Racism and conservatives

[Conor Friedersdorf]

Matt Yglesias, my favorite liberal blogger, weighs in on liberal guilt:

Ron Rosenbaum sings the praises of so-called "liberal guilt." I largely agree. He says, though, that "What I don't understand is why there doesn't seem to be any conservative guilt over racism." I don't actually find this puzzling at all: There's little conservative guilt over racism because political exploitation of racial animosity has been an integral element of the conservative movement's political strategy ever since the day when the conservative movement stopped issuing straightforward defenses of white supremacy.

Under the circumstances, anyone who feels too upset about racism can't make it far in the conservative movement. You don't need to be a racist, as such, but in your public work you need to express much much much more concern about the alleged evils of "political correctness" or some such than you do about actual racism.

Note the way that Matt conflates feeling guilt over racism with caring about racism, or prioritizing its amelioration. These things are not the same. Plenty of conservatives (not to mention non-guilty liberals) conclude that personal guilt for the racism of others is nonsensical, but are horrified and moved to action when confronted by actual racism.

It's also worth noting that the presidential candidate who has done the most to exploit the racism of others this election season is liberal Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose campaign, though bullish on sexism, has spent a lot more time talking about how it is constrained by political correctness in its campaign against Barack Obama than being concerned with actual racism.

But oddest of all is Matt's assertion that you can't get upset about racism and make it very far in the conservative movement. The most obvious rejoinder is to point out that black Republicans like Clarence Thomas, Condaleeza Rice and Colin Powell, all people who've done pretty well within the conservative movement, have demonstrated repeatedly through their public pronouncements that they regard racism as a significant problem and abhor it.

The rejection of racism by mainstream conservatives hardly ends there, though. Let's recall, for example, the Trent Lott fiasco, as chronicled by the New York Times:

Early, widespread and harsh criticism by conservative commentators and publications has provided much of the tinder for the political fires surrounding Senator Trent Lott since his favorable comments about the segregationist presidential campaign of 1948.

Conservative columnists, including Andrew Sullivan, William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, and publications like National Review and The Wall Street Journal have castigated Mr. Lott for his remarks at Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th-birthday party, arguing that the conservative movement's credibility on racially tinged issues like affirmative action and school vouchers has been squandered.

Mr. Sullivan, on his Web site, and Mr. Krauthammer, writing in The Washington Post, are among those who have called on Mr. Lott to resign. Others, like Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel and the radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, have said the remarks were indefensible but were not necessarily reason enough for Mr. Lott to step down. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal stopped short of a direct call for Mr. Lott's ouster, but named three Republicans it preferred in the post.

The responses by conservatives have provided a marked contrast to the contention -- put forth most recently by former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore -- that the nation's conservative news media acts as a monolithic Republican support system.

Robert Bartley, the editor of The Wall Street Journal, said, ''I don't know that there's anything close,'' when asked if he could remember such a revolt against a conservative leader by those who are usually like-minded on the issues.

Richard Lowry, the editor of National Review, said that young conservatives particularly feel undermined by Mr. Lott's comment.

''The reaction to this on the right has been tinged with outrage,'' Mr. Lowry said. ''I think that's a product of decades of hard work that conservatives have done on racially charged issues out of idealism and principle. To have those positions tarred, even inadvertently, with this backwardness on race is extremely distressing.''

The Trent Lott example is useful because it happened way back in 2002. How is it that the conservatives who criticized him are still welcome in the movement if Yglesias is right?

But this wasn't a unique event. Much the same thing could be written, for example, about Sen. George Allen's "macacca moment." When blatant racism is in the news it isn't at all surprising nowadays to see mainstream conservative pundits denouncing it.