Addicted to Race
The left’s long twilight struggle against imaginary bigotry
Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Can you hear the dog whistle?
Slowly but surely, the toxin of bias is being leached out of American culture, if incrementally and by degrees. A Catholic was elected president in 1960, and since then Catholic nominees and candidates have become commonplace. A Jew was nominated in 2000 for vice president, and was a help to his ticket. In 2004 and 2008 respectively, Joe Lieberman and Rudy Giuliani ran for president, and their names and religions did not become issues. The country’s first black president was elected four years ago by a fairly large margin. This year, a black woman and a Hispanic were the first choices of many Republican voters for vice president, and children of Hispanic and Indian immigrants are rising Republican stars. Pockets of bias remain, but this country has reached the stage at which no success is beyond the reach of any American for reasons other than personal failings. But as racism fades, concern over it seems to grow stronger than ever, at least with a clique on the left that longs to hold on to the issue, and works without stopping to keep race alive.
Once it became clear that old-fashioned racial prejudice truly was en route to extinction, a movement arose to insist that racism wasn’t really down and out but had merely gone underground and lived on in nefarious guises, in some ways worse than before. In the mid-1980s came Critical Race Theory, which maintained that racism was ingrained and pervasive and never would fade. This was followed by “unconscious racism,” “subliminal racism,” “implicit racism,” and “aversive racism,” as underemployed academics and scholars sought to find words for inchoate feelings they found rather hard to describe. The gist of them all was that if people stopped saying or doing things thought of as racist it didn’t mean they had ceased to be racist, but that they were sub-or-unconscious racists, who spoke in “dog whistles” or “code.” Thus, if you couldn’t convict people of what they said or they did, you could still indict them for what you thought they were feeling, these poseurs being the most tricky and sinister problem, as their subconscious, denied, and subliminal bias was cloaked in the guise of good will.
This was good news to the philosopher Touré, who approvingly quoted Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow, in his column in Time magazine: “Decades of cognitive research demonstrates that both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions even when an individual does not want to discriminate. . . . The fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may have black friends and relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias.”
Added to this is the theory of Racial Resentment, making its debut in the 1996 book Divided by Color, which attempted to “distinguish between those whites who are generally sympathetic toward blacks and those who are generally unsympathetic” by examining attitudes through which people express racism without actually mentioning race. Not surprisingly, these tend to be linked to conservative theories, such as seeing people as individuals, not as group members, objecting to those who rely upon welfare (unless in the case of a dire emergency), and thinking that blacks, like the Jews and the Irish, ought to work their way up by themselves. Counting these views as racist ignores the facts that (a) conservatives also resent whites who rely upon welfare and (b) respect blacks (and others) who rise on their merits, showing respect for Colin Powell the soldier, admiration for Herman Cain, who worked his way up to become a rich man and an industry leader, and veneration towards Condoleezza Rice, whose speech at the Republican convention in Tampa about her rise from her girlhood in the segregated city of Birmingham to the position of her country’s top diplomat earned a prolonged and noisy ovation that brought the entire large crowd to its feet.
Nonetheless, such theories are staples of liberal discourse, used to discredit the center-right social agenda, based on Al Gore’s belief that people who call themselves colorblind use the term “the way that duck hunters use their duck blind—they hide behind it and hope the ducks won’t know what they’re up to,” as the then vice president once more or less famously said. The appeal of these theories is that no proof is needed; they assume guilt, and there is no way for those accused to prove their innocence. The response to people who claim they have never done or said anything racist is to tell them that they are either subconsciously racist or have been sending out signals under the radar, by way of “dog whistles” or “code.”
This predicate—that racism is eternal, ubiquitous, and hidden, but not hidden so well that the left cannot find it—has given rise to a cascade of projection on the part of liberal pundits. In 2008, there was Timothy Noah’s breakthrough masterpiece, “When ‘Skinny’ Means ‘Black,’ ” claiming that references to Barack Obama’s slender and ectomorph qualities were an invitation to readers or listeners to fixate on his tawny hue. “Barack Obama is the first African American to win a major-party nomination for president. . . . African Americans are distinguishable from other Americans by their skin color. . . . When white people are invited to think about Obama’s physical appearance, the principal attribute they’re likely to dwell on is his dark skin.”
When Rep. Joe Wilson rudely erupted, “You lie!” during the president’s 2009 address on health care reform (Obama was talking about whether illegal immigrants would be qualified under his plan), a small voice sounded in Maureen Dowd’s subconscious, and she heard it say, “You lie, boy!”
When the Tea Party emerged, it was presumed to be racist, as there seemed no other possible reason to oppose this black president, and Tea Party members are the sort of people—entrepreneurial, small-town, and middle-America—liberals think racists should be. When Tea Party protests drove Obama’s poll numbers down in the summer of 2009, Salon’s Joan Walsh said the GOP had “blackened” him. When the Obama taunt this summer of “You didn’t build that!” met instantaneous pushback, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine said it had made people furious because it had made him seem black. “The key thing is that Obama is angry, and he’s talking not in his normal voice but in a ‘black dialect,’ ” Chait wrote. As a matter of fact, it was not a black dialect, but a demagogue’s accent. It ticked people off not because it was “black,” but because he came off as derisive and mocking, and dismissive of entrepreneurs and hard work.
Under the new rules, words seldom mean what they used to, or what the speaker intended them to mean, but what liberals say are their coded meanings—cues sent by racists to reach other racists. Federalism now means “states’ rights,” which means the Confederacy; government spending means money taken from whites, and sent to black supplicants; crime means “Willie Horton,” the convicted killer whose unsupervised furlough, defended by Michael Dukakis, tipped the presidency in 1988 to the elder George Bush. Merely to bring up the issue of welfare reform is said to be a “dog whistle” or “racially charged.” It’s almost as if liberals assume most blacks are spongers or criminals, or think they aren’t troubled by assault and/or murder if the criminals are white like themselves.
