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April 17, 2014 12:15 PM Racism Is a Matter of Legitimate Debate, Not a Slur

By Ed Kilgore

I suppose I should feel flattered that the imperious Wall Street Journal writer James Taranto devoted the bulk of his column yesterday to various drive-by criticisms of my TPMCare piece last week on racism in politics. He seems exercised by my use of arguments that cannot simply be dismissed as thinly disguised efforts to boost minority turnout, though there’s a disembodied aspect to his attempted takedown, since he does not mention the Jonathan Chait essay that supplied the context for my response (nor, oddly, does he supply a link to either one).

In any event, most of Taranto’s take boils down to “so’s your old man.” He accuses me of “especially crude racial stereotyping” for referring to the GOP’s “bleached constituencies” (I was referring to districts, not “voters” as Taranto assumes). “Bleaching” is a technical term for the common practice in redistricting of seeking to remove minority voters to increase the odds of Republican victory; it is a counterpart to “packing,” which refers to the consolidation of minority voters in the minimum number of seats to reduce Democratic voter efficiency. If “bleaching” is a “crude racial steretoype,” then it’s one that appears in most of the academic literature on redistricting, not to mention court decisions.

Taranto spends much more time seeking to rebut my suggestion that the Romney/Ryan campaign’s gratuitous 2012 ad accusing the Obama administration of “gutting” welfare reform work requirements had a racial subtext. I only offered one authority for my characterization of the ad as blatantly false, he says: a Politi-fact assessment. Well, it was the same judgment offered by CNN’s fact-checkers; by GOP welfare reform architect Ron Haskins; and since Obama was being accused of undoing Bill Clinton’s work, it is probably relevant that the 42d president blasted the ad as false, too. I actually can’t think of anyone other than Heritage Foundation warhorse Robert Rector, author of the “gutting” myth, who offered much of a defense of its accuracy.

Speaking of Clinton, Taranto wonders if I think he was a racist for making welfare reform a campaign issue in 1996. That’s an odd question, since the effect of Clinton’s signing of welfare reform legislation that year was to make it a non-issue in that election. But it misses the point: I don’t think supporting welfare reform is an “objectively racist” tactic, particularly in the context Clinton offered it, based on “making work pay” incentives and other “work supports.” And context is everything in judging the racial content of political appeals. The unmistakable underlying theme of much of the GOP’s 2012 critique of Obama is that he was an unreconstructed “race man” seeking to undermine the bipartisan fiscal, economic and social reforms of his predecessors in order to tend to the needs of his government-dependent voting coalition, much of it composed of minority voters. Anyone surveying how the GOP campaign treated not only welfare reform but Obamacare—as a redistribution of resources into “a massive government program that’s not for you”—would have to be willfully blind to suggest there was no racial subtext.

And that’s the big point Taranto misses in my column. I go out of my way to disavow any claim that any particular Republican, or Republicans generally, are motivated by racial animus. That is not, I argue, even germane to the question of whether this or that strategy or message or policy has a disparate racial effect, politically or substantively. Nor do I claim that all GOP strategies, messages or policies are “objectively racist.” I simply suggest that’s a matter for legitimate argumentation, not a deadly racial slur that ought to be ruled out a priori as poisonous or libelous, or as eliminating any motive for conservatives to take “actual” racism seriously (which was the thrust of Chait’s essay).

Chait says it’s “insane” to deny that it’s possible to support conservative policy prescriptions without racist motives. I agree. But it’s equally insane to look at the landscape of American politics and fail to see the intimate connections between past and present racial appeals, and particularly the contemporary reliance of Republicans on stimulating grievances against minorities, “losers,” the “47%,” the “lucky duckies,” and various other euphemisms for people who differ from white middle- and upper-class voters in ways that cannot be ascribed to differences in philosophy or economics. In an earlier essay on Chait’s piece, I argued that antipathy towards “losers,” based on the natural but morally corrosive desire to treat one’s own more fortunate position as attributable to virtue and hard work, was probably the more fundamental touchstone of the conservative protest against equality than anything specifically to do with race. If we are not allowed to discuss these things because we are supposed to assume politics is all about pie charts and noble aspirations for our country, political discourse will indeed be remote from what we see and hear every day.

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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