I’ve made it myself – that President Clinton also faced intractable and ugly political opposition from the right. But he misses the fact that animosity toward Clinton originated with his segregationist enemies in Arkansas. Race has been behind GOP opposition to white politicians, not just black ones, who favor civil rights. Clinton is an example that actually weakens Chait’s case.

I also wonder whether equating liberals’ complaints about conservative racism with actual conservative racism is a weird form of self-protection for liberal elites. You’ve heard of climate denialism and science denialism on the right? Some liberals seem to suffer from Republican-extremism denialism. They can’t take in the extent of the GOP’s reliance on racial politics. And if they blame other liberals for their sins, for making things worse, it gives them a sense of control over their lives.

That’s possible, but she sees no point in liberals taking Chait’s advice and just dropping the racist thing:

What would change? Would the Republican Party drop its opposition to anything President Obama supports? Would it stop pandering to a base that’s more than 90 percent white? Would it stop lying about Obama wanting to cut Medicare to fund Obamacare? This is the same Jonathan Chait, by the way, who argued in 2012 that the GOP was staring down “demographic extinction” because of its over-reliance on white voters, and who also insisted that “the entire key to the rise of the Republican Party from the mid-sixties through the nineties was that white Americans came to see the Democrats as taking money from the hard-working white middle class and giving it to a lazy black underclass.” …

Chait was right in 2012, but he’s wrong now. It doesn’t matter that an individual Republican may not have “a racist bone” in his or her body, to use Paul Ryan’s clichéd self-defense. If they reliably and consistently ally with others who do, and if the result of that alliance is to persistently disadvantage one group of Americans out of proportion to the rest, then they have to answer for their party’s racism.

If so, someone’s feelings will be hurt, but so what? To reverse the old cliché, which used to be about a garden tool and then was about playing cards and then was about something else entirely, sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. Racial resentment, and white defensiveness, define American life, Deal with it.

Discussion of that was what filled the vacuum on this one particular slow news day, which may or may not have been useful. Now back to that giant airliner that no one will ever find…

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Race Baiting

  1. David Donavel says:

    Thanks Alan. I enjoyed the Chait article and can see his point about that the liberal tendency to reduce any conservative utterance to racism is intellectually hollow and dangerous. But I have to say as well that Walsh’s observation that those who support policies that damage the prospects for an already damaged group are effective racists whatever their personal beliefs may be. Which is to say that a guy like Paul Ryan can’t let himself off the hook by claiming “racial innocence.”

  2. Rick says:

    This column, I suppose, qualifies as a “thumb-sucker” — and I think a good one at that — but the fact is that, throughout all my years in the news business, I never cottoned to the term “thumb-sucker” as a way of describing a thoughtful piece that discusses the backstory to some subject in the news.

    That the term was coined by journalists is an indication of how distressingly anti-intellectual that profession can be, and maybe helps explain why we Americans give much more serious thought to what really happened to that missing jet (which, at this point, will either be found, or it won’t) than to whether our government needs to spend any money at all to help create more jobs (at this point, those who are wrong seem to be winning that argument, and without even a fight.)

    I think all three of these people — Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, and Joan Walsh — make good points, but of them, I think Kilgore is the most right.

    In most ways, Kilgore says roughly the same thing Chait is saying, but seems to also realize it’s not as simple as merely opposing Obama on purely racial grounds, and puts a finer point on it by pointing out that, going all the way back to Rick Santelli’s rant, conservatives really don’t like losers getting special treatment from government, no matter what color they are — and yes, while a large percentage of those losers may be black, that’s pretty much beside the point. In fact, it’s easy to imagine conservatives taking the stance they do, no matter what race Obama belonged to.

    But Walsh seems to be, in essence, advising liberals to keep calling conservatives racist, whether or not it’s true, since stopping calling them racist won’t change anything. I usually agree with almost everything Walsh says, but not this time.

    In fact, I tend to believe the opposite — that is, we should resist the easy temptation of accusing conservatives of racism all the time, even if they actually are racists, since doing so diverts attention away from their excessively-small-government, trickle-down, anti-safety-net arguments being not only just plain wrong but also destructive to the country as a whole.

    In other words, it doesn’t matter if these people are covert racists, or even overt ones, we should stop wasting time and effort on such distractions, and should concentrate on the more important thing, which is that their actual ideas and policy proposals are way-the-hell off base, and it’s on actual ideas and policies where we ought to be engaging them if we ever have any chance of making things right.


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