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April 08, 2014 5:30 PM Race Is Not An Intellectual Exercise

By Ed Kilgore

I offered a preliminary take yesterday on Jonathan Chait’s vast New York piece on racial politics, and will probably take another run at the topic at TPMCafe tomorrow. But for now, I’ll suggest a reading of Jamelle Bouie’s tart response to Chait at Slate:

If I were outlining a racial history of the Obama administration, it would begin with policy: A housing collapse that destroyed black Americans’ wealth; a health care law attacked as “reparations” and crippled by a neo-Calhounite doctrine of “state sovereignty”; a broad assault on voting rights and access to the polls, concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. Indeed, it would focus on the deep irony of the Obama era: That the first black president has presided over a declining status quo for many black Americans.
In short, it would treat race as a real force in public life that has real consequences for real people.
You should contrast this with Jonathan Chait’s most recent feature for New York magazine, where the story of race in the Obama administration is 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. It’s a story, in other words, that treats race as an intellectual exercise—a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives over their respective racial innocence….
What’s odd about the argument is that Chait clearly shows the extent to which conservatism—even if it isn’t “racist”—works to entrench racial inequality through “colorblindness” and pointed opposition to the activist state. But rather than take that to its conclusion, he asks us to look away: “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.”
Of course, it’s not accusing conservatives of “racism” to note that particular policies—say, tax cuts to defund the social safety net, or blocking the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act—have a disparate impact. That’s just reality. And it’s not tarring your opponents to note that race plays a huge part in building popular support for those policies. But again, for as much as this is interesting as a matter of political combat, it’s less important to telling the story of race in the Obama years than, for instance, the tremendous retrenchment of racial inequality during our five years of recession, recovery, and austerity.

I personally think part of the problem here is that Chait seems to regard “racism” as a subjective phenomenon and a moral blight; thus conservatives charged with promoting policies that have a disparate racial impact have every reason to feel aggrieved if they are (or perceive themselves to be) innocent of racist feelings. But that’s no excuse for pretending the “story of race in the Obama years” can be told in a race-neutral way.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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