Did you hear the one about the Republican National Committee Chairman who agreed that whites in his party are afraid of talking to black people?
“I've been in the room and they've been scared of me," Michael Steele said. His unusual remark is the latest instance of Republican attitudes toward race making national headlines—and causing a headache for GOP officials, who are constantly trying to reverse the perception that their party is hostile to minorities.
The right should rethink its ideological commitment to the notion that racism isn’t a real problem in America anymore, even if they disagree about how it should be fought; and the left should alleviate suspicion that race is being used as an ideological cudgel by helping to stigmatize those who frivolously play the race card.
The single time the news media obsessed about racism in the Democratic Party came during the Election ‘08 primary, when several Hillary Clinton supporters in states like West Virginia were seen on YouTube, during television interviews, and on The Daily Show saying bigoted things about Barack Obama. Soon Bill Clinton himself, sometimes praised in liberal circles as “our first black president,” found himself accused of racially questionable remarks. I wouldn’t put any politically advantageous trick past Slick Willie, but I never imagined that I’d see him being called on multicultural insensitivities as though he were a Republican pol.
In the more familiar narrative, the Republican Party is cast on the wrong side of racial issues. The reputation isn’t entirely undeserved: luminaries William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater wrongly opposed key civil rights advances, for example. And even loyalists who defend Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy can hardly abide his racist remarks about blacks and Jews.
Today’s GOP is much improved, Confederate flag loving politicos notwithstanding. Say what you will about George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin, but none are on the wrong side of America’s historic racial divide—just as your typical high-ranking Republican official, asked what he thinks about race, now reflexively invokes Martin Luther King’s ideal of color blindness.
I’d bet dollars to Freedom Fries that racial bigotry in America is now correlated with age, education level and region far more closely than political affiliation. Every so often, however, somewhere in America, a local GOP official or rank-and-file Republican disseminates an image of Barack Obama with a bone through his nose, or a drawing of a watermelon patch on the White House lawn, or most recently, a fried-chicken eating POTUS on a poster with a subhead denouncing miscegenation.
What gives? How should the Republican Party deal with these situations? Probably your answer depends on whether you believe that the GOP is substantially racist, or that these incidents are anomalies—the lamentable behavior of an anachronistic subset of the party.
Among the many Republicans I’ve known and with whom I’ve interacted, racism is very much the exception. Granted, I’ve lived only in few coastal American cities. Beyond them, I don’t know what the average Republican is like (or the average Democrat, for that matter).
Luckily, it hardly requires assessing the souls of party faithful to see that the GOP can better navigate racial issues, and that all Americans can help, not because they’re eager to advantage either party, but because a society where there are fewer racial gaffes, less racial tension and less racism is one that benefits us all.
Consider a survey I recently sent to GOP County Chairmen all across the United States. “ As the right thinks about political strategy and policy,” I asked, “how should it approach matters of race?” An almost unanimous feature of the several dozen replies I’ve gotten is that racism is abhorrent and wrong—and an accompanying belief that accusations of racism are often, if not always, cynical ploys by liberals who are using the charge as a political cudgel against innocent ideological adversaries.
It’s a belief I’ve encountered many times, its adherents citing the same examples as evidence: Al Sharpton making multiple, demonstrably false accusations of racism; the OJ Simpson defense team’s conspiracy theories; the Duke Lacrosse team’s nightmarish run-in with a rogue prosecutor hungry for black votes; and most recently, the ACORN accusation that its critics just hate that it helps poor black people. Add to that list the numerous faked hate crimes of recent vintage: the power and attention that accrues to certain kinds of racial victimhood creates a powerful incentive to exploit matters.
Of course, none of that changes the fact that real instances of racism remain by far a more frequent, pervasive, and damaging feature of American life. Don’t think about your family, or your company, or your neighborhood. Ask yourself, should you wonder whether race still matters, if you’d rather risk transporting 30 pounds of medical marijuana across Los Angeles, California as a white man or a black man. Or what race you’d choose if about to be put before a jury and accused of a violent crime you didn’t commit: Japanese American or Mexican American? Or the ethnicity you’d bet on having a successful job interview at a midsized company in an unfamiliar rural town, an Arab American or an American of Scots-Irish lineage?
If the left’s racial blind spot is a weird inability to see how frightened many Americans are that they’ll be wrongly stigmatized, victimized or exploited via faux racial grievances or political correctness—and how disgusted they are upon seeing it happen to others – the tangentially related shortcoming on the right is a startling lack of perspective: a blindness to the racial injustice still endured by some minorities; their understandable alienation when they see folks mockingly doubt the notion that racism still exists; the antagonism they feel when even reasonable politically correct taboos are violated for the sake of juvenile talk radio skits.
I’ve lately followed a debate about how powerful accusations of racism are in American society. They prevent us from talking about racial wrongs in all but the most extreme instances, some liberals argue. Perhaps it would be better, they say, if less of a stigma were attached to racism—if the accusation didn’t have the power to end careers and ruin reputations—but if in the bargain, folks could more often call others out on their bad behavior, even when the circumstances aren’t extreme.
I’d prefer to preserve the gains made since the stigma against racism became powerful enough to banish it from polite company. Thus an alternative solution: the right should rethink its ideological commitment to the notion that racism isn’t a real problem in America anymore, even if they disagree about how it should be fought; and the left should alleviate suspicion that race is being used as an ideological cudgel by helping to stigmatize those who frivolously play the race card. That dirty maneuver effectively scares minorities into believing that they are victimized more often than is in fact the case—and it causes a corrosive skepticism toward the many actual victims of racism that remain among us.
One needn’t choose whether to be a lefty fighting against racism, or a righty fighting against false claims thereof. Do both!
The projects are complementary. Count it a blessing. How often does that happen?
Conor Friedersdorf, a Daily Beast columnist, also writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.