Joan Walsh doesn't need my praise, which she often has gotten, nor my criticism, of which she would be aware only in the unlikely event she were to read these. But the other day she was wrong, nearly as much as another accomplished blogger, Jamelle Bouie.
Oh, sure, Walsh is right at times in her criticism- nay, condemnation- of Jonathan Chait's piece, "The Color of His Presidency," in New York magazine examining race relations in the age of Obama. Chait had written
Bill O’Reilly’s aggressive (and aggressively dumb) Super Bowl interview with the president included the question “Why do you feel it’s necessary to fundamentally transform the nation that has afforded you so much opportunity?” Salon’s Joan Walsh asserted, “O’Reilly and Ailes and their viewers see this president as unqualified and ungrateful, an affirmative-action baby who won’t thank us for all we’ve done for him and his cohort. The question was, of course, deeply condescending and borderline racist.” Yes, it’s possible that O’Reilly implied that the United States afforded Obama special opportunity owing to the color of his skin. But it’s at least as possible, and consistent with O’Reilly’s beliefs, that he merely believes the United States offers everybody opportunity.
I’m sure there are instances Chait can find where MSNBC hosts and guests (including me) went too far with racial rhetoric. But he certainly didn’t catch me doing so in his piece: 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”...
Credit Walsh with acknowledging there are MSNBC hosts who have gone too far with racial rhetoric, and also for noting that other men wouldn't be subjected to the same implication. Imagine, further, a host demeaning the accomplishments of another individual who has risen through the ranks to the Presidency of the United States- leader of the Free World- with a reference to being "afforded so much opportunity." It is nearly unimaginable.
But then Walsh adds Chait
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.
Ironically, Walsh- who otherwise (as MSNBC contributors appear sworn to do) is enormously supportive of Mr. Obama- misses an opportunity to defend this President against racially-tinged criticism. President Clinton may have been impeached in part because he was The First Black President, but he also was involved in sexual misconduct, which helpfully stirred up the base. And he did lie before a grand jury, though it probably did not rise to the level of perjury, hence a "high crime." Calls for impeachment of President Obama, by contrast, come not with a legitimate accusation of a crime or misdemeanor, nor even a whiff of personal scandal, sexual or otherwise.
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.” It’s OK when Chait says that, but when it comes from MSNBC, it’s like McCarthyism?
Chait was right in 2012, but he’s wrong now.
No, and no. Contrary to wishful thinking on the part of many Democrats, demography is not necessarily destiny. Though immigration is not a controlling issue for most conservatives and moderates now, it will be if there is an influx of immigrants or legalization of resident immigrants. (Otherwise, Republicans would be guilty of gross political malpractice.)
"The racial debate of the Obama years," Chait argues, " 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." He recognizes "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." In response, Walsh maintains "He singles out MSNBC for special scorn (full disclosure: I’m a contributor there), while never once mentioning Fox by name."
It is sad to see Walsh adopting the false equivalence between MSNBC and Fox News the mainstream media propagates. For all of Fox News' faults- triumphalist, scornful of facts, suspicious of science, at times hateful- its agenda is not primarily racial, but rather conservative and Republican. MSNBC's agenda, by contrast (and with apologies to Chris Hayes and a few others) is not liberal (or Democratic) but Obama.
By contrast, Chait observes
When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Obama for playing too much golf, Lawrence O’Donnell accused him of “trying to align … the lifestyle of Tiger Woods with Barack Obama.” (McConnell had not mentioned Tiger Woods; it was O’Donnell who made the leap.) After Arizona governor Jan Brewer confronted Obama at an airport tarmac, Jonathan Capehart concluded, “A lot of people saw it as her wagging her finger at this president who’s also black, who should not be there.” Martin Bashir hung a monologue around his contention that Republicans were using the initialism IRS as a code that meant “nigger.” Chris Matthews calls Republicans racist so often it is hard to even keep track.
Jamelle Bouie is further divorced from reality. Artfully dodging the usual (and justifiable) contention of the left that we (by which is meant white people) too infrequently discuss race, he argues
“If you … set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life,” Chait writes, “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.”
