Conservatives See Race Obsession on the Left, but Never on the Right

By Conor Friedersdorf

This curious myopia is one cause of their reluctance to draw more stringent lines against right-wing bigotry and cynical identity politics.

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Credit to National Review for permitting its authors the editorial freedom to openly grapple with John Derbyshire's ouster from the magazine. Dan Foster is the latest to avail himself of the opportunity. It's admirable when a writer wrestles publicly with a fraught subject on which he is conflicted. Foster's work always has integrity. But he gets big things wrong about the intersection of political ideology and race, and ultimately creeps too close to the relativism of Mark Steyn for my comfort.

He makes two specific claims to which I object:

  1. It's harder for conservatives to police racism. "We have to yield that there is something to it when liberal trolls snark about how tough it can be to distinguish a conservative from a racist. The fact is that both conservatives and racists think that considerations about race should play a much smaller part in our political discourse," Foster writes. "And while only racists think that this is so because blacks are less than fully human, it can be tough to get them to admit as much."
  2. Conservatives and liberals have different lines about what is unacceptably racist partly because racial divisiveness is core to the left. "Charges of racism are used as a cudgel to stifle uncomfortable conversations," Foster writes "and I do believe that there is a coalition on the Left whose material interest is in the forestalling of a 'post-racial America,' not its arrival."

Taken together, these arguments give conservatism too little and too much credit at once. Too little credit because, despite the persistence of racist factions within conservatism, it's very easy to distinguish the core tenets of conservatism from racism. If it's at times difficult to tell the degree to which a particular conservative is racist, that's hardly unique to the ideology. It's at times hard to tell the degree to which Americans in all sorts of subcultures are racist, liberalism included. And among conservatives, there are legion who are neither racist nor suspected of racism and who are completely successful in making their arguments without provoking racial suspicions. Policing the line in conservatism isn't inherently harder than anywhere else, and it's difficult. Luckily, few are demanding perfection; just a good faith effort, the present existence of which is in doubt.

That brings us to where Foster gives conservatism too much credit. He writes as if cynically invoking race for political advantage is an exclusively left-victimizes-right phenomenon. You'd think, reading Foster and Steyn, that U.S. politics pits race-baiting liberals against conservatives who'd never think about the subject if not for the bad faith or perverse political incentives of their ideological opponents. It is a confoundingly widespread conservative misconception.

To be clear, there's no disputing what Maggie Gallagher put so well earlier this week -- that power corrupts, and "because taboo-setting on racist speech became a pathway to power, including the power to exclude and marginalize the taboo-breaker as racist -- the inevitable incessant temptation concerning this taboo is to politicize it, to use its power to exclude and marginalize not those who are genuinely racists, but just one's political opponents." In many instances, folks on the left have been the aggressors in this game, and folks on the right its victims.

Anyone with open eyes can see that people on the left and right illegitimately exploit racial divisions in bids for power; that many conservatives are as race-obsessed as any liberal; and that today's conservative movement needlessly brings up race all the time. Foster cannot get things right on this issue so long as he persists in writing as if only liberals use race "as leverage in political and cultural power games." Evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Foster's myopia on this point is made most clear when he asserts that "both conservatives and racists think that considerations about race should play a much smaller part in our political discourse."

But there's a whole subculture of race-obsessed conservative writers, both on the fringes of respectable conservative publications, like John Derbyshire, and long since banished from their pages -- Steve Sailer, for example -- who regularly act to increase the role that race plays in our political discourse. Beyond those two writers are many more for whom issues like hypothesized genetic variations in intelligence are the primary explanatory factor for everything.

Theirs is a racialist worldview.

