Some time back, whenever a big racial controversy erupted, I trained myself into the habit of reading about it at FoxNews.com, just for the unbelievable comment threads. Let’s put it this way: If my friends and I went out to a bar and started playing a “let’s write the racist FoxNews.com comment thread” drinking game, our efforts couldn’t begin to approach what I read there.
I wasn’t alone. Liberal websites started feasting on these threads. And so, a couple of years ago, Ailes & Co. got wise. Stories about race were, at least in my disheartened experience, closed to comments.
Fox acted, I recall, back in February 2012, when the thread on Whitney Houston’s death made even many conservatives a little jumpy. Here’s a taste: “Whitney is just an inferior lo w life ni gg er that needed to go, no tragedy, no loss…” “Any death is a tragedy you heartless bastard…” “not nignogs their death is a plus…”
Well, at least there was that person in the middle there! But these threads were poisonous, and they didn’t appear just on Fox. They’ve been all over conservative websites and have bled into some mainstream ones, too. Lord, the things I read in comment threads on North Carolina newspapers’ sites in their stories about the “Moral Monday” protests. Believe it or not, conservative readers, I don’t go flinging the r-word around loosely. But these comments, hundreds, thousands of them, were just thuggishly racist. Nothing else to call them.
Beyond these, we have numerous instances of low-level (and sometimes not so low-level) Republican Party officials—Republican Party officials—making racist jokes about Obama. Here’s a little chrestomathy of some of them. If you follow the news closely, you know that hardly a…not quite a week, but let’s say hardly a fortnight goes by that some local GOPer doesn’t show up in the news explaining that he “didn’t mean any harm” in sending that email to friends showing watermelons piled up on the White House, and he’s sincerely sorry “if it offended anyone.” Often, of course, it’s something more malevolent than that.
And now it’s supposed to be controversial when Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) says, as he did Sunday on CNN, that “to a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism”? Please. You have to be living a life of willed ignorance and denial to take issue with what Israel said. (The link above, by the way, is to the FoxNews.com story; if you scroll down you will indeed see the inevitable and darkly amusing sentence “Comments are currently closed for this article.”)
Now I don’t know if the people making these comments and the larger group they represent constitute 5 percent of this base or 15 or 50. It depends in part on how you define “base.” But look at the matter this way. Say you were a Republican political consultant. Would you ever in a jillion years suggest that your candidate take on racism within the GOP as a speech topic? You most certainly would not. Your candidate would be dead immediately. I mean metaphorically, but depending on the part of the country in which the speech was given, maybe literally, too. In other words, whether they’re 5 or 15 or 50, commenters like these are enough to prevent Republican politicians from ever addressing racism with any degree of candor. The cowardice on the GOP side on this issue is universal and always has been.
We should not, then, even be debating whether what Israel said is true. Sadly, we shouldn’t even be debating why Republican politicians won’t discuss it. My little hypothetical above showed why. None of them has the stones to. Some, Rand Paul and others, talk a little in general terms about how the party needs to “change” and “modernize.” But to spell out what that change and modernization would involve, in racial terms? No one will confront that.
And so the only question we’re left debating is when all this might change. For starters, it will change some when Barack Obama leaves office. All the Obama-related racial craziness will, obviously, end. But we shouldn’t count on that for much. True, the next president will apparently be a Caucasian one, but racial controversies will still occur, black celebrities will continue to die, juries will keep letting George Zimmermans off. We are going to be divided by the same things we always have.
Still and all, some progress has been made in the Obama era. Outside that ugly whatever-percent-it-is, most Americans, even if they’re mixed on his job performance, feel that some historical settling of debts has occurred now that we crossed the barrier of electing a black president. Two-thirds of Americans admire the first lady. Millions of young children are growing up thinking that Barack Obama is what a president is supposed to look like. All this means that one of these days, and maybe soon-ish, especially if they lose in 2016 and once again snare their usual single-digit share of the black vote, the numbers will favor some Republican giving that speech. When that day comes, our political and media culture might suddenly realize that one of our two major parties turning a blind eye to and sometimes coddling racism in its ranks was a pretty lousy idea. Until then, remarks like Israel’s will be “controversial.”