Tuesday, April 8, 2014

An Additional Thought on Jonathan Chait's Essay 'The Color of His Presidency': Why Are White Liberals So Afraid to Call Republicans Racist?

White racial terrorism in places like Tulsa and East Saint Louis was the tyranny of white supremacy in human form, bombing, killing, raping, and burning black people alive and their communities to the ground. Anti-racism has created no such terrors or blood-letting where white conservatives are victims.

I would like to develop my earlier thoughts on Jonathan Chait's bizarre feature for New York Magazine about race in the Age of Obama a bit more.

Tommy Christopher, writing over at The Daily Banter, kindly linked to my criticism of Chait's false equivalence excuse-making for white conservative racism.

He featured the following observation from a longer essay where I argued that:
Jim and Jane Crow were terrifying. Lynching parties that dismembered black bodies, cut them apart, forced black men to eat their own penises as the price for a “merciful killing”, or the white rampaging mobs that destroyed black wealth, life, and many dozens (if not hundreds of black communities) during the Red Summers of the American post World War one era, are terrifying. 
The slave ship and the many millions killed during the Middle Passage are terrifying. The chattel slavery auction block is terrifying. The mass rape and murder of black men, women, and children on the charnel house plantations of the American slaveocracy, both after the seasoning process and in the hell that awaited the survivors of the Middle Passage, is terrifying. 
Men like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn who can kill black people at will under Stand Your Ground Laws are terrifying. Police who have the power of life and death, and can use that power to murder black people who are “armed” with house keys, wallets, phones, or their empty hands is terrifying. The “don’t get killed by the cops” lecture that responsible black parents give their children is terrifying. 
The thought that how despite one’s successes and educational accomplishments that because they are identified, however arbitrarily, as “black” in America means that their resume will get thrown in the garbage, a mortgage will have higher interest, or how doctors will not give proper treatment or necessary pain medication, is terrifying.
It would seem that in some ways I "buried my lede".

The most troubling part of Chait's essay "The Color of His Presidency" is his suggestion that anti-racism is some type of "terrifying" social force in American life.

He wrote:
Few liberals acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power. Conservatives feel that dread viscerally. Though the liberal analytic method begins with a sound grasp of the broad connection between conservatism and white racial resentment, it almost always devolves into an open-ended license to target opponents on the basis of their ideological profile. The power is rife with abuse.
Of course, such a claim is absurd. However, it is compelling for those who believe that white supremacy is a passing fad, something vanquished from American life, and how people of color--black folks in particular--are now the "real racists".

Shorter version: if black and brown folks would stop talking about racism the problem would go away. This is the central fantasy of aggrieved whiteness with its delusions of white innocence and black bullying along the colorline. American society was forged by white racism and white supremacy. The valiant resistance against the status quo by people of color and a few white allies helped to make America a more inclusive democracy.

I have read The Color of His Presidency several times. It has received praise from Isaac Chotiner at the New Republic as a "superb" piece of work. Others have also said kind things about The Color of His Presidency. I remain vexed and disappointed by it.

I generally like Chait's work. But, his latest essay makes me feel like I have watched some Lovecraft-inspired play that makes its viewers go insane. As a piece of work that purports to analyze the role of race in American politics, The Color of His Presidency is akin to the Yellow King: one cannot study it too much or they will go mad.

[I wonder how President Obama, who counts Chait as one of his favorite political essayists, feels about The Color of His Presidency? I worry that Barack Obama would agree with Chait's central thesis about racial "paranoia".]

Nevertheless, I have gleaned several conclusions from Chait's riddle.

The Color of His Presidency is the very type of writing on race by supposed "liberals" which makes people of color and serious anti-racists deeply suspicious of the commitment of the mainstream "Left" (who are really centrists and Left-leaning Republicans of another age) to social and racial justice.

The Color of His Presidency rings of a default type of white tribalism and an effort to understand and excuse-make for white racism across the political divide. As such, racism is just a bad habit or an outlier of bad behavior practiced by otherwise good and decent white people who we may happen to disagree with politically.

The centrality of white supremacy to American politics and history is lost and pushed away because it is inconvenient for how Whiteness (and White people) imagines itself as benign.

Chait's piece also seems to rely on a logic that racism in the service of politics is "just" politics as usual. Politicians will use any tool to gain leverage. If racism and white supremacy--or white racial animus and resentment--are part of the toolbox, then a given political actor should be judged not as a "racist" per se, but rather as someone who uses racism for political advantage.

Politics is about power, the allocation of resources and opportunities, and basic matters such as safety and security. For people of color, white racism and white supremacy are political projects that profoundly impact our life chances, health, sanity, and freedom from violence in negative ways.

America practiced state-sponsored racial terrorism and tyranny against non-whites for most of its history. Apartheid was not a crime against humanity only in South Africa. American Apartheid, de facto and de jure, was beaten back as a force of law, but remains entrenched institutionally as a type of day-to-day practice in the post civil rights era.

The victims of white racism, especially those people of color excluded from systems of white privilege and white advantage, cannot sit back and compartmentalize white supremacy as some type of interesting intellectual puzzle, or a footnote asterisk on public policy. That is a luxury allowed for those who do not have to deal with the lived consequences which result from excuse-making for white racism.

