Even If Perry Isn't Racist, It Doesn't Make Cain a Race-Baiter

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And anyone who got upset when the Godfather Pizza CEO called Niggerhead Ranch 'insensitive' takes umbrage too easily

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Aristotle argued that for every virtue, there is a vice of excess and a vice of lack. A courageous man, for example, is understood to occupy a middle ground between rashness and cowardice, while a confident man must exhibit neither undue humility nor excessive vanity. My reaction to racial controversy is informed by the same sort of attitude. What I want from politicians, pundits, and my fellow citizens is impossible to sum up in a single word -- ideally they'd react to a given situation with some mix of thoughtfulness, sensitivity, pragmatism, empathy, and the presumption that folks with whom they disagree are operating in good faith. Far easier is describing the excesses to be avoided. On one hand, there is excusing racism, or acting as an apologist for bigotry; on the other, there is taking undue offense, or reacting with exaggerated pique.

Of course, in between condemning "nigger" and taking umbrage at anyone who says "niggardly" there is an enormous gray area. And that is where Herman Cain found himself when asked about the fact that a parcel of land where Gov. Rick Perry used to hunt was named Niggerhead Ranch. Cain replied, "That's just very insensitive. There isn't a more vile, negative word than the n-word, and for him to leave it there as long as he did, before I hear that they finally painted over it, is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country." Two days later, he said he'd moved on. Millions of Americans, presented with an accurate account of his response, would say that Cain gave a perfectly reasonable answer, whether or not they agreed with it. That's my judgment. And in the absence of other data points, I neither think that Perry is a racist nor that this revelation should hurt his chances in the GOP primary I hope he loses.

As it turns out, however, some in the conservative movement see it differently. They say that Cain took undue offense, or exaggerated his pique to score political points. The term they use for this is "playing the race card." These critics believe that the Washington Post "played the race card" when it published the story about Niggerhead Ranch, and that Cain became complicit in their unseemly hatchet job. I'd be in respectful disagreement with these people if they consistently criticized folks who react with pique to racial controversy, and championed the ideal that in racially fraught situations, basic goodwill ought to be assumed whenever humanly possible. There is a strong case to be made that we'd all be better off if we took offense less readily.

For the most part, however, these Cain critics adopt their tough-minded, skeptical, anti-taking offense attitude only when it is liberals, especially liberal minorities, accusing white conservatives of racial transgressions. It's as if, having long ago encountered Al Sharpton and the least thoughtful members of the Duke faculty, they lost the capacity to evaluate racial controversy on the merits, and just started assuming, sans evidence, that a huckster lurks behind every one. Let one of these people discover even the possibility that an unfair racial criticism has been levied, however mild it may be, and they whine and play the put upon victim every bit as much as any undergraduate activist taking unnecessary offense at something written in the school newspaper.  

Rush Limbaugh is the most pronounced example of this pathology. In this monologue, he expresses disappointment in Herman Cain for being complicit in "smearing" Perry. So just how objectionable does the talk radio host find off-the-cuff accusations of racial misbehavior generally? Back in 2009, I cataloged the accusations of racism that he levied himself in 2009 alone:  

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates? "He's a racist," Mr. Limbaugh said. "He's an angry racist." Sonja Sotomayor? "She's a bigot. She's a racist," Mr. Limbaugh said. "How can a president nominate such a candidate? And how can a party get behind such a candidate? That's what would be asked if somebody were foolish enough to nominate David Duke or pick somebody even less offensive."

President Obama? He's "the biggest reverse racist in history." On another occasion: "Just as he is ACORN, just as he is Van Jones, he is racism."On a third: "How do you get promoted in a Barack Obama administration? By hating white people." So implicitly Mr. Limbaugh is labeling multiple figures within the administration as racists too.

Democrats generally? "The racism that everybody thinks exists on our side of the aisle has been on full display throughout their primary campaign."

Liberals? "You know, racism in this country is the exclusive province of the left."

The media circa January? "We're witnessing racism all this week that led up to the inauguration. We're being told that we have to hope he succeeds. That we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father's black, because this is the first black president."

Minorities generally? "The days of them not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That's what Obama's about, gang. He's angry, he's gonna cut this country down to size, he's gonna make it pay for all the multicultural mistakes that it has made, it's mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what's going on."

Oh, and don't forget the NFL. As of this week, it is "an outpost of racism and liberalism." 

Next take Andrew Breitbart, the ends-justify-the-means rabble rouser. Remember when he published that misleadingly edited video that made USDA employee Shirley Sherrod appear as if she was proudly racist, when in fact she was offering a self-deprecating story about overcoming prejudice? And when, confronted with the full video, he claimed that he was trying to prove that the NAACP was racist, not Sherrod herself? Despite the fact that an innocent woman was unfairly tarnished as a racist thanks to Breitbart's negligence, Glenn Reynolds gave him the benefit of the doubt, airing numerous Breitbart defenses, attempts to focus blame on others, and even statements criticizing the victim of the debacle.

Quite a contrast with Instapundit's brief commentary on the Niggerhead Ranch controversy. "I think that Herman Cain hurts himself by joining in on these attacks," Reynolds wrote. "His big appeal is that he's not just another black race-card-playing politician. Climbing on board with the Post's hit piece suggests that actually, he is." Interesting to learn that, for Reynolds, "the big appeal" of Cain wasn't his policy platform or his CEO experience, but the fact that he's black, yet  doesn't behave in a way that fulfills the conservative stereotype affixed to other politicians of his race.

But Cain is the one "playing the race card."

There are people who cynically use unfair accusations of racism for political advantage. Faked hate crimes are the most extreme example, and prove that there is at times a perverse incentive to cast oneself as victim or to exaggerate perceived offenses against oneself. And that is what the conservative movement has done. It has gone from critiquing racialist excesses on the left to marshaling those excesses as evidence that all racial grievances are cynical, illegitimate, and immediate cause for taking offense. This persists even as the right nurtures its own racial grievances -- thus the misinformed Fox News viewers who believe that discrimination against whites is as big a problem in America as discrimination against minorities. And the conservative movement tick of whining constantly about the race card being played.

Extreme oversensitivity about race and exaggerated grievances annoy me whenever I see them. But at this point, I am as annoyed by all the folks who are playing the Playing The Race Card card. They're every bit as whiny, opportunistic, and destructive of trusting relations among the races as anyone, and they sometimes even manage to commit both excesses of lack -- ignoring actual racism and taking undue offense at racial controversies -- at the very same time. 


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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