“I want my country back.”
When screamed into the public discourse at a town hall five years ago, these words became the call-to-arms for the purest, most virulent fringes of conservatism to unite. For centuries, the United States, for all its initial tropes about freedom and liberty from the British crown, had held to a very basic ideal: that you were only considered a “real American” if you were a white, land-owning man. This was rigorously enforced through indentured servitude, chattel slavery, and de jure segregation. Slowly but surely, the oft-mentioned “arc of justice” bent towards racial equality, reducing in the minds of many the impact of overt, naked bigotry.
When Barack Obama was elected President the first time, it upset centuries of deeply held beliefs and norms about the purity of the office. Blacks could serve as members of presidential cabinets, even as high as Secretary of State, but anything even remotely leading the Executive Branch was off-limits. The Right first viewed Obama’s rise as a horrible mistake of history; another of those “firsts” the Blacks love oh-so much, and would be forgotten just as quickly. But when Obama was elected to his second term as the Executive, the truth the Right refused to acknowledge before eventually came out. This President was now more than some passing fad the electorate would grow out of; he and the demographics that voted for him were now the harbingers of the Right’s demise. Despite the warnings of pundits, pollsters and the occasional plagiarizing libertarian Senator, the Republican Party was now that of the Aging White Rich Guy, with nothing between them and complete societal irrelevance.
These things are not new. But through all of this hatred and chaos remains the task of examining the science of these matters with clear, pragmatic distinction, able to emotionally disconnect from the issues and properly analyze the data set before us. Understanding the history and devastation of racism in America is a multidimensional–and multicultural–debate that is not for the simpleminded, and to his credit, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine attempted to do so, in a cover story entitled, “The Color of His Presidency.” However, his analysis has been repeatedly and aggressively criticized in the press, which is both sad and indicative of many of the points he was trying to make.
Where Chait Was Wrong…
DEFINITIONS ARE FUNNY THINGS in the construction of narratives, and nowhere is that more true than in Chait’s three words “prominent Republican figure.” When not placed within a clearly defined context, one is free to interpret that phrase however they wish. How do we define prominence? Is prominence determined by who shows up in media the most, or who has actual lawmaking power?
Pat Buchanan is a “prominent Republican figure”–if this were the year 1988. In 2011, however, Buchanan openly referred to Barack Obama as a “boy”, doing so in one of the most remarkable displays of career suicide ever recorded in an MSNBC interview with Rev. Al Sharpton. As if to compound his fall from the mainstream, Buchanan would go on to write a book on how bad America will be for white people in eleven years.
Despite his past significance in Republican politics, Buchanan was not the most “prominent Republican figure” to call President Obama a “boy” while in office, as Chait alleged. In terms of lawmakers, that disgrace goes to Rep. Mike D. Rogers, a Republican from Alabama’s Third District with seats on several House subcommittees:
We survived Jimmy Carter … we can survive this ol’ boy. … This is very similar to the mid-1970s. We had a long war (Vietnam), a corrupt administration, the nation elected a peanut farmer from Georgia and had high home-mortgage rates. Then at the end of four years, the American people said ‘enough’ and elected Ronald Reagan. It took him two years to dig us out, and we had two decades of prosperity. Then we backslid and we elected a community organizer from Chicago. History repeats itself.
In this respect, Chait was mistaken. While no biographies have been published yet calling this President “Boy Obama” (and given the current state of the conservative publishing industry, none likely will), Obama has endured reprehensible animus throughout his presidency on behalf of conservatives, having been called a “skinny, ghetto crackhead” by L. Brent Bozell III, founder of Media Research Group. Arguably the most “prominent Republican figure” over nearly three decades, Rush Limbaugh has racially assaulted President Obama repeatedly, referring to him as the “Halfrican American” in 2007 and appropriating a Los Angeles Times headline for a Paul Shanklin song entitled, “Barack the Magic Negro.”
