I’ve only read Jonathan Chait’s long, tangled piece on racial politics in the Obama era once, so perhaps it has a precise message I have not yet divined. But it does seem clear he accuses liberals who make specific allegations of conservative racism behind anti-Obama sentiments—unlike, he says pointedly, Obama himself—are enabling conservative denials of racism tout court.
Here’s where Chait’s dialetic seems to reach its main pivot:
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.
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.
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.”
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 (the point Ta-Nehisi Coates has so forcefully made in his exchange with Chait himself over the “culture of poverty”).
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.
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