Chait's exercise in white victimology and excuse-making for Republican racism exhibits a common habit of white liberals and centrists among the American pundit classes (and likely of many white folks in their private lives) when the "race issue" comes up in conversation.

Racism is complicated and multi-dimensional. Nevertheless, we can develop a basic rubric for understanding it. We are what we do; our habits are reflections of our values and beliefs. As such, racists do racist things. As Chait concedes, for decades the Republican Party has relied on a concerted effort of white racist appeals, dog whistles, and other tactics under the guiding principle known as the Southern Strategy, to mobilize its base.

At present, the Republican Party is a White identity organization, a White People's Political Party, and the "polite" face of White Supremacy in America.

Conservatives who advance those interests are racists.

This plain on the face fact is dodged, avoided, talked around, and denied by the mainstream news media. Why? because to tell the truth is to risk career suicide by falling into the trap laid by the White Right and its propaganda machine wherein charges of racism are fuel for the rage engine.

Movement conservatism in the post civil rights era is functionally the same thing as racism. The Republican Party has developed this brand name. They should be held accountable for the decision.

White supremacy and racism are civic evils. By implication, those who practice, enable, support, or use white identity politics for political gain--such as the Republican Party in the Age of Obama--are practicing civic evil.

Why are liberal pundits like Jonathan Chait afraid to hold conservatives and the Republican Party accountable for their racism as opposed to making excuses for it?


Miles_Ellison said...

Modern Republican politics is basically an apology to southern whites for ending slavery.

lioness said...

IDK dude. I remember going to work after the Rodney King beating and the other liberal there, my foreman, was all, "Well, it doesn't look good because of the context. You gotta think these things out." And I'm like, "What's to think about? You don't rape women, you don't hit babies, and you don't beat a guy who's falling down drunk to a pulp like that. YOU JUST DON'T."

I don't get the problem some liberals have with taking a moral stand. Context be damned, hurting people who can't defend themselves is just plain wrong.

RPM said...

There aren't liberal pundits on TV or mainstream newspapers. If any politician says they admire any "journalists" writing, they are so far rightwing cooperate apologist that you might as well call them sociopathic propagandists. Which they are. Chauncey, you incorrectly labeled "liberal" commentators centrist. That's being overly generous. The green party is centrist. Ralph Nader is centrist. These people are reformers not radicals. If you are a reformer you still believe in an inherently corrupt system and moderate is all you could hope to be. The true left are radicals and you won't ever find them within a 100 miles of the mainstream. The so called liberal pundits won't call a racist a racist because they don't care. They want to make money same as all capitalists. Work at MSNBC one day, Fox noise the next. One pays better than the other and has a different target list but the principle is the same. Don't say dick about those who sign your checks. If someone isn't racist they won't use racist tricks to achieve power or status. Racists are more flexible. Just because they do it doesn't make them foaming at the mouth, N-Bomb dropping, KKK wannabes but they are just as idiotic and mean spirited as their racist followers. The white fear of being labeled racist a fear routed in truth. Don't want to be called racist? Don't be one. This whole pity the bigot because they can't say bigoted shit any more, has got to go. Mainstream media will never be the answer, just part of the problem. If you had someone say the truth on TV it wouldn't be a revelation just an aberration that was a few days shy of an apology. Thomas Paine had it right centuries ago. "He who dares not offend can never be honest." Conservatives have managed to be both offensive and dishonest. Neat trick, if your impressed by nothing.

mbfromnm said...

The is another word for Chait's "terror" at the thought of being called "racist." The word is "accountable." It is my experience that most whites have no intention of ever being held accountable for our behavior toward people of color, especially black folks. The prospect of being held accountable induces some mighty strong feelings in Chait. He is so rooted in his white privilege that the very thought of it being pulled away induces the kind of fear that he labels as terror.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

"I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them. saying, "You exaggerate." They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one's word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.

"Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words "acceptance" and "integration." There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.

"Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

"You don't be afraid. I said it was intended that you should perish, in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go beyond and behind the white man's definition, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention and by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word "integration" means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become"

Myshkin the Idiot said...

"They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it."

This is important.

13% of all news reporters are African American, Native American, or Latino. 13% of all those groups combined. White America is still debating the relative humanity of people of color.

In an argument with a black conservative I was accused of liberal racism. Of assuming that black people do not have the ability to overcome the odds white racism has historically put up against black men and women and only recently began easing the pressure from their communities and their ability to pursue their dreams.

White liberals have to be prepared to discuss white racism, confront their own prejudices, and learn from people of color. I think that's what the status quo doesn't want, white people learning from black people.

joe manning said...

This discussion involves the question is man basically bad or good? Right and left tend to cleave respectively on this point. The conservative holds the former view because it corroborates the notion that everyone is racist; so all ethnicities and classes naturally hate each other. Such myopia has no basis in fact, which raises the question do conservatives believe their own propaganda? Some do some don't. Its very unlikely that Caits is a true believer but he like many other conservative and liberal browns, whites, blacks, and Asians gain lucrative advantage by being party to the white supremacist social contract. Their intellectual dishonesty is consistent with their negative opinion of humanity and supports the "divide and rule" alliance between the rich and poor whites.