And while the Clinton presidency was in many ways worse in terms of Republican partisan sentiment (who could forget those wonderful conspiracy theories about Vince Foster and Ron Brown), Clinton never had to cough up a birth certificate to prove he was a citizen of this nation.
This is what Chait got wrong. However, this piece was filled with much more that he was right about than people are giving him credit for.
What Chait Got Right
THE PRESIDENCY OF BARACK OBAMA is one that has produced much in terms of exposing America’s maturity deficit, showing how ill-prepared we are as a nation to have the “much-needed conversations” about race necessary to bring this country closer together. But even more than this, the criticism of people with views that do not differ all that much from their own has taken a nosedive in maturity as well. Consider this portion of Chait’s piece, in which he seeks to mark a clear distinction between a classical and social history of the Obama era:
…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.
Here lies our first evidence of objective analysis being lost. As “conversations” have stratified across the country (as seen everywhere from Twitter hashtags to weekend news shows), the one thing lost above all else is trust. Chait talks about a scientific study done for UCLA by Michael Tesler and David Sears in 2010 that showed how race was indeed the primary motivator for most of the heated political discourse seen throughout Obama’s first term:
Like the [Dr. Henry Louis] Gates incident, Carter’s controversial racial comments generated considerable media attention. Claims of race-based opposition to Obama, in fact, received more attention than any other topic in the blogosphere from September 14 to September 25. Not surprisingly, 40 percent of respondents interviewed during this time period recalled hearing “a lot” about “charges that racism is a factor in criticisms of President Obama and his politics.” The president immediately attempted to dampen this race-based media firestorm by telling four Sunday morning talks shows airing the week of Carter’s comments that the vitriolic opposition facing his administration stemmed primarily from his policy positions, not his race. Whether or not these accusations of racially motivated opposition were actually true, the fact that they garnered so much press interest suggests that the Obama White House was operating in a more race-conscious atmosphere in its early months than were previous presidents.
As seen through the eye of empiricism, these findings were undeniably critical, but otherwise liberal critics attacked these findings as not being personal enough. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie basically wrote that the facts Chait found should not matter nearly as much as firsthand anecdotal accounts, accusing him of treating race as an “intellectual exercise” devoid of “lived experiences.” Melissa Harris-Perry, an MSNBC host and political science professor, strangely said the same thing, both saying in short that Chait’s view wasn’t Black enough.
Perhaps if Chait had written a piece that hit all the necessary buzzwords of one that has “checked his ‘privilege’ at the door” (a phrase that has become the new hotness when wishing to render dissent of any kind completely silent), he would have been hailed as one of the greatest assets in understanding how racism and scientifically proven racial hypersensitivity have affected the way people view the new political landscape. Instead, his analysis was treated as an affront to Black pain, and was given the echo-chamber treatment at MHP’s table while barely being allowed a chance to defend his premise.
This leads to several questions: In discussions on race in this country, what evidence should be used, pure scientific analysis or endless stories of “microaggressions”? Has faith in academic institutions eroded so much that people now view empiricism as some form of white oppression?
Also: was progressive ideology always this anti-intellectual?
Secondly, let us examine another point Chait was rigorously criticised for:
One of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life, a lesson that has been driven home over decades by everybody from Jimmy the Greek to Paula Deen. This achievement has run headlong into an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination. If conservatism is inextricably entangled with racism, and racism must be extinguished, then the scope for legitimate opposition to Obama shrinks to an uncomfortably small space.
The racial debate of the Obama years emits some of the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the McCarthy years. It defies rational resolution in part because it is about secret motives and concealed evil.
Few liberals acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power. Conservatives feel that dread viscerally. Though the liberal analytic method begins with a sound grasp of the broad connection between conservatism and white racial resentment, it almost always devolves into an open-ended license to target opponents on the basis of their ideological profile. The power is rife with abuse.
