The Barbour Of Yazoo City

by Conor Friedersdorf

IS HALEY BARBOUR a racist? In a recent profile he spoke fondly of a group that defended segregation, in the wake of which a loathesome and juvenile quip he made 28 years ago has also been unearthed. Does this mean that he's a racist? I don't know, nor does anyone else, what is in Mr Barbour's heart, and I don't care to speculate.

– J.F. at Democracy in America

I'll punt on the question too. But I've got an observation about race, the conservative movement, and its political fortunes: the strange place we find ourselves is that being accused of racism can actually help a Republican candidate these days. Jonathan Chait gets it: "His past is not racist enough to disqualify him, but it is murky enough to spur the liberal media to raise questions. And thus Barbour will be in the position of being the white conservative attacked by liberals for his alleged racism... it will surely make Republicans rally to Barbour."

How did we get here?

Over the years, social norms in America have shifted such that being labaled a racist is tremensoulsy damaging to one's social standing and career prospects. On the whole, that's a good thing. We ought to abhor racists. But an unintended consequence is that false accusations of racism can be used to cynically accrue power. Compared to actual instances of racism, this sort of thing doesn't occur very often.

There are, however, high profile attempts that grab our attention, perpetrated by people who fake hate crimes or else by hustlers like Mike Nifong. There are also more localized instances that don't make national headlines, but that skewer the impressions of people at a given classroom or office. These are invariably the most read stories on the Web sites of the local newspaper, if it makes the news. Lots of white people fear that they're going to be wrongly labeled racist, and it provokes the same anxiety experienced when people fear, without particular reason to do so, that they're going to be attacked by a shark or have their identity stolen or that they're suffering from the deadly disease they came across on Web M.D. Some of these people are right! But mostly, they're needlessly worried by something that's unlikely but scary because the consequences can destroy life as you know it.

In recent years, conservatives have discovered the power that accrues to race hustlers. How else to explain that Rush Limbaugh makes more false accusations of racism these days than the aged Al Sharpton. Or that Andrew Breitbart labeled an NAACP audience racist based on a short, abridged video clip, even as he claims to find frivolous accusations of racism among the most offensive things imaginable.

Even more problematic is the victim game the right has discovered. It's perfectly appropriate for conservatives to object when their ideological opponents cynically or nonsensically use race as a  cudgel. I've forcefully defended folks when that's happened: here's an example where I spoke up for a Tea Party rally. But I've lately been alarmed by instances when conservative figures, attune to the backlash among the rank and file when folks are accused of racism, seem intent on provoking the charge.

Rush Limbaugh is most guilty of this behavior. He's a tremendously intelligent man. And what does he think is going to happen when he broadcasts a satire about "Barack The Magic Negro" or insists that in Barack Obama's America it's okay to beat up white kids on busses, or when he publishes on his Web site this image:

Mount Rushmore

By now, Rush Limbaugh wants nothing more than for his ideological enemies to accuse him of racism, because it allows him to play the victim. He's not so different from people who fake hate crimes. In both instances, the idea is that by seeming put upon, in fact or reality, a community will rally to your defense, and you'll accruse power or catharsis as a result. Or to return to Haley Barbour, what did he think would happen when he praised a group that favored segregation? Did he miss the whole Trent Lott episode? Was he unaware that the Council of Conservative Citizens is a controversial, obviously racist group? Matt Yglesias demonstrates that Barbour damn well knew exactly what sort of controversy would be stoked.

Listen up, conservatives. People like Rush Limbaugh and Haley Barbour are using you in the worst way. They know that by stoking the right kind of racial controversy, they'll benefit among the hard right audience and GOP primary voters respectively – that being accused of racism by liberals can be a boon so long as you have plausible deniability, and that plenty of folks on the right will rally to your defense. Stop incentivizing them so! Both men are smart enough to avoid these sorts of dustups, which do grave damage to the image of the right, if they wanted to do so. Instead they willfully stoke these racial controversies. And time and again, even perfectly respectable conservative journalists unwittingly act as their tools.