Dear Reader (particularly those of you looking for Mueller-free content),
Let’s leave what you’ve said or done out of this. If you’ve never had a friend or loved one who said something bigoted, you live in a bubble. If you don’t have a grandparent or uncle or aunt, never mind high school friend or college buddy who joked, generalized, or complained about “them”—where “them” can be blacks, whites, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hispanics, Irish, Italians, Arab, Israelis, Poles, women, Asians, gays, straights, transgenders, or any combination of these or other obvious categories—then you might as well stop reading here, because it’s doubtful we share enough life experience to communicate.
Now, I assume most of you are still here because, again, if you answered “no” to this question, you are a very abnormal person—statistically speaking. Just to keep this from getting too abstract, let’s say your grandfather was prone to saying racist things about Asians because of the bitter feelings he clung to after fighting in Korea or Vietnam. Did that define him for you? Was the answer to the question, “Who is your grandfather?”: “He is the racist who doesn’t like Asians?”
I’ll come back to this point in a second. I bring all of this up because I’ve been thinking, writing, and debating the issue of racism a bunch lately. Jane Coaston at Vox penned an essay titled: “A question for conservatives: what if the left was right on race?”
It’s an interesting essay, though I have many disagreements of varying degrees. But let me start by saying that an easier—and better—question would be: “A question for conservatives: What if the right was wrong on race?”
This is a very different question, because it’s easy to argue that the right was wrong on race without having to concede that the left was right. As I’ve argued many times, the right, broadly speaking, was wrong on the question of civil rights in the 1960s. I am fully aware of all the caveats right-wingers pull off the shelf in these discussions, about federalism and the Constitution, about the fact that Republicans were on the whole better on civil rights than Democrats, that what constituted “right” and “left” a half century ago was hardly the Manichean binary people use as a shorthand today. But none of that changes the fact that the right—with many notable individual exceptions—failed to appreciate that Martin Luther King Jr.’s project was a necessary and consistent extension of the best principles found in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. If you want a very nuanced and thoughtful examination of all this, including National Review’s own failures, I highly recommend this piece by William Voegeli from 2008.
Liberals hate many of these caveats, no doubt partly out of a mix of shame over the Democratic Party’s history on race and pride over its transformation. They also dislike any pushback on their narrative, because they think all of the racists left the Democrats and joined the Republicans en masse and unreconstructed, which is nonsense. Many of the most racist Democrats were full-blown progressives on economics. But that’s a subject for another day. But one point that gets left out of these squabbles is the simple fact that conservatives want to take some share of ownership over America’s racial progress. That is a good thing. If these conservatives were the racists they’re often painted as, they would celebrate their alleged ideological forbearers’ resistance. They don’t, and that is a good thing. And it is a sad and weird aspect of our tribal times that large numbers of liberals don’t want to allow them to.
Fast-forwarding to more recent times, it’s easy to acknowledge that many on the right failed to appreciate the racial undertones in some Obama criticism, most obviously the “Birther” conspiracy theories that so exercised some on the right. The mere fact that so many on the right were, for a time at least, willing to embrace the alt-right as part of the conservative coalition doesn’t prove that the left was right all along about the right. But it does demonstrate that something had gone terribly wrong on the right. And the fact that there are still people, including the president, willing to play footsie with alt-right is a shameful thing.
The Left’s Race Problem
An enormous amount of left-wing commentary and analysis about the right, Trump, and a host of American history and institutions generally seems to work on the assumption that if they can just prove X is racist, nothing more needs to be said. George Washington is getting painted over at a San Francisco High School named after George Washington because the only dispositive issue is racism. Huck Finn gets reduced to some paper with the N-word in it. We just went through a riot of asininity over the Betsy Ross Flag because a handful of people claimed it was racist.
Last week, a host of people said Donald Trump should be impeached because he’s a racist who tweeted racist things. Now, I happen to think that racism—or rather racist action—is an impeachable offense, in principle, because I think Congress has the authority to impeach a president for anything it deems a significant breach of public trust. The hitch is that Congress needs the will to do it, and it won’t without the public on its side, neither of which it has. But for a minute there, it seemed like liberals believed Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution read: “High Crimes, Misdemeanors & Racism.”
For what it’s worth, as I wrote this week, I don’t think you can successfully defend Trump from the charge of racism (or xenophobia or nativism). But his racism isn’t some fully hatched ideological point of view; it’s the parochial racism of 1970s New York City, which still viewed race through the prism of a kind of Tammany Hall-style tribalism. You can imagine him reading the New York Post in 1979 saying, “Look at what the blacks want now!” And given that he toiled in the kind of transactional swamp where people like Al Sharpton claimed to speak “for the blacks” in his various shake-down efforts, you can kind of understand it, without necessarily forgiving it. He sounds like some cops, cab drivers, and doormen from my youth, not Oswald Spengler or E.A. Ross. In his views, he’s closer to Andy Sipowicz in the early seasons of NYPD Blue than George Wallace. I’m not defending it; I’m just noting it’s not what defines him. And even if you could convince millions of Trump supporters that he is racist to one extent or another, that doesn’t flip a switch in everyone’s minds the way it does for the race-obsessed.
Which brings me back to your racist grandfather. Say I prove to you that your grandfather is racist. What then? Will you disinvite him from Thanksgiving? Will you disown him? The most obvious and honest answer is: “It depends.” Is he shouting the n-word at restaurants? Is he bigoted towards your friends? Is he burning crosses? If he’s already doing these kinds of things, you probably didn’t need to be persuaded he was racist in the first place, and you probably would have taken action already (assuming you don’t share his views). But if he’s the kind of oldster who still uses “problematic language” and tells the occasional inappropriate joke, you probably just ignore it or gently admonish him and turn the subject to something else.
Which is to say we treat people we know personally as people, with flaws, quirks, sins, etc. The problem with American discourse today is that we treat people we don’t know as facile categories.
There was an excellent interview on NPR this week with Ibram X. Kendi, an academic who specializes in racism. He made the point that we “imagine that the term racist is an identity, is a fixed sort of category.” But that’s not racism, he explained. Racism is a thing people do, in deeds and words. Scholars of racism can point to “people who, in the same speech, in the same paragraph of the same speech, will say things that are both racist and anti-racist.” There are many stories about Lyndon Johnson’s casual, conversational racism. He also signed the Civil Rights Act. Should we ignore the latter and only focus on the former? William F. Buckley took some very regrettable positions on race early in his career. He changed his mind. People do that. Because people are complicated.
But identity politics doesn’t allow for these complications. One slip-up and you can go from an “us” to a “them.”
The only thing I’d add to Kendi’s argument is that anti-racism is an identity, too.