Left-leaning writer Jonathan Chait—I won’t exactly call him a “liberal,” for reasons that will soon become clear—recently stirred up some trouble by complaining about runaway “political correctness” among his fellow lefties. His most telling examples are from an online discussion group for women writers in which the left’s obsession with “race, class, and gender” has been carried pretty much to its logical conclusion.
On July 10, for instance, one member in Los Angeles started a conversation urging all participants to practice higher levels of racial awareness. “Without calling anyone out specifically, I’m going to note that if you’re discussing a contentious thread, and shooting the breeze…take a look at the faces in the user icons in that discussion,” she wrote. “Binders is pretty diverse, but if you’re not seeing many WOC/non-binary POC in your discussion, it’s quite possible that there are problematic assumptions being stated without being challenged.” (“POC” stands for “people of color.” “WOC” means “women of color.” “Non-binary” describes people who are either transgender or identify as a gender other than traditionally male or female.)
Two members responded lightly, one suggesting that such “call-outs” be addressed in private conversation and another joking that she was a “gluten free Jewish WWC”—or Woman Without Color. This set off more jokes and a vicious backlash.
Chait has gotten a lot of criticism from the left for challenging the approved left-of-center groupthink. But he has also gotten a lot of criticism from the right for having enforced that exact approach plenty of times when it served his own purposes. As Sean Davis argues, Chait thinks political correctness is bad—when it’s directed against him and people like him.
Yet there is a very specific reason Chait came to believe that he could demand “political correctness for thee, but not for me.” That reason reflects a whole era of racial politics that is reaching the end of its line.
I have observed several times before that the actual essence of the Obama era’s “post-racial” politics is: white people calling other white people racist. The true icons of racial politics in our era are not a fiery Jeremiah Wright or Jesse Jackson or even Al Sharpton, taking the white man to task for keep black folk down. No, it is the average Obama voter—a left-leaning, college-educated white person like, well, like Jonathan Chait, who uses his support for Obama and the Democrats’ agenda as evidence of his enlightenment, which in his mind makes him superior to Obama’s critics, who must be motivated by insidious, secret racism. That is the signature of today’s racial politics: white people using the issue of race as a tool to position themselves as superior to other white people.
The ultimate explanation of this comes from Shelby Steele’s short, incisive volume White Guilt. Steele explains that the political issue of race is no longer actually about race or about equality. It’s about moral authority—taking it away from others and seizing it for yourself. The overthrow of segregation, he argues, led to the psychological complex of “white guilt,” in which a widespread cultural admission of the evils of racism and segregation led to a mass destruction of moral authority for whites, presumably in favor of blacks. But Steele notes how a great deal of the lost moral authority was intercepted. Whites looked for ways to purge themselves of “white guilt,” and thereby seize back the lost moral authority, by making a public show of disassociating themselves from the history of racism. Leftist politics and (quite improbably) the Democratic Party took advantage of this and made themselves into the agents of disassociation. This is the reason Democrats have to keep portraying Republicans and the right as the home of racism. They need to do it so that, by opposing the right, they can establish themselves as officially Not Racist and therefore as possessing a special moral authority denied to others.
And who has indulged in this kind of argument? Well, I remembered writing something a while back about precisely this phenomenon. So I looked it up and realized that I was responding to an article by—you guessed it—Jonathan Chait.
The gist of Chait’s old article, as I summed it up, was to “nam[e] our roles in this new artificial drama of racial politics—liberal tries to shut down the debate by accusing conservative of racism, conservative reacts with defensive anger.” After briefly considering whether this might be unfair to the right—ya think?—he goes on to justify it, falling back on an array of howlers, like the claim that the old pro-segregation Democrats became Republicans (it’s not even remotely true) and a description of Republicans as being obsessed with “scrubbing away the historical stain of racism.” Sorry, wrong party. He ends by complaining about black conservatives who speak to Tea Party groups. As I summed it up:
Here we have yet another “progressive” who opposes the (ideological) mixing of the races. Don’t those Tea Partiers know that they’re only supposed to have white members and white heroes? And don’t those “right-wing African-Americans” understand that black people are supposed to associate only with Democrats?
So you can see Chait’s dismay at seeing good white “liberals” have their Not Racist credentials challenged by those who are farther out on the left. Don’t they know how the system is supposed to work? Appeals to race, class, and gender are supposed to be used to grant moral authority to (mostly) white, male, heterosexual, “cis-gendered” folks like himself, no questions asked. He is not supposed to find himself on the receiving end and have his moral authority threatened by a bunch of uppity non-binary POCs.
Chait writes glowingly about how political correctness was supposedly tamed in the 1990s. (If you failed to notice PC going into “remission,” you’re not alone.) He attributes this to the election of Bill Clinton. Well, that gives the game away, doesn’t it? Race, class, and gender politics are all well and good, so long as they are subordinated to the political needs of a white Southern corporatist with a roving eye for busty interns.
In short, the mainstream left wanted to have its racial politics and not get eaten by it, too. But once a system is in place and its basic principles are established, it tends to keep operating to the logical end point of those principles. And the logical end point is exactly what Chait is whining about: Binary Persons Without Color on the left now face being summarily labeled and dismissed as bigots—the very same treatment they have so eagerly applied to the right for so many years.