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.
I’d say, for example, that the strange centrality of the (now defunct) inner-city advocacy group ACORN in recent conservative demonology is hard to understand as anything other than a deliberate dog whistle to racist sentiments. According to an awful lot of right-wing rhetoric<, ACORN's housing advocacy for poor and mainly black people helped create the mortgage finance crisis, which “>led to the financial collapse, which in turn led to demands by poor and minority people for relief, which then led to a wholescale socialist agenda, promoted by a black politician who worked with ACORN in Chicago, who counted on ACORN-secured fradulent votes for his election. Elements of this ACORN Derangement Syndrome made it into McCain-Palin campaign ads and speeches, and also fed the Republican-led drive in Congress to “defund ACORN” last year. Polls have shown a remarkable degree of rank-and-file Republican fixation on ACORN.
Is it possible to believe or promote these preposterous things about ACORN’s vast and sinister influence while being innocent of racial motives? I guess so, but it’s most unlikely, given the organization’s inner-city focus, inner-city staffing, and inner-city clientele. Why pick ACORN as the center of this conspiracy if you don’t want to paint it black? Beats me.
A closer call is the return of conservative “anti-welfare” rhetoric, generally abandoned after the 1996 national welfare reform law. It popped up first in Republican (and McCain) attacks on Obama’s campaign proposals (particularly for an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor), and then during the health reform fight. Recent conservative discussion of the the EITC as “welfare,” enabling people to vote for more benefits without paying taxes (not really true, since working poor families still pay heavily regressive federal payroll taxes), has been interesting because that rhetoric was rebuked by none other than George W. Bush when Tom DeLay raised it back in 1999. Combined with the “welfare queen” treatment of minority families who supposedly took out mortgages they couldn’t afford, triggering the mortgage crisis, the 2008 “anti-welfare” rhetoric sure looked suspiciously racial. And there’s nothing illegitimate, either, about wondering if the “undeserved” beneficiaries of mortgage relief or health care benefits might look a little dusky in the eyes of resentful middle-class voters who are being encouraged to oppose this sort of socialist looting.
The bottom line is that anti-Obama appeals aren’t just “about” race, but it’s naive to think they are just “about” everything else. He is, after all, the living embodiment of the elite-underclass “liberal alliance” that conservatives have been warning white middle-class folks about for several decades now. At an absolute minimum, conservatives ought to accept responsibility for the racial sentiments their rhetoric can sometimes stimulate, and try to avoid such appeals, instead of simply intoning “race card” and trying to shut down any discussion of the subject.