'Systematic Humiliation' of Minorities Doesn't Rule Out a Glowing NYT Profile

Michael Bloomberg, Rand Paul, and the double standard governing what makes a politician racially suspect.

In my recent Bloggingheads with Jamelle Bouie, a sharp writer who you ought to be following if you're not, I expressed a long running frustration: it's perfectly fair, I argued, to criticize Senator Rand Paul, as I have, for the controversy surrounding his aide, Jack Hunter; but if we're trying to put the controversy in its proper perspective, how is it that so many people criticize Paul more harshly for the disavowed statement of an aide than, say, Michael Bloomberg for ethically profiling and spying on innocent Muslims Americans, as well as Stop and Frisk. Shouldn't the biggest racial controversies focus on the most damaging policies that touch on race or ethnicity?

Bouie agreed in part, and trying to explain the way that others react, posited that most liberals and progressives share various policy commitments with Bloomberg, and abhor Paul's domestic agenda; and that Paul's cultural Southernness affects the way people perceive him.

He added:

Nobody thinks of someone like Michael Bloomberg being a racist, although I think you could probably marshal a good amount of evidence that Michael Bloomberg, if not a racist, is someone who harbors really ugly attitudes about non-whites, as evidenced by the assertion that we don't stop blacks enough in the city. But most people, when they think racist, they don't think of some tiny dude from New York. They think of a white southerner wearing a Confederate flag mask in South Carolina. It's this broader problem of racism being Bull Connor, and people not really recognizing that racism takes many, many forms, and that racism is much more about actions than identity. So I think this plays a part in why you have these very different reactions to someone like Jack Hunter than to someone who, I agree, has constructed and is running what amounts to a police state for black and brown people in New York City.

I thought of our conversation when I saw Bill Keller's look back at Bloomberg's legacy in New York. It seems indicative to me of the emphasis liberals place on different aspects of his record. Overall, the assessment is glowing. And I ought to say that, for all my criticism of his tenure, Bloomberg possesses many good qualities and has impressive accomplishments to his name.

Once I even defended him

Keller's column is 14 paragraphs long. Tellingly, the ethnic profiling and spying on innocent Muslim Americans, including some outside the city's jurisdiction, does not rate so much as a mention in the article, despite its awful effects, as well as the fact that it produced literally zero leads.

Stop and Frisk is mentioned in just one paragraph. Here is the whole paragraph -- note its surprising non sequitur of a final sentence:

He was not a model of inclusiveness. Whites are only a third of New York's population, but nonwhites are scarce in Bloomberg's bullpen. He has lived much of his life in a bubble of privilege, and he has an above-it-all demeanor that contributes to a sense, especially in minority and working-class precincts, that he lacks empathy. He can tell you, with a PowerPoint slide to back him up, that the aggressive police practice of stopping and frisking young men of color in tense neighborhoods has saved lives by keeping guns off the streets. He seems not to appreciate that systematic humiliation corrodes the trust between police and entire communities, and that there might be ways to take the edge off. Bloomberg can be stubborn and tone-deaf. He is easier to admire than to love.

To me, this is a typical treatment. The column doesn't ignore Stop and Frisk. Keller, like many liberals, even believes the policy amounts to the "systematic humiliation" of men of color, which makes Bloomberg hard to love ... but not to admire! After all, who can hold a little systematic humiliation against a well-meaning technocrat? There are people who defend Stop and Frisk without reservation. I understand how they admire Bloomberg. But how you can think that it hurts the whole community and humiliates black and brown people on a daily basis but still admire Bloomberg, dispense with the issue as an aside in a half-paragraph of a glowing profile, and not even mention his treatment of Muslims? Yet as Bloomberg leaves office, I expect that I will see more of the same on many occasions.

In fairness to Keller, he hasn't written about Paul, and I don't at all want to suggest that he is guilty of hypocrisy in the way he treats the two men. Not at all. But as I said in the video above, I find it maddening and indefensible, not that Paul is criticized for his remarks on the Civil Rights Act or Jack Hunter -- I've criticized him on both occasions -- but that he is treated, in the media, as if his misgivings about a provision in a 50-year-old bill, or his aide's indefensible, disavowed rhetoric, renders him more racially suspect than an unapologetic profiler, and more morally suspect than, say, a president who empowers aides who were complicit in torture. Fair-minded liberals really ought to reflect on these indefensible double standards.

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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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