Meanwhile, new words are constantly found to be racist, such as “golf,” used, according to MSNBC legend Lawrence O’Donnell, to link Obama to Tiger Woods, the mixed-race golf legend who lost his wife and his image in a personal meltdown; and “Chicago,” Obama’s headquarters and permanent residence, called out of bounds by O’Donnell’s colleague Chris Matthews because black people live in it. At this rate, the next words to be defined as racial dog whistles will be “and” and “the.”
Now, it surely is possible that racism may be more pervasive than some people imagine, that millions of people have been tainted by it, and that some have sinister feelings which they fail to perceive. But it’s also possible that there are millions of people to whom race is normally a matter of indifference—and that their numbers are growing by the year. It’s happened before. In 1848, when the Irish came over, they were viewed by the WASPs with great trepidation, described as a lower species, and subject to a form of de facto apartheid. Yet the “First Irish Brahmin” was sworn in as president 52 years ago. When the Poles, Jews, and Italians came, they faced similar prejudice; Catholics, Jews, and Protestants viewed each other and each other’s religions with suspicion and fear. Bias prevailed, ambitions were thwarted, deserving people were kept out of the better schools, better jobs, and better neighborhoods. Time passed. The WASPs, Irish, Poles, and Jews got over each other. The Catholics, Jews, and Protestants got over each other, to the point that many white European Americans today are genetic concoctions of diverse sets of people who once were quite hostile tribes. It did not happen at once, and it did not happen completely, but it did happen, and the same process is now taking place between brown and black and white people. George H. W. Bush has grandchildren who are half-Mexican. Colin Powell has grandchildren who are half-white. In the end, the race problem will find its solution when enough people neither know nor care very much exactly which races they are.
Until then, some on the left will stay with this ship till it goes down completely, as their reasons for clinging are strong. First of all, it’s a nice little racket, creating employment for sensitivity trainers, diversity counselors, race theory scholars, and other superfluous vendors of unneeded products. Second, it’s fun for the Democrats, who like telling minorities that Republicans want to burn churches, lynch people, and otherwise see them in chains. Third, and perhaps most important, it’s a self-esteem drug for a whole class of people, who seem to find their raison d’être in the belief that they are not only more cool and more hip than their opposition, but also more noble at heart. This is an addiction they aren’t up to breaking and a habit they will not kick soon.
In the meantime, we must bear in mind that the liberals’ racist fixation rests on illusions of various sorts. First is their theory that they alone among mortals have rare and evolved clairvoyant powers that allow them, perhaps like The Shadow, to look into other men’s minds. But what they find in them is just what they put there: It was Maureen Dowd who heard the word “boy” when she thought of Obama; it was Timothy Noah who could not stop thinking, “He’s black!” when he looked at Obama; it’s the MSNBC people whose hearing is tuned to discern all the dog whistles. Who else besides Lawrence O’Donnell hears “PGA tour” as code for “deep-rooted white insecurities about black male sexuality” as Mark Steyn asked? To all of this there is one answer: Next time a liberal tells you he looked into your mind and found out you’re a racist, tell him you looked into his mind and found out that he’s nuts.
While claiming to see and to hear things that aren’t there, liberals appear deaf and blind to things that are there, insisting Republicans are the party of angry old white men, frightened of change and modernity, obsessed with the loss of their status and power, who wage endless war upon immigrants, women, and blacks. Two things about this deserve further notice: that these diversity gains were Tea Party-driven and came from the most maligned (and most conservative) wing of the party, and second, while Democrats draw more votes from blacks, Hispanics, and women (and have more delegates and more elected officials); the Republicans have far more state office holders, potential presidents, and future political stars. Liberals can call conservatives wrong on a number of issues, but they can’t call them bigots. This is one case that is closed.
The race addicts are also hypocrites, and this gives the great game away. Their keen ears are deaf to a whole range of insults: No one hears dog whistles blow in the direction of black conservatives, black moderates, or any blacks (or Hispanics, or women) not wholly embraced by the left. No complaints came from the dog-whistle-industrial-complex when Clarence Thomas was portrayed as a lawn jockey, or Condi Rice depicted in cartoons by white and male liberals as a parrot, a pickaninny, and Prissy in Gone With the Wind. No such complaints came a few months ago when Rep. Allen West was depicted in a campaign ad by his white opponent as sporting a gold tooth while beating a series of winsome blonde women.
For the perfect example of how this all works in practice, let us look to the transcript of Hardball for its program of August 15, just after the clean and articulate Vice President Biden had used a faux-Southern accent to tell a largely black audience that a Republican proposal on financial regulations would “put y’all back in chains.” The program was devoted to disputing the claim that the phrase “put y’all back in chains” was a slavery reference. “Is shackles any different than chains?” asked host Chris Matthews. “The Republicans . . . have been using the word ‘shackled.’ . . . Can you build a war, a civil war over that?” Guest Howard Fineman was eager to help him.
Certainly not, Fineman assured him. “Joe Biden was trying to be charming Joe Biden, and he made a mistake there, clearly. But the Romney campaign’s motive in putting attention on it is not to cleanse the campaign of any racial reference, it’s probably just the opposite. If they can stir up arguments about race . . . they’re only too happy to do so.” When Republicans complained about Biden’s rhetoric they were “shining light on the race issue. You want to bring up race. You want to talk about it. If you didn’t, you would have let it go.”
Got it? When Joe Biden talks about slavery, it’s proof that Republicans are race-baiting. This is how corrupt the Keep Race Alive movement has gotten. Treat it with the contempt it deserves.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.
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