A perennial issue that’s been bubbling up a lot since the rise of Barack Obama has been whether and when it’s fair for progressives to suspect racial motives in conservative political appeals. Obama’s race has made the subject pretty much unavoidable, but the special ferocity of conservative reactions to Obama’s candidacy, presidency, and policies has raised the possibility that something a bit unusual is going on. But if the subject ever comes up, conservatives now angrily accuse their accusers of “playing the race card,” as though the issue is by definition illegitimate or demagogic.
Frank Rich of the New York Times stirred up the latest contretemps with a column that suggested the heat behind much of the grassroots anger towards Obama comes at least in part from “fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country”–e.g., white men. At RealClearPolitics, a noted analyst of and sometimes advocate for the political views of white men, David Paul Kuhn, issued a response that accused not only Rich but “liberal elites” of perpetually playing the race card in order to ignore or dismiss legitimate discontent with liberal policies.
I have no interest in adjudicating the Rich/Kuhn dispute, other than to say that Rich is clearly imprecise in his attribution of semi-racist motives to conservatives, and that Kuhn trumps that mistake by pretending that Rich has accused every single white person who doesn’t approve of Obama’s job performance of being a racist.
I am interested in Kuhn’s broader argument, which is pretty characteristic of conservative “race card” rhetoric. His standard on this subject seems to be that if there is any possible non-racial motive for a political posture, then it’s irresponsible to impute any racial motives, not just today, but in the past:
For decades, leading liberals explained white concerns about urban upheaval, crime, welfare, school bussing, affirmative action and more recently, illegal immigration, as rooted in racism. Not safer streets or safer schools. Not concern about taxes for welfare, as working class whites (like all races) struggled in their hardscrabble lives. Not regular men who never knew “white male privilege” but were on the losing end of affirmative action (recall Frank Ricci). Not job competition or economic class. Instead, leading liberals constantly saw the color of the issue as the only issue.
I don’t know which “leading liberals” he’s talking about, but generally speaking, that’s just not true. “Liberals” have typically viewed conservative appeals on issues like crime, welfare, busing, affirmative action, welfare and immigration as designed to play on both racial and non-racial fears and concerns. Kuhn, however, seems to think so long as there is an available non-racial motive for a “concern,” then examining possible racial motives is out of bounds. It’s got to be one thing or another–all race, or all something more noble-sounding or at least less disreputable.
It doesn’t take a lot of deep thinking, or “liberalism,” for that matter, to understand the folly of this approach. Self-conscious, highly-motivated racists do not often proclaim their racism these days, precisely because it is disreputable and does not win friends or influence people. And even back when open racism was more common, racists often denied racism as a primary motive (viz., Confederate and neo-Confederate claims that secession was not “about” slavery, but about states’ rights, constitutional protections for private property, southern “culture,” anti-capitalism, or regional honor–anything other than the ownership of other human beings). And during the more recent period of southern resistance to civil rights, which I experienced personally, and whose constitutional “theories” have been so avidly seized upon by many of today’s conservative activists, you didn’t hear much talk about segregation as a means of subjecting black folk as inferior. It was all about “racial peace,” and “the southern way of life,” and again, state’s rights and constitutional protections for private property. And it didn’t fool a soul.
If David Paul Kuhn really believes that antagonism to busing, affirmative action, welfare, and immigration did not have any racial content, or that conservative appeals on these issues (which, as far back as George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign, always avoided overt racial language) did not count on racial resentment as one factor for their success, he’s living in a land innocent of actual experience with human beings.
If he doesn’t believe that, and has at least one foot in the real world where racial motives coincide with others, then the issue is not some sweeping effort to delegitimize the “race card,” but an examination of when political appeals cross the line into deliberate efforts to promote white racial resentment.