THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 18, 2009
It's been a big week for anti-anti-racism. Virtually the entire conservative world has waxed indignant about Jimmy Carter's suggestion that racism is responsible for the unusual virulence of anti-Obama sentiment.
Listening to it all, you'd think the so-called "race card" was a much bigger problem in American society than racism itself, and that does seem to be what a lot of conservatives think. But it's getting to the point where the argument seems to be that if anti-Obama protesters have any non-racial motives for their behavior, then mentioning race as any sort of factor (hard to avoid given the revival of screaming about "welfare" and the preoccupation with the marginal organzing group ACORN) is a terrible insult.
Witness David Brooks' unintentionally hilarious column in the New York Times today. David jogged through last Saturday's Tea Party demonstration on The Mall, and can assure us all that there were no racists there:
[A]s I got to where the Smithsonian museums start, I came across another rally, the Black Family Reunion Celebration. Several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African-American culture. I noticed that the mostly white tea party protesters were mingling in with the mostly black family reunion celebrants. The tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.
Now David is a Yankee, so perhaps he can be forgiven for believing that mingling with black folks, listening to their music, and allowing them to prepare one's food are things no racist could possibly do. If that's the case, of course, there's never been any racism in the Deep South, and neo-Confederate sentiments really are and were just about abstractions like "states' rights."
Unfortunately, the Brooks column never much rises above this sort of superficial argument that if there's any evidence of non-racism among Obama opponents, then even mentioning racism is an outrage.
His main contention is that the Tea Party movement reflects an authentic all-American populist tradition dating back to Jefferson that is "ill mannered, conspiratorial and over the top — since these movements always are, whether they were led by Huey Long, Father Coughlin or anybody else." So it's "not race," says Brooks. "It's another type of conflict, equally deep and old," and it's mainly about Obama's "elitism" and a "producerist" revolt against redistributionist policies. Nothing to see here, folks, it's just good old-fashioned American populism.
You'd think maybe his own reference to Father Coughlin as an example of right-wing populism would alert Brooks to the folly of his argument. Was Coughlin solely motivated by anti-semitism? No, almost certainly not. Does that mean the anti-semitism he stimulated wasn't real and dangerous, leading eventually to his suppression by his own bishop? Absolutely not.
Lord have mercy, David, think about it: the Ku Klux Klan wasn't just "about race;" it was about hostility to immigrants and to some extent to capitalism; early twentieth-century Kluxers, in alliance with William Jennings Bryan, thought of themselves as "progressives." That was rather cold comfort to the people they tormented and threatened.
No, I am not comparing the Tea Party folks to Klansman; I am simply noting that every racially tinged political movement in American history has, of course, had other, non-racial motivations, so simply citing such motivations doesn't address the possibility of racial motivations.
It makes you wonder: what if Jimmy Carter had simply said that Obama's angry opponents were "ill mannered, conspiratorial and over the top." I suspect the overall conservative reaction would have been just about as wounded and self-pitying, but I doubt David Brooks would have agreed with him.
Indeed, this column concludes with the signature Brooks assertion of the equivalency of right-wing craziness and the reaction to it:
What we’re seeing is the latest iteration of that populist tendency and the militant progressive reaction to it. We now have a populist news media that exaggerates the importance of the Van Jones and Acorn stories to prove the elites are decadent and un-American, and we have a progressive news media that exaggerates stories like the Joe Wilson shout and the opposition to the Obama schools speech to show that small-town folks are dumb wackos.
So if you object to Glenn Becks's ravings, you're as guilty as he is of extremism, and moreover, you think small-town folks are dumb wackos.
That charge is at least as offensive as any over-attribution of racial motives to Obama-haters.
This item is cross-posted from The Democratic Strategist, where Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor.