Thursday, July 30, 2009

"You're Racist!"

I was thinking about this last night while watching coverage of the brouhaha resulting from Glenn Beck's claim that the President "has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture" and is a "racist." Beck's comment is just the latest in what some see as an escalating series of racially-tinged attacks on President Obama, following Lou Dobbs's promotion of the racist birther conspiracy theory and Rush Limbaugh's attempt to foment racial hatred by declaring that Obama's comment on the Gates arrest is "a black president trying to destroy a white policeman." Limbaugh also recently claimed that "white firefighters" were "under assault by agents of Barack Obama" and "now white policemen are under assault."

You don't need to be an expert in American history to cringe at this sort of language. The attempts to paint Obama as "other," to cast a powerful black man as the alien enemy of white culture, and to paint community defenders (police officers and firefighers) as under "assault" from a subversive racial minority all fit comfortably within the legion of tactics historically used by American racists, and in particular, white supremacists. It's no accident that their preferred attack against Obama, a politician known for his admirable and sorely-needed efforts at racial bridge-building, is calling him a "racist." Projection is typical among these people, but in this case they're also conscious that Obama is undermining them. Without stoking cultural grievances and racial resentment, guys like Rush Limbaugh would have no career. In making their millions out of this sort of divisiveness, they've adopted (and taken to the extreme) a practice they used to criticize liberals for: using the charge of racism to silence political opposition.

In his excellent column today, E.J. Dionne, while discussing a slightly different issue, nonetheless nails the point I'm trying to make:
From the time I was in college in the late 1960s and early '70s, I have been incensed at the elitism so often shown by privileged liberals toward the white working class. And I felt this as someone on the left.

I wrote a doctoral dissertation inspired by that concern, and the current controversy led me down memory lane, through college newspaper archives, to see if my recollection of my earlier views matched reality. For what it's worth, here's what I wrote in 1973, the year I graduated from college:

"What is most disturbing about conservative attacks on the student left is that many of the charges were right on the mark. The student left often did come to be characterized by its own forms of elitism and intellectual arrogance. ...

"Even more pernicious and divisive were race issues. It is clear, of course, that black demands for political and economic equality are justified ... (but) the way these issues developed ... served to estrange the working class white from the movement for equality. White workers rebelled because they felt they were being forced to pay an inequitable share of the costs of equality. ... Sadly, whites who protested against being singled out were too often attacked as racists. ... In the end, the losers were those who had the greatest stake in social reform -- white workers, blacks and the student left."

There was (and remains) a frustration among conservatives in the post-Civil Rights era that certain policy discussions with racial elements - crime, welfare, drugs, and education, to name a few - could not be openly and candidly discussed without liberals crying "racism!" A conservative with legitimate concerns about welfare reform, for example, could be (rightly or wrongly) associated with Reagan's reckless blather about "welfare queens" and the racially-tinged associations that went along with it. Of course, actual racism should be condemned whenever it rears its ugly head, but there's no question that worries about being called a racist have had an eerie silencing effect on many conservatives, moderates, and more than a few liberals. In our legitimate effort to stigmatize bias and hatred, we've made it tougher to have frank discussions about important topics. Or so the critique goes. I think it has some merit.

Strange, then - or maybe not so strange - that the most prominent rash accusations of racism today are coming from the right. The simultaneous radicalization and dumbing-down of American conservatism has been almost unbearably ugly to watch. It's become an even bigger concern now that irresponsible charges of racism have been fused with broader attempts to sow racial hatred and divisiveness among Americans. Beck, Limbaugh, Dobbs, and their ilk are playing with fire.

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