In college, I first started noticing the reflexive use of "white" and "male" as terms of disparagement. I always found it strange. I'd be talking to a 20-year-old white woman in the dining hall, to cite one example, and she'd say, "I can't believe these old white men in Congress want to control my uterus," as if an Asian woman voting to ban abortion would have offended her less. Although I noticed the tick, and disagreed with it, I can't say it ever bothered me very much, partly because it seemed both benign and thoughtless. It was as if a certain subset of students had heard the phrase "white male privilege" so many times that its constituent parts all retained negative connotations. The folks in whom I noticed this tick were almost all white. They had white parents and siblings toward whom they bore no animosity; they mostly ate in the dining hall with other white students; and they mostly dated members of their own race. It was always clear to me that they didn't in fact bear animosity toward any actual white people; though it would have horrified them to know it, they reminded me of folks who used "gay" as a term of disparagement, despite having no personal animosity toward homosexuals. The difference is that their verbal tick wasn't present in mainstream culture, just campus culture.
Maybe that's changing. The tick is now prevalent enough that conservative columnist Victor Davis Hanson has noticed it. He actually cites as examples of the phenomenon some things that aren't, but he's right that there is something strange about Brian Williams asking Mitt Romney awhile back if he planned to pick "an incredibly boring white guy" as his vice-president, as if "white" and "boring" go together. For once in his life, Mitt Romney's response was pitch perfect: "You told me you were not available." The subtext being, Hey, Brian Williams, how would you feel if people started reducing you to your race and implying it makes you boring. As appropriate as the retort was not taking the anchor's transgression too seriously, because what are the chances that Brian Williams actually has animosity to all whites and thinks they're boring? It may have been a revealing comment, but what it revealed was lazy thinking. (Update: My sharp-eyed colleague David Graham alerts me to the fact that Brian Williams himself borrowed the "incredibly boring white guy" formulation from an anonymous GOP official whose words appeared in this Politico story about the VP selection process.)
What drives me crazy about Victor Davis Hanson is his insistence on taking what could be a small, valid observation, and extrapolating it out into a sweeping, analytically sloppy victim narrative that posits white conservatives as objects of unusually vicious racial antagonism and mainstream Democrats as perpetrators. "The election of the biracial Barack Obama was supposed to usher in a new era of racial harmony," he writes. "Instead, that dream is becoming a tribally polarized nightmare -- by design, and intended to assist in the reelection of Barack Obama."
His evidence? Writes Hanson:
Consider the increasing obsession with the term "white" (as in versus "black"), along with the old standby charge of "racism" -- nearly all of it emanating from the president's surrogates and celebrity supporters. Upon the announcement of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's vice-presidential pick, almost immediately Donna Christensen, the non-voting congressional delegate from the Virgin Islands, tweeted: "Wait a minute! Are there black people in Va? Guess just not w Romney Ryan! At least not seeing us. We know who's got our back & we have his."
"Got our back" -- compare the Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith's video appealing to African-Americans to cover the president's back -- of course implies that Paul Ryan is a veritable racist who by virtue of his skin color and conservative politics will stab blacks in the back. In that vein, Mia Farrow, viewing the initial Romney/Ryan rally, offers, "Camera pans crowd: whole bunch of white people."
Is it now sufficient to cite, as evidence of a shift in American racial dynamics, an observation from (of all people) Mia Farrow and "the non-voting congressional delegate from the Virgin Islands"? How can Romney/Ryan 2012 contest the election with such powerful forces arrayed against them? If it were Romney/Cain, does Hanson really think the "got our backs" line would've been different? Finally, is a white celebrity remarking on the whiteness of the crowd at a campaign event really being cited as evidence of "a tribally polarized nightmare"?
Take a deep breath.
For all Barack Obama's faults, his rhetoric on race in America has been admirably inclusive. There are plenty of racial demagogues in American politics, on the left (Lawrence O'Donnell and Charles Blow have both dabbled), and on the right, where Rush Limbaugh remains the most popular entertainer and birtherism remains a baffling undercurrent. This demagoguery predated and will postdate Obama. Attributing it to Obama is about the most unfair charge to levy against him.
Given Hanson's standard for conservatives, it's a wonder he doesn't see this. "There is no indication of a new racism on the part of conservatives or Republicans. Herman Cain -- until dismembered by media accusations -- led the Republican primary field for weeks in the polls," he wrote. "Michael Steele ran the Republican National Committee for two years. Allen West remains the Tea Party's most popular politician. And many polls showed that Condoleezza Rice was the favored vice-presidential candidate among the Republican faithful. George W. Bush chose two African-American secretaries of state." Funny thing, this innocence by association. It seems to only apply to Republicans -- or has Hanson never seen a picture of Obama's cabinet:
A smattering of relatively powerless black GOP politicians and a few higher-profile appointees are invoked to prove Republicans aren't irredeemably racist (for the record, they're not). Meanwhile a president surrounded by white advisers, a reelection campaigned staffed mostly by white people, and a mostly white Democratic congressional delegation is portrayed as virulently anti-white.
This brings us to the most incredible line in Hanson's column (bolded below):
Obama will not do well with the so-called working white voters, and apparently has written them off; he has few worries that the current "white" obsession can do much more damage among the "clingers." But among moderate independents, the Obama campaign is seeking to brand Romney as someone well beyond the mainstream. If the Obama labeling campaign is successful, voting for Romney will mean becoming socially unacceptable; it will be tantamount to embracing a Neanderthal sort of mindset that opposes Obama not on his disastrous economic policies but simply because of his race.Setting aside the weirdness of using "Palinize" as shorthand for "portray as something like Bull Connor or David Duke," the notion that stigmatizing Romney voters as white supremacists is a savvy way to win independents may constitute the worst political analysis on offer this decade. On the other hand, I haven't checked up on Mia Farrow statements or any other celebrity mutterings to divine the thrust of the Barack Obama reelection effort, so what do I know.
The key to such stigmatization is to Palinize Romney -- not merely as a near-felon who lies on federal disclosure forms; not just as an international financial pirate who avoids taxes through overseas scams; not simply as 1-percenter who has a car elevator in his house; and not even as a near-murderer who supposedly likes to fire innocent men and throw their cancer-stricken wives out into the street without health care. Well beyond even all that, Romney must be portrayed as something like a Bull Connor or a David Duke. If Obama can stigmatize Romney voters as racists and "white" supremacists, then perhaps he can peel away 3 to 5 percent of the critical independents, who desperately fear being associated with a reactionary racist.