There’s been a lot of discussion recently of whether the increasingly ugly criticism of Obama and the health care proposals is racist in character or just generically ugly. Jimmy Carter, of course, famously said that Joe Wilson’s outburst was racist, which in turn required Obama and press secretary Gibbs to underscore that they don’t think it was because of “the color of his [Obama’s] skin.” Which, of course, is distinct from race, but why should there be subtlety or distinction in a mass-media debate these days?
Meanwhile, Fox News commentator Greg Gutfeld writes a silly, sophomoric response that could easily have been written by any privileged white frat-boy in an intro sociology class. Keith Olbermann, for his part, put together a pretty good pastiche of examples of right-wing signs and statements that demonstrate racial, as opposed to just plain ugly, claims, which can be viewed online but I can’t figure out how to embed them: look at clip 3 and 4 of the September 16, 2009 show.
The problem here, though, is that while some of the signs and claims are transparently racist, others are not. The ones of Obama as the devil and Obama as a Nazi strike me as not racist even as they are obnoxious, ad hominem, and even frankly ridiculous.
Olbermann also had Melissa Harris-Lacewell on, who is quickly becoming a media darling for discussions of racial matters. (Clip 4 of the same show.)
Now, I loved Harris-Lacewell’s book largely because of its insistence on thinking seriously about the language and culture of everyday political talk and its sources. But her commentary, e.g., on the Olbermann show as well as on NPR last month seems to play right into the hands of a conservative establishment that would like to paint the left as so obsessed with pervasive racism that there is no way to talk about anything without it being infused with racism. I thought this exchange was particularly telling:
Mr. BLANKLEY: Yeah. I mean, that may well have been a true statement if you’d ask somebody in 1964, 5 or 7.
But in 2009, I don’t know anybody who thinks that way. I mean, this is out of the history books. This isn’t out of life. A lot of my friends are very conservative. I have liberal friends too, but – a couple of communist friends as well. But nobody thinks that way. I mean, this is trying to bring up an old problem that has largely disappeared.
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I appreciate your sort of personal narrative about the world that you live in where no one’s racist, and I think that’s fantastic. And for the most part, my friends aren’t either. But the realities of continuing racial inequality on everything from health indicators to housing to wealth to education – really, there’s almost no social or political or economic indicator where we don’t continue to see major gaps.
And I agree that we can have these tremendous inequalities, even without individual racist actors in the system. But the idea that race is a non-issue, I think is just willfully naive.
Mr. BLANKLEY: Well, look, look, I’m confident that most Americans who listened do not think that they’re opposed to this because they’re racist. But they’re opposed to this because they’re not socialists. And so, it undercuts the defense of the program if you’re trying to make a case to people who don’t buy your underlying assumption of. And so, I mean, I think the more that this argument is made, probably the worse for the initiative because I think it undercuts credibility.
Now, speaking sociologically I would actually agree that race and racism are so pervasive in American society as to mean that no major policy debate can take place without being infused with racism. It would be far better, IMHO, to make a much more nuanced argument about race and racism being social facts that, therefore, don’t require that their practitioners be racists themselves. Thus Joe Wilson’s son’s “not a racist bone” defense would be irrelevant because Joe Wilson need not be a racist for Wilson’s behavior and political leadership to be deeply inflected with race and racism.
I grasp that this is a difficult, nuanced case to make in a political environment obsessed with the personal character of political actors as the ultimate arbiter. But it sure would be nice to see.
(Sorry if this is a rambling post–I combined several ideas that have been stewing for a few days.)