When Trying to Rebut Criticism of Your Racial Politics, Try Not to Make Things Worse

Duelling columns from New York Jonathan Chait and the National Review's Quin Hillyer distill an enduring debate: how and when race and power conflict. Hillyer's response reinforces a larger point — that racism will always be part of the protection of powerful interests.

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Dueling columns from New York Jonathan Chait and the National Review's Quin Hillyer are a pretty remarkable distillation of one of the most enduring and contentious debates in American politics: how and when race and power conflict. No conclusion is agreed upon; no conclusion will ever be agreed upon. But Hillyer's response, published Thursday, only reinforces a larger point — that racism is a tool in the protection of powerful interests.

The two posts prompted a lot of discussion on Twitter over the past two days, in part because of how Chait framed his critique of conservative view of race and politics. His article, "12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era," focused on a paragraph from Hillyer's "Obama Is Down, but Not Out" in which Hillyer criticizes President Obama:

[W]e look up and see Obama still there — chin jutting out, countenance haughty, voice dripping with disdain for conservatives — utterly unembarrassed, utterly undeterred from any assertion of power he thinks he can get away with, tradition and propriety and the Constitution be damned.

This reminded Chait of a slaveowner depicted in the movie 12 Years a Slave. Challenged by his educated slave on an intellectual issue, the owner lashes out furiously and physically. It is anger at the insolence of a person of color, to which Hillyer's description is "cultural heir." The outrage, then, including from Hillyer in his response, was over the comparison between Hillyer — and conservatives — with slaveowners.

In dismissing that comparison, the Washington Examiner's Timothy Carney picked out Chait's real argument — one that he seemed to agree with.

Here’s the critique, as I understand it: Many conservatives wrongly assume that racism is gone because they have a narrow definition of racism.

I'll tweak that a bit to say this: Defining racism narrowly can make one blind to the unfair difficulties and unfair treatment black people suffer in America today.

Chait's point was precisely that conservatives downplay the role of race in their critique of President Obama, in part because the racism is buried. "The racial fissures of the Obama era do not look like 1957 Little Rock," he wrote, instead being manifested in criticism of Obama's use of a Teleprompter or of the Reagan-era program to subsidize phones for poor Americans. 

It's almost too easy to use the GOP's now-famous tweet at right as evidence to this effect. The assertion that Rosa Parks played a role in "ending racism" may have been a misstatement, or it may have been what Chait is outlining, a sense that racism largely ended with the Freedom Riders. Chait goes further, by implication: dismissing racism lets whites indulge in the luxury of considering themselves the aggrieved group.

Hillyer, the unwitting target of Chait's critique, quickly wrote a post in response to that argument. Unfortunately for him, it turns out to be an excellent example of Chait's point.

For starters, Chait actually downplays Hillyer's original post, which is more racially questionable than that one quote. Hillyer's description of Obama is of the president haughtily ignoring the various "scandals" of his administration, including, to start the column, the "New Black Panthers." After members of this tiny and admittedly racist group were accused of intimidating voters in 2008, they became an ACORN-like symbol of the president's efforts to subvert democracy, despite there being no indication of any relationship with Obama or any suggestion that they had any effect. The link was purely race-based, and could be a more solid indictment of Hillyer's predispositions than anything.

Hillyer's response to Chait is more problematic. It's sprinkled with slightly more sophisticated versions of the classic "but I have black friends" defense: his dad loved Louis Armstrong, he opposed David Duke and Strom Thurmond, he was criticized in Mobile for speaking out against the visible remnants of segregation. And then he rises to his own defense, excoriating the true villains, liberals — or "leftists," in the pejorative vernacular.

It is leftists, not conservatives, who are obsessed with race. It takes more twisting of logic to see latent racism in all descriptions of Barack Obama as “haughty” (or arrogant, or uncompromising, or ill-intentioned) than it does to fail to hear “racism” when somebody justly criticizes the vast expansion of the phone-subsidy program now commonly (if somewhat inaccurately) called “Obamaphones.”

The Left is so eager to see racism in every conservative heart and utterance that it ignores overwhelming evidence that more blacks these days feel racial animus toward whites, and more act in race-antagonistic ways, than do whites toward blacks. By huge margins, blacks vote in racial blocs more often than whites do.

Hillyer makes precisely the point that Chait predicts. I'm not racist; you're racist. It is whites that are the afflicted party when race starts being discussed. And in Hillyer's most head-slapping paragraph, it is liberals that are doing black Americans a disservice.

It also would help promote racial understanding if liberals were not so likely to refuse to acknowledge the human cost to aggrieved whites and to unprepared blacks (note: not incapable blacks, but unprepared ones) when race-based government edicts stack the deck in education or access to employment.

In his column, Chait glides too quickly from the movie's depiction of violence into critique of the role of race in politics. The slaveowner is enraged by the insolence of his slave because it is an affront to his power, not his skin color. Politics is itself about power, often economic — about trying to move power from one party to another, about trying to protect or undermine powerful interests. Slavery was an economic institution that leveraged racism. Institutional racism is similarly real and demonstrable, and it's also largely about preserving power for whites, the group that has traditionally held it.

The invisibility of that racism has allowed arguments like the one Hillyer makes on affirmative action. The programs are not efforts to counteract institutional preference for whites; instead, they are a "stacking of the deck" for blacks, which he claims does them a disservice, as though the deck weren't already one in which whites had been given a peek at the cards. When Hillyer suggests that eliminating affirmative action would "promote racial understanding," he's giving away that he is "blind to the unfair difficulties and unfair treatment black people suffer in America today" in Carney's words.

While not every white American is powerful and seeking protection of that power, power is disproportionately held in that community, and that is to no small extent thanks to institutional racism. When a white person suffers an injustice, like those small number of white Americans for whom Hillyer wrings his hands who are passed over for college admission or hiring by a person of color, it's a tragedy that needs to be addressed. It looms large. The various examples of how blacks are disadvantaged by society — here's a starter — don't merit a mention in Hillyer's response, and are often dismissed.

And, since we're here, we will point out that the political group that represents the protection of the entrenched power structures is conservatives, by definition. The chicken-egg question of a Republican Party overlapping heavily with white America is at this point irrelevant. Whether because of or leading to that overlap, the party has actively downplayed the role of race in society (see: Dinesh D'Souza) even as it has at times leveraged racial fear to the base's political advantage. Here's where we mention Lee Atwater, the Republican operative who in 1981 presented a political strategy for leveraging race. Atwater specifically used racial cues when referring to policy initiatives to remind white people that their economic interests were at risk, a threat that was effective even in persuading non-wealthy and non-powerful white people. The Tea Party acts out of its own economic interest, not out of racial animus, but the two have already been inextricably entwined.

Hillyer doesn't see himself as a racist. That he also doesn't see his political arguments as racist is the problem Chait is raising, and serves to help his political goals. No one wants to think that they've gotten something undeservedly, which is part of what Hillyer argues is unfair as he laments the "unprepared" blacks who get jobs thanks to affirmative action. But three centuries of institutional racism have acted as a bulwark for the power of American whites that we, too, often don't deserve. Chait's argument wasn't that Hillyer was racist, it was that white America sees the unemotional recognition of racism as an enraging affront. In his response, Hillyer was affronted.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.