An MSNBC Host Exploits Racial Anxiety to Attack His Political Opponents

Martin Bashir likens criticism of the IRS to shouting the n-word at a black president.
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An MSNBC host, Martin Bashir, makes an inflammatory charge in a video commentary that aired Wednesday. As he sees it, Republicans are using the IRS controversy "in the exact same way" they used racist conspiracy theories about President Obama's birth certificate. Attacks on the IRS are therefore the latest front in the GOP's "war against the black man in the White House," he argues. After showing a series of Republicans issuing seemingly unobjectionable criticisms of the IRS*, he concludes that "this strategy is nothing new," and cites Lee Atwater in the course of explaining that it's the equivalent of saying "n-word n-word n-word." The three letters IRS sound so innocent, he says, wrapping things up. "But we know what you mean."

Some readers will regard this as mere noise from the national embarrassment that is cable news. Understandably so. Every day, pandering MSNBC hosts diminish themselves with unfair attacks on conservatives, and pandering Fox News hosts diminish themselves with unfair attacks on liberals. The segment is of wider interest only insofar as it normalizes a separate, pernicious behavior: frivolous exploitation of racial anxieties to score cheap points against political rivals.

Many Republicans are guilty of that behavior, as Bashir notes. The birther phenomenon, which wasn't nearly as fringe as it ought to have been, is but one example. Obama has been cast by figures in the conservative movement as a secret Muslim, a Kenyan anti-colonialist, even someone who is allied with al-Qaeda in a "grand jihad" against America. For years, I've done more than my share of criticizing the conservatives behind attacks of that kind, including talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who once argued that "in Obama's America," black kids beat up white kids on buses. This rhetoric is wrongheaded and offensive for many reasons. One of those reasons is the destructive effect it has on a nation of diverse people who have got to live together. Dividing people based on lies is always discrediting, but how especially corrosive to do so by exploiting deep-seated anxieties about race, given how uniquely destructive racial prejudice has been in American life, and how deeply it affects us still. 

Anti-racism remains an urgent project, and Bashir's remarks won't stoke prejudice against a racial minority, or a racial minority group, so it won't do to argue that his remarks are "equivalent" in their content. My more modest claim is merely that they are pernicious and destructive, insofar as they exploit racial anxiety about awful, racist political tactics in an instance in which race obviously plays no part. If Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Howard Dean, or any other white Democrat were sitting in the White House today, there is zero doubt -- literally none at all -- that Republicans would be attacking the IRS (with good reason, I might add), and that some would go too far in their attacks by charging, without sufficient evidence to back it up, that the scandal goes all the way to the president. Anyone who can't distinguish those attacks from the strategy Lee Atwater described in 1981 has no business analyzing politics for a living.

Insofar as Bashir persuades anyone that attacks on the IRS are the equivalent of saying "n-word n-word n-word," here is what he'll have accomplished: making credulous Americans feel that they are daily witnessing racist attacks, with all the anxiety and awful feelings that entails, when that isn't what's happening at all. Fortunately, his analysis will convince few, so the divisiveness it stokes is likely to be limited. But the segment is also certain to fuel the conception on the right that all attacks on conservative racism are frivolous and cynically issued. That isn't so. But it is certainly true that race is sometimes exploited as a political cudgel. (This isn't the first time I've flagged an MSNBC host's offensive and cynical use of race to attack a political adversary.)  

It would be typical if the comments below this article, and the reaction to this incident, descend into a back-and-forth about whether Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, and Fox or MSNBC are "worse" when it comes to frivolously or cynically exploiting racial anxiety to attack and discredit political opponents. I don't care about that debate or where anyone comes down within it. As a response to this article, it can only distract from the fact that this sort of thing should always be anathema, and called out no matter who does it, especially by people "on the same side" as the offending commentator, so that the incentive to pander in this way disappears.

One closing comment. MSNBC is perfectly within its rights to air content that pushes back against attacks on the IRS that are unjustified by facts now in evidence. But what went on at the agency was in fact an abuse of power. On partisan cable news, you'll often see broadcasters reacting to bad behavior on "their own side" by mostly focusing not on the transgression, but on the least credible critics and their bad behavior. In this way, people in power are held less accountable than they ought to be.

__
*Michele Bachmann does say, without sufficient evidence to back it up, that the abuse went all the way to the White House; but that objectionable claim is hardly racial in nature, and there wasn't anything objectionable about the clips of Rand Paul and Paul Ryan that Bashir uses in his segment.
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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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