Palin: The First Black President Wants to Revert to Pre-Civil War Society

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In her view, the very act of acknowledging or talking about race's role in U.S. history makes one a racist.

Naturally, someone had to ask Sarah Palin about the Derrick Bell-Barack Obama flap. Here's what she said on Sean Hannity's show Thursday:

What we can glean from this is an understanding of why we are on the road that we are on. Again, it's based on what went into his thinking, being surrounded by radicals. You could hearken back to the days before the Civil War, when too many Americans believed that not all men were created equal. It was the Civil War that began the codification of the truth that here in America, yes, we are equal and we all have equal opportunities, not based on the color of our skin. You have equal opportunity to work hard and to succeed and to embrace the opportunities, the God-given opportunities, to develop resources and work extremely hard and as I say, to succeed. Now, it has taken all these years for many Americans to understand that the gravity, that mistake that took place before the Civil War and why the Civil War had to really start changing America. What Barack Obama seems to want to do is go back before those days when we were in different classes based on income, based on color of skin. Why are we allowing our country to move backwards instead of moving forward with the understanding that as our charters of liberty spell out for us, we are all created equally?

It's important to have the full quote to see just what she's saying here. (Side note: Palin often wears a Star of David necklace, but in displaying one so prominently for the end of Purim, she seems to invite parallels with Queen Esther.)

The most immediate problem here is the basic one of the entire Bell "controversy": Bell wasn't a violent revolutionary but an academic theorist and campaigner for equality; there's no evidence that Obama was a zealous apostle of Bell's critical legal theory; and Obama's term in office, whatever other criticisms one may make of it, hasn't been characterized by radical black nationalism.

What makes Palin's take different and more problematic is the idea that Barack Obama wants to take the nation back to the days before the Civil War. Just think about that for a second. Palin claims that the president, a man who would most likely have been a slave had he lived in antebellum America -- or, had he been lucky enough to be one of the small percentage of blacks who was a freeman, would have been at constant risk of kidnapping and enslavement -- wants to return the country to those days.

She claims that Derrick Bell, who served in the Justice Department in the years immediately following Brown v. Board of Education, as the federal government dragged southern states kicking and screaming toward abolishing Jim Crow laws, wanted the nation to return to the pre-Civil War era.

She suggests that by taking part in a protest of the near-total lack of senior faculty of color at Harvard Law School in the 1990s, both Obama and Bell wanted to restore apartheid in the United States. Keep in mind, they weren't black nationalists calling for blacks to separate themselves, which might give some credence to her charge: they were advocating greater assimilation.

Incredibly, Palin seems incapable of uttering the word "slavery" when discussing the Civil War. Thankfully, she's not even flirting with the neo-Confederate belief that the war was about states' rights rather than slavery. But she doesn't mention slavery because it would clearly undermine her case: even the most hardcore Son of the Confederacy would see the absurdity of arguing that the first black president would like to return to the days of slavery.

At the same time, Palin manages to minimize the importance of the war itself. To hear her tell it, it was a revolution of thought, not unlike the Reformation or the Renaissance. It was not. The Civil War was a bloody conflict. More than a half a million Americans died. Only through that carnage was the liberation of slaves achieved, and it still took a century and many more lost lives for basic rights to be guaranteed for black Americans.

What Palin is expounding is a belief that has become common among conservatives. Almost all conservatives (like almost all liberals) agree that racial equality is the ideal toward which the United States ought to move. But many on the right have adopted the view that the only way to address racism is to pretend it does not exist. Thus, anyone who talks about race or acknowledges race or makes mention of the fraught American relationship with racism must by definition be a racist. Clearly, that makes Barack Obama and Derrick Bell racists. It also makes Juan Williams, a center-right commentator, a racist when he points out that Newt Gingrich is using "food stamps" as code for "black."

Of course, if not talking about race were the solution, Harvard might have had a racially diverse faculty by 1991, rather than lacking a single tenured female professor of color. (And remember that Bell was the first tenured black professor, so he knew whereof he spoke.) And though Harvard Law has made gains in that area, there's still a discrepancy -- so the more quiet discussion of the topic in the last two decades doesn't seem to have closed the gap.

Palin is right that the promise of America is that we "have equal opportunity to work hard and to succeed and to embrace the opportunities, the God-given opportunities, to develop resources and work extremely hard and as I say, to succeed." But it is a masterpiece of doublespeak to say that standing up and asking society to deliver on that promise undermines it.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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