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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

David Brooks and Anti-Anti-Racism

It’s been a big week for anti-anti-racism. Virtually the entire conservative world has waxed indignant about Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that racism is responsible for the unusual virulence of anti-Obama sentiment.
Listening to it all, you’d think the so-called “race card” was a much bigger problem in American society than racism itself, and that does seem to be what a lot of conservatives think. But it’s getting to the point where the argument seems to be that if anti-Obama protesters have any non-racial motives for their behavior, then mentioning race as any sort of factor (hard to avoid given the revival of screaming about “welfare” and the preoccupation with the marginal organzing group ACORN) is a terrible insult.
Witness David Brooks’ unintentionally hilarious column in the New York Times today. David jogged through last Saturday’s Tea Party demonstration on The Mall, and can assure us all that there were no racists there:

[A]s I got to where the Smithsonian museums start, I came across another rally, the Black Family Reunion Celebration. Several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African-American culture. I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with the mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.

Now David is a Yankee, so perhaps he can be forgiven for believing that mingling with black folks, listening to their music, and allowing them to prepare one’s food are things no racist could possibly do. If that’s the case, of course, there’s never been any racism in the Deep South, and neo-Confederate sentiments really are and were just about abstractions like “states’ rights.”
Unfortunately, the Brooks column never much rises above this sort of superficial argument that if there’s any evidence of non-racism among Obama opponents, then even mentioning racism is an outrage.
His main contention is that the Tea Party movement reflects an authentic all-American populist tradition dating back to Jefferson that is “ill mannered, conspiratorial and over the top — since these movements always are, whether they were led by Huey Long, Father Coughlin or anybody else.” So it’s “not race,” says Brooks. “It’s another type of conflict, equally deep and old,” and it’s mainly about Obama’s “elitism” and a “producerist” revolt against redistributionist policies. Nothing to see here, folks, it’s just good old-fashioned American populism.
You’d think maybe his own reference to Father Coughlin as an example of right-wing populism would alert Brooks to the folly of his argument. Was Coughlin solely motivated by anti-semitism? No, almost certainly not. Does that mean the anti-semitism he stimulated wasn’t real and dangerous, leading eventually to his suppression by his own bishop? Absolutely not.
Lord have mercy, David, think about it: the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t just “about race;” it was about hostility to immigrants and to some extent to capitalism; early twentieth-century Kluxers, in alliance with William Jennings Bryan, thought of themselves as “progressives.” That was rather cold comfort to the people they tormented and threatened.
No, I am not comparing the Tea Party folks to Klansman; I am simply noting that every racially tinged political movement in American history has, of course, had other, non-racial motivations, so simply citing such motivations doesn’t address the possibility of racial motivations.
It makes you wonder: what if Jimmy Carter had simply said that Obama’s angry opponents were “ill mannered, conspiratorial and over the top.” I suspect the overall conservative reaction would have been just about as wounded and self-pitying, but I doubt David Brooks would have agreed with him.
Indeed, this column concludes with the signature Brooks assertion of the equivalency of right-wing craziness and the reaction to it:

What we’re seeing is the latest iteration of that populist tendency and the militant progressive reaction to it. We now have a populist news media that exaggerates the importance of the Van Jones and Acorn stories to prove the elites are decadent and un-American, and we have a progressive news media that exaggerates stories like the Joe Wilson shout and the opposition to the Obama schools speech to show that small-town folks are dumb wackos.

So if you object to Glenn Becks’s ravings, you’re as guilty as he is of extremism, and moreover, you think small-town folks are dumb wackos.
That charge is at least as offensive as any over-attribution of racial motives to Obama-haters.

7 comments on “David Brooks and Anti-Anti-Racism

  1. Kevin Hilke on

    I’m glad to see you outline here what a poor thinker Brooks actually is, Ed, because he commits these sorts of errors and deploys these sorts of circumlocutions in his arguments very, very often–far more often than he should given his reputation as a relatively intellectually thoroughgoing conservative. Thanks.

  2. Richard on

    Bill from INDC makes a point but there are several more. Just the raucous created by the suggestion of racism would make one think it “touched a nerve” or as our Grandmothers used to say “hurts as the truth often does”. Shakespeare would probably observe that the naysayers “protest too much”.
    But more specially I do not recall a “Clinton the magic Caucasian” or emails depicting #42 in black face.
    Racism, the inclusion of ones race in refusing to accept him, is out there. I submit: Barrack the magic Negro and challenge anyone including Limbaugh or Brooks themselves to deny a racial angle there. Emails circulated by GOP officials that show Obama as a witch doctor with a “bone in your nose” and as a ‘spook’ in a chart of America’s presidents are racists. I saw no teabagger objections. Why would Brooks make such a fool of himself? It’s an integral part of Limbaugh’s shtick but I do not recall it of Brooks.

  3. Nacho on

    Thanks for the column. I agree wholeheartedly. One of the things that gets left out of such conversations is that racism itself has transformed. It does not require white sheets and hoods, and it finds expression in far more subtle cultural forms.
    Given such changes, looking for the traditional (?) signs of racism will likely yield nothing, or only the fringe that is then easy to dismiss as, well, fringe. But racism is as much found in the consequences of racist discourse, baiting, supremacist ideologies, and cultural attitudes that perpetuate, even if unintentionally, dismissal, marginalization, discrimination, supremacist thinking, cultural determinism, and so forth.
    It is no surprise that Glen Beck and his like would say they are not racist (and maybe even believe they aren’t) while they still would say, “but all those folks are taking over America and soon we will be a real minority around here…”
    If there is one characteristic about racist and discriminatory attitudes that should be taken always into consideration is its penchant to reject any such definition and identity, to deny itself and its consequences as racist.

  4. janinsanfran on

    Of course the antics we are seeing include racial venom. This is the United States of America and we have a Black president. We’d have to have left behind our entire history if a significant theme of opposition to the man’s policies wasn’t racial repulsion. Any assertion that this isn’t about racism in large part is simply absurd.
    Having a Black president creates a difficult problem for opponents: how to express disagreement without raising the national demons. Good luck …

  5. sqkelly on

    Here is my simple question:
    Obama is suggesting a return to the tax policies of Bill Clinton, many of the domestic policies of Bill Clinton, and the foreign policy of Bill Clinton. His health care proposals share a great deal with Bill Clinton’s. Where was this outrage in 1993-1994? No teabaggers then. Obama and Clinton are both Democrats. No teabaggers then. Obama and Clinton are both white…oops.

  6. Bill from INDC on

    You know, this is an interesting and intelligent critique of the NYT column … that I disagree with. Because, just as you point out the flaw in Brooks supposed assertion that the movement is not racist because of an incomplete set of observations, charges of racism against the tea party folks are also vulnerable to this critique of generalization.
    The question is not whether the Tea Party movement has some racists, or even whether there is a racist undercurrent to some portion of it. The question, as defined by those who have brought up racist charges (ie Carter), is whether that is a defining or even significant characteristic.
    When you get down to brass tacks on that question, the Brooks column maintains merit.
    Populism, or anti-elitism, has a very strong history in this country. It is a far stronger motivator than whether Barack obama is black.
    One only has to look at the exalted position of columnists like Thomas Sowell have within major quarters of the right wing, or compare Obama’s electoral margin with the overlapping number of people who are displeased with his health care efforts, to understand that there is something else going on besides the tired, simple and ultimately dismissive narrative of racism.

  7. George on

    Brooks thinks racist attitudes can only be confirmed if the participants actually sign confessions. So much so that he can’t acknowledge that starting a presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi with a generous dose of states’ rights bait might just be seen as playing on the racial animosities of southern whites.


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