That might fit the experiences of a mostly white pundit class, but it has nothing to do with race as experienced in the “day-to-day” lives of ordinary people. When a twentysomething black New Yorker talks about race, she isn’t as concerned with the rhetoric of Republicans as she is with the patrol car that trails her teenage brother when he rides his bike to the corner store.
But as Chait's argument demonstrates, dialogue about race means more than wringing one's hands about the intolerable situation of black youth, but also exploring the beliefs, values, and political response of the white community, in whose hands most power in the nation still resides. Bouie perceives "a story of mutual grievance between Americans on the left and right, with little interest in the lived experiences of racism from black Americans and other people of color."
Blame Chait for that, and also for little interest in the Indianapolis Pacers' late season slump or for that matter, disproportionate crime rates and arrest rates among blacks. The story Bouie wants told has been told before and will be again, by individuals he doubtless would find better situated to do so than Jonathan Chait.
Instead, Chait is telling a different story, one the left, right, and center conveniently ignore. He recognizes
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.
Not surprisingly, 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.
This discussion has real-life implications. Chait finds
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.”
Bouie notes Chait "finishes his piece with a note (a hope?) that this dynamic of grievance will become irrelevant with time," aided by generational changes. He snarks
Yes, the Return of the White President will cause this tension to recede, as arguments over racial innocence—“You’re racist!” “You’re a race baiter!”—fade like the elves of Middle-Earth. But that’s only the end of the story if you’re most concerned with partisan fights.
Oh, but it will; recede, not end. The nomination and election of Barack Obama was never divorced from race, which cut both for and against the candidate. Obama's presidency, Chait realizes, has demonstrated that
One of the central conceits of modern conservatism is a claim to have achieved an almost Zenlike state of color-blindness. (Stephen Colbert’s parodic conservative talking head boasts he cannot see race at all.) The truth is that conservatives are fixated on race, in a mystified, aggrieved, angry way that lends their claims of race neutrality a comic whiff of let-me-tell-you-again-how-I’m-over-my-ex. But while a certain portion of the party may indeed be forwarding and sending emails of racist jokes of the sort that got a federal judge in trouble, a much larger portion is consumed not with traditional racial victimization—the blacks are coming to get us—but a kind of ideological victimization. Conservatives are fervent believers in their own racial innocence.
It's only fair and accurate (not "fair and balanced"), however, to point out
It was immediately clear, from his triumphal introduction at the 2004 Democratic National Convention through the giddy early days of his audacious campaign, that Obama had reordered the political landscape. And though it is hard to remember now, his supporters initially saw this transformation as one that promised a “post-racial” politics. He attracted staggering crowds, boasted of his ability to win over Republicans, and made good on this boast by attracting independent voters in Iowa and other famously white locales.
Of course, this was always a fantasy....
The Obama campaign gave its supporters the thrill of historic accomplishment, the sense that they were undertaking something more grand than a campaign, something that would reverberate forever. But in Obama they had not just the material for future Americana stock footage but a live partisan figure. How did they think his presidency would work out?
To Senator Obama's supporters, victory was history in the making (photos below from The Huffington Post- for slide show, go to link); to his detractors,it was the opposite side of the same coin: proof of the arrival of a post-racial society, that racism was dead. In retrospect, conflict of the sort we've seen was almost inevitable. Yet, Walsh, Bouie, and others are loath to acknowledge that the source of the dysfunction and acrimony lies in the election of Barack Obama. His presidency has prompted irrational fear and loathing, for which the President is not responsible, and has endlessly worked to discourage. As Chait maintains
In fact, many conservatives believe he accuses them of racism all the time, even when he is doing the opposite. When asked recently if racism explained his sagging approval ratings, Obama replied, “There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president. Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.” Conservatives exploded in indignation, quoting the first sentence without mentioning the second. Here was yet another case of Obama playing the race card, his most cruel and most unanswerable weapon.
Obama's allies, as Chait will not ignore, are "less reticent" in implying conservatives are racially motivated. Progressives refuse to recognize the frequency with which they attack conservatives as "racist" and its impact upon furthering the sense of ideological victimization perceived by the right. But Chait does not, and he has produced an impressive piece of work analyzing why the racial harmony envisioned by many people upon the election of Barack Obama has deteriorated into something far different and far uglier.