The Blog

Surprise: JournoList Reveals Left Uses Race as a Political Football

Post-racial.

1:18 PM, Jul 20, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

If you ever had any doubt that the left's incessant cries of "racism" have become largely a cynical political ploy designed to marginalize and shut up political opponents, behold the birth of a racism accusation in all its naked glory as discussed on the infamous JournoList.

In 2008, when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright had outlived his usefulness to Barack Obama as a political shepherd through the South Side of Chicago and was becoming a serious liability to his presidential aspirations, the JournoList got upset. So, the infamous listserv of 300-400 like-minded liberal activists, policy wonks, and mainstream journalists, created by the Washington Post's Ezra Klein (then at the American Prospect), took action:

The crisis reached a howling pitch in mid-April, 2008, at an ABC News debate moderated by Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. Gibson asked Obama why it had taken him so long – nearly a year since Wright’s remarks became public – to dissociate himself from them. Stephanopoulos asked, “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?”

Watching this all at home were members of Journolist, a listserv comprised of several hundred liberal journalists, as well as like-minded professors and activists. The tough questioning from the ABC anchors left many of them outraged. “George [Stephanopoulos],” fumed Richard Kim of the Nation, is “being a disgusting little rat snake.”

Others went further. According to records obtained by The Daily Caller, at several points during the 2008 presidential campaign a group of liberal journalists took radical steps to protect their favored candidate. Employees of news organizations including Time, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Guardian, Salon and the New Republic participated in outpourings of anger over how Obama had been treated in the media, and in some cases plotted to fix the damage.

In one instance, Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent urged his colleagues to deflect attention from Obama’s relationship with Wright by changing the subject. Pick one of Obama’s conservative critics, Ackerman wrote, “Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.”

A simple solution to a complex problem. The Democratic candidate for president had cynically declared a hateful but powerful preacher his spiritual leader in order to be annointed in the Chicago neighborhood where he began his political career. When he was called on the association, and its obvious conflict with his message of post-racial unity, he declared that he could "no more disown" Wright than he could the black community or his own grandmother. The speech (later leatherbound and sold like bumper stickers by Obama's campaign), with its soaring prose, sweet anecdotes, credible messenger, and big-picture pleading, led everyone to feel petty for wondering whether a 20-year spiritual relationship might offer some insight into Obama's character. But when Wright launched a media tour trashing Obama himself, the candidate could not countenance it in the same way he countenanced 20 years of America-bashing and race-baiting, so Wright was quickly disowned a month after the "I can no more disown him" speech.

What better to paper over the cynicism and contradictions of the Democrats' candidate than some good, old-fashioned, crude shouts of "racist"? To their credit, several JournoList contributors suggested Ackerman's line of attack was not wise precisely because it contradicted so clearly Obama's message of healing. It was more of a strategic disagreement than a disagreement on the merits of the racism charge, but it's something:

Kevin Drum, then of Washington Monthly, also disagreed with Ackerman’s strategy. “I think it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama is trying (or says he’s trying) to run a campaign that avoids precisely the kind of thing Spencer is talking about, and turning this into a gutter brawl would probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly. After all, why vote for him if it turns out he’s not going change the way politics works?”

But it was Ackerman who had the last word. “Kevin, I’m not saying OBAMA should do this. I’m saying WE should do this.”

And, that last sentence is the key, isn't it? Barack Obama has always been more than happy to outsource his accusations of racism, smearing of entire activist communities, and flat-out fabrications to surrogate liberal activists and media happy to do it for him. When questioned specifically, he or an administration official will always give a perfunctory "of course we don't think all of our political opponents are racists" answer. But when, for instance, the First Lady is called upon to address the NAACP minutes before it is to vote on a resolution condemning the Tea Party movement's racism, not a finger is lifted to engender that post-racial spirit of unity Obama is perfectly positioned to encourage in close allies.

Liberals do it because it works. In a standard that works rather conveniently for liberals, and has been embraced by much of the media during the post-Obama Tea Party era, white conservatives and their allies are considered racists for merely being white conservatives. No video evidence is necessary to condemn, and no number of repuditations is sufficient to clear conservatives of this taint. On the other hand, when black leaders and liberal allies are caught on tape being racist or hateful, as in the case of Wright, Jones, the New Black Panthers, or NAACP leaders, it is also racist to point out that racism.

A bit of a Catch-22 for someone like, say, Fred Barnes or Karl Rove, who will be accused of racism regardless of the evidence, and who may raise no evidence against accusers.

Jules Crittenden calls it "race-baitism." It's a very powerful political weapon with very little downside (Unless you're Glenn Beck, in which case the potential price for crying "racist" without reason turns out to be rather high.), and it's often those who profess to be most concerned about racial discord who deploy it without consideration:

Because while racism is something no responsible party or people wants to be associated with, race-baiting is a free throw...The president whose historic election was supposed to help us get past this hasn’t shown a lot of interest in disputing any of it, though I think he did get in an offhand dismissal of the idea in a TV interview a while back. He seems to have settled for just being the first black president as his niche in history, rather than being someone who tried to actually do anything about racial tensions.

Too bad. I don’t know about you, but I wish we could all just get along, and stick to arguing about things we actually disgree about.

I think we're finally getting to a point where the overuse of the "racism" charge since Barack Obama became president has weakened its sting. This story should weaken it further, as it reveals how comfortable some of our most passionate racism watchdogs are with sowing racial discord for partisan advantage.

I think this is healthy—for those falsely accused, for the political process, for race relations, and for those who suffer real racism of the sort that's not immediately politically useful to a listserv of mostly white journalists in Washington, D.C.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers