Racism and the Right
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.
The Coalition Instinct, Again
Which brings me back to Coaston. She objects to the very common and—often, but not always—very accurate complaint that conservatives get called racists simply for refusing to be liberals. I’m not going to recount all of the myriad examples of this sort of thing. But suffice it to say every Republican presidential nominee in my lifetime has been called a racist for unfair reasons—and so have their voters. Joe Biden—now an insufficiently woke moderate—told a black audience that Republicans want to put them all back in chains. Similarly, while I am open to the idea that opposition to Barack Obama had more to do with race than I realized, I honestly think we’d be in a better place today if the left appreciated that opposition to him had less to do with it than they claimed.
If you think conservative opposition to Obamacare can only, or merely primarily, be explained as a product of racial animus, then you cannot claim to have been “right” about the right. Had Hillary Clinton won in 2008 and proposed the same legislation in the same way, the Republican opposition wouldn’t have looked appreciably different. How do I know? Because I remember the opposition to HillaryCare. And if your go-to retort to that is, “Yes, but that was sexism!” then I think we can end the conversation right here.
The Republican Party today is radically less racist than the Democratic Party was when I was born. That’s in no small part because the country is astoundingly less racist today than it was when I was born. And yet, to listen to ten minutes of MSNBC, you’d think racism is the defining problem of our time, save perhaps for gun violence, which also happens to be declining.
For twenty years, I’ve been arguing with left-wingers who insist National Review is doctrinally racist because of some bad editorials and articles, almost all of which were written before I was born. They never cite articles that contradict the thesis, or even wonder why I might be offended by the insinuation that I was working for a racist institution, because the question is never about the weight of evidence or the totality of the issue. It’s a witch-hunt mentality that confuses any evidence with sufficient evidence. Every exhibit A is a smoking gun.
When you’re outside a group looking in, you see all sorts of things that seem abnormal to you but normal to those within the group. Alexis de Tocqueville saw some truths about America that only a visitor could appreciate. If you ever stayed with another family, you know the feelings of curiosity, unease, and maybe envy that come with experiencing another family’s definition of normal.
The left looks at the right and sees small things that seem big to them, and vice versa. Social media and the general suckitude of the times we live in make it even worse, because each side picks the dumbest, ugliest, or most extreme examples of “them” and says, “See, this is what they’re really like!” It’s an industry now.
I’ve written a bunch about the “coalition instinct.” And I implore everyone to read John Tooby on the subject. Tooby’s basic point is that we have an evolved need to belong to groups, and once we are in these groups, we judge behaviors and norms within the group differently from how we judge behaviors outside of it. “This is why group beliefs are free to be so weird,” he writes. Moreover, he adds, groups tend to define themselves oppositionally to other groups. A rabbi at my brother’s funeral told me that Jews used to lay flowers for the dead. But when the Christians started doing it, the Jews stopped.
The left increasingly defines itself as “anti-bigotry,” and so it sees in conservatism more racism than is there in order to clarify that identity. Conservatives are often baffled by the internal weirdness of where this project takes the left, as when it defends discrimination against Asians in higher education or makes allowances for a bigotry in Muslims that they condemn in Christians on the grounds that Muslims are part of the coalition of the oppressed.
I think Coaston tries honestly to understand the right, far more than many of her colleagues covering the same beat. But I think she still can’t fully escape the assumptions of her coalition. She claims Robert Bork was a racist—which is a smear, even if she didn’t intend it as one—because he argued against a ban on literacy tests. Follow the links and you’ll find it’s based on a shoddy piece at The Nation. Bork opposed literacy tests as a tool of disenfranchisement for minorities. But he disagreed with the legal reasoning in Katzenbach v. Morgan. Bork was called a racist because his jurisprudence wasn’t convenient to a worldview that said the Constitution should authorize anything in the name of anti-racism. If you believe, as I do, that some bad things are constitutional and some good things aren’t, that doesn’t make you a racist. It makes you a constitutional conservative. And constitutional conservatives have every right to complain when they’re accused of being racists simply because we don’t think the Constitution is an open-ended warrant to do whatever the forces of Progress prioritize this week—even if the forces of Progress have a good argument for their priorities.
She also claims that Steve King is a racist. And on that score she’s … entirely right.
It would be good if conservatives had listened to liberals sooner about Steve King. It would also have been good if liberals had listened to conservatives about Bork. In short, it would be good if all people listened more to the people who disagree with them. Because no coalition has a monopoly on morality or facts.
Various & Sundry
Sorry for the lack of jocularity this week. I just didn’t feel like this was something I should risk excessive glibness on. I’ll try for extra pull-my-finger jokes next week. Meanwhile, if you can, please help me keep the subscriptions to this “news”letter chugging along. If you can forward to folks or otherwise cajole them to sign up at Reagan35x.com, I’d be grateful. The same goes for the Remnant podcast. Word of mouth is supremely important, and if you can help, it would be great. We had two excellent—if at times depressing—episodes this week. And next week’s episodes promise to be good, too.
Canine Update: Zoë has a really passive-aggressive side to her. Often when we’re watching TV after dinner and it’s clear that she’ll get no more scraps or scritches, and particularly if Pippa is in one of our laps, she will go off and find something to chew on that she knows she’s not supposed to chew. The most common choice is one of my daughter’s shoes, or occasionally a pen. The other night, she went into the pantry and retrieved an un-opened plastic container of cat food and started to chew on it. Like the Far Side polar bears said about the igloo: “Crunchy on the outside, chewy in the center.” Everything else is going well, though she was very upset about the fact that their soccer field is chained off for maintenance. Yesterday, they did some important digging (even though they did seem to stop for a beat and ask why they were enjoying themselves so much). Pippa is really enjoying the cooler mornings. And she’s getting a fairer distribution of the love. As a result she’s being a better girl. If you watch closely here, you can see Pippa giving a little polite “Thanks” nod for her morning treat. Oh, and I found some puppy Pippa and Zoë video to boot. Which reminds me: In case you needed another reason to subscribe to this “news”letter, once we get the technical stuff worked out with the launch of the new venture, I’m going to start including some extra special subscribers-only videos (including coveted Fafoon content) only in the G-File.
Last week's G-File
This week’s first Remnant: American Carnage
Don't overinterpret Trump's strategery
My appearance on the Bulwark podcast
The latest Remnant: Math!
The perils of bipartisanship
And now, the weird stuff.
Debby’s Friday links
Ornamental garden hermits
Giant flying squirrels
Why deep sea creatures got so big
This day in history – July 26
The search for Earhart’s plane
NYC banana peels
Are sleep trackers bogus?
Rock eating worms
5 facts about the moon
What ticks do to the body
Permanently magnetic liquid
Emojis in the workplace
How the internet has shaped language