DanF said...

Over at TalkingPointsMemo, Ed Kilgore has a piece up titled, "You Don't Have to be Racist to Practice Racism" - which is a pretty effing stupid thing to say. What's worse, Josh Marshall agreed with the sentiment in his introduction of the piece. I like Josh, and find him to be very thoughtful, so I fired off a message that I hope he reads and takes to heart:

Can you follow Buddhism and not be a Buddhist? Can you
practice philanthropy and not be a philanthropist?

I get what Ed Kilgore is trying to say, but he is wrong. By
definition if you are practicing racism (implementing racist policy and political strategies), you are a racist. You may not be a bigot (i.e. you don’t personally harbor animosity toward people that don’t look like you), but you are a clearly a racist. We cannot let folks soothe their conscience simply because they have no personal problem with people of color even as they deny them the right to equal protection under the law.

sherifffruitfly said...

"Why Are White Liberals So Afraid to Call Republicans Racist?"

because white liberals HATE not being on the same side as the rest - the overwhelmning majority - of white folks.

chauncey devega said...

Racial tribalism. Sad, huh?

chauncey devega said...

Chait is doubling-down on his heel turn in a new piece. The angle is working for him as the heat is growing. His claims are even more ridiculous in terms of excuse-making for white supremacy.

chauncey devega said...

Very smart:

"he conservative holds the former view because it corroborates the notion that everyone is racist; so all ethnicities and classes naturally hate each other."

chauncey devega said...

Love the data points. Representation and who calls the shots about what version of reality they are going to depict in the service of their corporate masters.

Derek said...

Great post. I think the biggest lesson in all of this is that we're not "all on the same page." My white liberal friends from high school and I were cool until my black academic advisor (the man who helped got my black self into college) quit and sued the school. I was shocked by the rhetoric "After all this mostly white prep school did for you?" "You and your family had a house on campus" etc These were 18 year old white kids talking about a grown ass man like he hadn't earned his keep... like he wasn't even human. I was similarly shocked by the response when I quit my first real job to go get my masters. Things were mostly cordial. But then we had a going away party. A few drinks deep, my boss told a random story about gentrification and said a homeless man who used to harass her as a student kinda looked like my father (whom she met once). At the time I had just started meditating and took everything inside me to stay cool. So long story short, race is pretty damn powerful. It often trumps partisanship. White liberals know this, they're just not honest about it.

DanF said...

I'm going to throw out a hypothesis here for why liberals don't want to call Republicans racists that gives them some benefit of the doubt. For white liberals, the word racist comes with some action items. If you identify someone as a racist, in your world view, that person becomes a vile piece of shit with which the liberal person should have little in common with and should shun. We don't have a diplomatic vocabulary for the bullshit that the GOP does, and by our nature, we don't want to turn the volume up to eleventy, so our elected officials say bullshit things like, "although the proposed legislation disproportionately disadvantageous people of color, I know Senator McWhiteman, and Senator McWhiteman is NOT a racist." Why? They probably genuinely like Sen. McWhiteman, or they are working on him with other legislation. Liberals are also people that have a lot of self doubt and empathy. "How do I KNOW he's a racist? I better be sure because there is no clawing that cat back into the bag!" It's weenie bullshit and one of the reasons I get disgusted with team "D" from time to time. In our minds, calling someone a racist shuts down dialog, and that is truly something liberals like to avoid.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I have a source for them, too.

"In 2007, the percent of blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans working in America’s daily newsrooms stood at 13.62 percent, a slight decline over the previous year, according to ASNE’s annual newsroom census. Those groups represent 33 percent of the nation’s population."


"The numbers are not much better on the broadcast side. Local TV news shows boast about the rainbow of faces featured on the 10 o’clock news. But the real power lies with the news managers and producers who pick the stories and steer the coverage. That’s the “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage that passes for real reporting. Crime victims, welfare mothers and child abusers are the stars of those shows. The public housing resident with the rag on her head, the gang-banger slouching out his signs. It’s a sensational and only small slice of African-American life today.

The decision-makers don’t know any better. Most of them don’t live in those communities and they probably don’t know too many of the people who do."

PrettyFootWoman said...

I worry that Barack Obama would agree with Chait's central thesis about racial "paranoia".]
Wow....I was with you till that backhanded slap you delivered to the President...

kokanee said...

Jonathan Chait is a good authoritarian Democrat. I'm thrilled that you (CdV) and Coates are taking him down. I've never liked him. Coates is great.

chauncey devega said...

Obama is the scold in chief of black america. Moreover for strategic reasons Obama does not talk about race in America in any way that sustains truth-telling. His July 4th speech is great example of his excuse-making for white racism. Obama is a President who happens to be black. He is not a Black President.

PrettyFootWoman said...

WOW...you say he is not black...and the white folks say he is too black,,,,2 sides of the same coin..

joe manning said...

The the 2004 movie Crash presents racial animosity as the norm for every ethnicity. Imagine giving 3 academy awards to such blatant propaganda.