The controversial nature of this statement is held in its absolute truth. To deny that we live in a society where to be openly branded a racist regardless of veracity often leads to public shame and humiliation (and in increasing cases, loss of status and livelihood) is a gross denial of recent history and progress.
Examples of this can be found in myriad: Joseph Williams, whose statements about Mitt Romney’s comfort level around white people in 2012 (the 47% video would eventually vindicate him) cost him his job with Politico and imperiled an illustrious three-decade career in journalism. Martin Bashir, on whose show Williams made his fateful comments, would lose his job after declaring that Sarah Palin should be subjected to the same punishment that slaves on Thomas Thistlewood’s plantation endured for her likening of the national debt to slavery. The aforementioned Melissa Harris-Perry was publicly reduced to a tearful apology for making a joke about Romney’s Black adopted grandson, Kieran.
Recent events have proven that this terrifying power is seen on the Right as well. Cliven Bundy was yet another courageous conservative “Everyman” getting stepped on by a bloated federal government until he decided to state his level of expertise on Black work ethic (involving “Nigras” and picking cotton), losing nearly every shred of mainstream conservative support he had. Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, was already infamous for his housing discrimination practices before taped conversations with his mistress would render him persona non grata by the National Basketball Association, which banned him for life and fined him $2.5 million, the maximum allowed by the NBA’s constitution. Conservatives fell silent once it was discovered unequivocally that Sterling was a registered Republican.
And in a remarkable display of bipartisan racist intersectionality, Suey Park, a 23-year-old “hashtag activist”, was the darling of liberal media outlets such as Salon and The New Yorker for her #CancelColbert campaign, until it was found that she collaborated with conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, best known for her defense of the internment camps that Japanese families were held in during World War II.
If being called a racist is not a terrifying power–especially in an era of heightened public awareness via social media and overall basic enlightenment–why were the heinous sins of Donald Sterling brought out for a new generation to identify and denounce? If being called racist or accusations of employing them were not things avoided on levels approaching paranoia, why then are Williams and Bashir still unemployed?
In terms of policycraft, it has become quite easy to spot racism from the Right, especially after being given so many gifts of disgusting sentiment over the Obama years. From Rep. Steve King’s reprehensible comments about illegal immigrant drug mules and their “cantaloupe-sized” calf muscles, to Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint’s ridiculous revisionist history of the reasons behind the Civil War, there is much to rightly condemn the Right on. As Chait pointed out in his piece, the Left indeed found Lee Atwater’s “nigger, nigger, nigger” remarks back in 1981 to be a “Rosetta stone” of sorts in seeking to decode conservative motives in lawmaking.
So what would drive a person to believe that despite all the rancorous, very openly racist rhetoric the Right spouts, and all the subtle bigotry found throughout conservative dogma, that it is “completely insane” to believe that Republican politics is at its core an institution specifically designed to destroy minorities?
One answer could be that a view like this still holds to the possibility of actual bipartisanship being missed. If Republican racist absolutism were a real thing, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) would never have gotten together with Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont back in January to attempt to revive the Voting Rights Act. Neither would Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), a Black liberal and a Black conservative, have ever collaborated on a bill last month that would create paid apprenticeships to help young minorities find a trade. But because no one ever expects actual governance to take place in such a bitterly divided political climate, the sentiment of persistent ethnocentrism becomes the prevailing narrative.
The thing that all people should be striving for is to clearly identify the issues our country faces. Our goal should be to work with those willing to work collaboratively, and shun all who seek to benefit from sheer ethnocentric rage, no matter where it comes from. The racism that has pervaded the Obama era exists without question, and seeing its effects on dialogue and trust in this country has been discouraging at best. But finding solutions–actually moving past conversation mode– to overcome it all is imperative to our nation’s survival and status, both here at home and around the world. We are indeed in the “pangs of a new nation not yet born”, and the last six years has made that evident. But as is the way of all growing pains, they cease, and we emerge both older, wiser, and stronger in the process.