Setting them aside, and considering only mainstream figures in movement conservatism, there are plenty for whom involvement in racially controversial subjects is an unobjectionable, well-intentioned effort to diminish race's role in society. Ward Connerly's effort to end affirmative action in college admissions is an example. There are, at the same time, Rush Limbaugh-type figures who can't get through an NFL broadcast about a black quarterback without needlessly making race central to it. Consider: The most listened to man in conservative political talk radio says Barack Obama is a supporter of the New Black Panther Party, spreads the notion that Herman Cain is more authentically black than Barack Obama, has a black staffer translate the show into mock Ebonics for the supposed benefit of "the brothers and sisters in the hood," and suggests that in Obama's America its okay for black kids to beat up white kids on the bus. Though you'll be hard pressed to find a conservative willing to admit it, he's someone who in the last several years has publicly labeled more political opponents racist than Al Sharpton.

Never mind conservative talking points. Revealed preference shows that, for Limbaugh's listeners, there is no desire for considerations about race to play a much smaller part in political discourse. They can't get enough race-related content.

Again, this isn't a matter of fighting for their preferences on longtime issues like affirmative action or immigration and by virtue of that touching on matters of race. Look at Fox News and its coverage of the New Black Panther Party. If conservative media ignored them, they'd be totally inconsequential in American life. And if MSNBC tomorrow started doing regular hyperbolic reports on some obscure white-supremacist group, conservatives would quickly call them out.

You'd think, reading Steyn and Foster, that there hasn't been a concerted conservative campaign, among parts of the elite and the rank-and-file, to portray Barack Obama as a foreigner of sorts, a "Kenyan anti-colonialist," (or as Andy McCarthy, another National Review writer put it, part of an alliance with radical Islamists to wage a "grand jihad" against America.) You'd think that Ann Coulter never said, "Our blacks are so much better than their blacks;" that during the 2000 GOP primary George W. Bush supporters didn't run push polls in South Carolina wherein voters were asked, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain ... if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" You'd think that a long line of Republican candidates hasn't pandered to Southern whites who want to fly the Confederate flag above their statehouses; that the libertarian movement doesn't have its own ugly history of racism, most recently scrutinized when Republican Rep. Ron Paul's racist newsletters were rehashed during his presidential run; that there aren't, among America's elderly conservatives, too many egregiously racist anti-Obama emails circulating to count them all. And that's just recent history. I have to laugh when I run into Orange County Republicans who insist that Obama is racist against Jews but heatedly defend Richard Nixon against any criticism. 

The fact is that racism and race-baiting are depressingly common in American life, and while I'll eagerly join in condemning folks on the left when they're guilty of either, it's getting downright absurd to see so many conservatives behave as if the left is where all racial problems in politics originate. Says Foster, "I do believe that there is a coalition on the Left whose material interest is in the forestalling of a 'post-racial America,' not its arrival." Okay. And how about Newt Gingrich. Is his "material interest" in bringing about or forestalling a post-racial America? How about Lou Dobbs? Glenn Beck? Breitbart.com? Roger Ailes? Where do their "material interests" line up? Is it really so difficult to see how that standard cuts in both directions?

In America, as in other countries, race and power are related to one another in all sorts of complicated ways. Power corrupts, and it is exploited by partisans of the right and the left, probably not in precisely equal measure, though determining which side behaves worse is beside the point. A lot of conservatives want to use the existence of abuses on the left to justify all manner of nonsense. Steyn says it justifies putting up with multiple varieties of bigotry from fellow conservatives. To his credit, Foster earnestly wants to police bigotry, but seems to think liberal wrongheadedness on race requires conservatives to triangulate between the racialism of John Derbyshire and the politically correct liberalism he associates with the mainstream left. But why triangulate? As Gallagher put it, "Drawing the moral lines we are willing to stand on as a movement is leadership ... That's the question. Not us vs. them, but who are we? Only we can answer that."

Right now, despite protestations to the contrary, movement conservatism includes race obsessed people and other people obsessed with the idea that the left is uniquely race-obsessed (and convinced that as a result they're justified in the very behavior they claim to abhor). The ailments are very differently, practically and morally, but both exist internally, and won't be adequately addressed so long as so many conservatives peg their behavior to their perceptions of how the left is behaving. To see this more clearly, they ought to ask themselves, "To what extend is bad liberal behavior on race justified by the existence of some racist conservatives?"

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