The Magazine

Addicted to Race

The left’s long twilight struggle against imaginary bigotry

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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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.

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