Why the Left Invokes the Politics of Race
In recent weeks, the issue of race has been rearing its ugly head in the election, and it hasn’t been by accident. It has been deliberately invoked, more and more frequently and more and more explicitly, by the left. I expect this to get worse as the election goes forward, and probably much worse if President Obama loses.
Ta-Nehisi Coats set off the most recent bout with a column complaining that President Obama has been dodging the issue of race.
In a democracy, so the saying goes, the people get the government they deserve. Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites. Any black person who’s worked in the professional world is well acquainted with this trick. But never has it been practiced at such a high level, and never have its limits been so obviously exposed. This need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense, bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.
So Al Roker, the genial NBC weatherman, is an Uncle Tom now? Basically, Coats is complaining that Obama doesn’t wallow in racial grievance often enough.
To get a flavor for how Coats would go about discussing the issue of race, note how he complains that “Obama’s first term has coincided with a strategy of massive resistance on the part of his Republican opposition in the House.” Talk about “code words” and “dog whistles”! The phrase “massive resistance” conjures up memories of Southern resistance to racial integration, yet it is used here to refer to opposition to Obama’s economic policies.
That gives you an idea what we’re up against. This is an attempt to racialize all political differences.
Jamelle Bouie echoes Coats’s argument. While he acknowledges that “of course, race isn’t the reason conservatives oppose Obama,” he doesn’t have the sense to stop there. He continues:
With that said, I’m honestly amazed that—for many people—it’s beyond the pale to accuse a political party of exploiting racism for political gain. We’re only 47 years removed from the official end of Jim Crow and the routine assassination of black political leaders. This year’s college graduates are the children of men and women who remember—or experienced—the race riots of the late 1960s and 70s. The baby boomers—including the large majority of our lawmakers—were children when Emmett Till was murdered, teenagers when George Wallace promised to defend segregation in perpetuity, and adults when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed for his belief in the humanity of black people.
This completely misses the point. Accusing one’s political opponents of racism is beyond the pale precisely because the legacy of racism was so violent and murderous. In effect, to accuse an opponent of racism is to accuse him of incitement to murder. It is an attempt to destroy the legitimacy of the accused and cast him out of polite society.
This intolerance of racism is undoubtedly a sign of progress, but it means that accusations of racism have to be made carefully and based on clear evidence—not on vague insinuations of “code words” and “dog whistles.”
So ask yourself why anyone would be eager to make such accusations. For example, why would the left want to portray any mention of the Obama administration’s proposed changes to welfare reform as some kind of racial slur against blacks, rather than discussing this issue on the merits?
Well, the question answer itself, doesn’t it? The left has crafted the accusation of racism into a perfect weapon to win all political arguments before they start, by undermining the legitimacy of their opponents.
If you want to understand how this works—and defeat this smear tactic once and for all—you must read Shelby Steele’s book White Guilt. It is a relatively short and very readable overview by a “black conservative” (a label Steele resists) on the history of the political use of race after the civil rights movement. It is the rare kind of book that uses one simple idea to illuminates the whole landscape of American culture and politics.
Steele gives “white guilt” a very specific definition: “the vacuum of moral authority that comes from simply knowing that one’s race is associated with racism.” He explains:
Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed of it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty, and so on. They step into a void of vulnerability. The authority they lose transfers to the “victims” of historical racism.
He puts “victims” in quotes because this power is transferred to blacks, not by virtue of actually, personally having been victims of racism, but merely because they are of the same race as past victims. This second-hand moral authority is frequently invoked third-hand by left-leaning commentators with notably pallid complexions—yes, I’m talking about you, Chris Matthews—who try to demonstrate their own superiority, and gain back some of that power, by finding examples of white racism to denounce.
Never mind that in the process, they convey the message—stated pretty openly by The New Republic‘s Timothy Noah—that the words “welfare” and “food stamps” automatically refer to black people. Talk about a racially demeaning outlook!
The tragedy of white guilt, Steele writes, is that America put itself through a wrenching moral transformation in which it recognized and rejected the very real evil of racism, yet the perverse result was a crisis of morality legitimacy.
[W]hen white supremacy was delegitimized, whites did not simply lose the authority to practice racism. The loss of authority generalized well beyond that, so that whites also lost a degree of their authority to stand proudly for the values and ideas that had made the West a great civilization despite its many evils.
Steele would also discover how this limits blacks, who retain their own moral authority only so long as they go along with the orthodoxy of racial preferences and the welfare state and don’t become that unique brand of race traitor known as a “black conservative.”
Steele’s point is that the crisis of moral authority created by the success of the civil rights movement had the effect of delegitimizing the whole American system. But I think he gets the cause and effect a little bit backward. It is not that Americans realized the evil of racism and then began to doubt everything else about our system. Rather, there was a strain in American politics that wanted to delegitimize the whole system long before the civil rights movement and for reasons that had nothing to do with race. They wanted to delegitimize America for its capitalism and its individualism. But they could never make it stick. They could never make Americans feel fundamentally guilty about these things.
And then they discovered the issue of race. They found something that Americans really did have to feel guilty about, something which did undermine the legitimacy of our system. So they finally had their opportunity to portray the American system as such as evil and illegitimate—and to extend that collapse of moral authority into issues other than race.
This is why the civil rights movement looms so large in the memory of the left and why they keep trying to find ways to relive it. Those were the glory days in which they managed to call the whole American system, including capitalism, into doubt. Hence their eagerness to drag race into every issue, particularly economic issues. As they see it, the invocation of race automatically confers moral authority on the left while draining it away from the right.
In the process, of course, they are not doing any favors to blacks or to the poor. Steele recounts his own experiences as young functionary working for Great Society welfare programs. He notes that because the purpose of these programs was to buy moral legitimacy for politicians on the left—literally buying it, with taxpayer dollars—nobody ever inquired too closely about whether any of those programs actually worked. The nominal beneficiaries of government largesse were, as always, merely incidental to the wider political purposes of the program.
More deeply, the left’s obsession with race invokes the poisonous legacy of racism in order to keep it poisonous. In this respect, I think President Obama’s supporters are not doing him any favors. For many white voters—and I would hope for more than a few blacks—part of the excitement of electing the first black president was the hope that we could put the whole bitter era of racial politics behind us. But as with many things about Obama, voters put the projections of their “hope” in place of the actual reality of Obama’s message and record, an error many of them are now correcting.
The proof that the game is up is the way Jamelle Bouie was forced to admit that “conservatives don’t oppose Obama because of race.” Next time, perhaps he will have the good sense and decency to stop right there—and then begin debating the issues on their actual merits.