As a lot of people have been noticing recently, it's past time we had an honest conversation about race in this country. The problem is what happens to the conversation as soon as conservatives get involved.
Of course, the real problem with race in America originates with conservatives, so perhaps that's not surprising. This is a historic problem. After all, it is conservatives who resisted the end of slavery. It is conservatives who instituted, and then protected with a fifty-year campaign of terrorism known as lynching, Jim Crow laws and segregation in the South. It is conservatives who resisted the Civil Rights Movement with every ounce of their energy. And it is conservatives today who resist any kind of advancement in civil rights for minorities.
As we've explained previously, their favorite rhetorical technique in pursuing this anti-rational course is what we call "the bloody shirt gambit": Converting perpetrators into victims and victims into perpetrators by claiming that the very discussion of the atrocities committed by violent right-wingers is an act of demagoguery and thus more vile than the original act in question itself. They scream, "You're waving the bloody shirt!" any time someone talks about the realities of their racial bigotry -- or, in more recent vintage, "You're playing the race card!" -- and suddenly the very discussion of the matter is placed off-limits.
A good example of this happened recently, when Time's Joe Klein appeared on Chris Matthews' Sunday news show on NBC, and the discussion of how President Obama was discussed by the panel, including Klein and Helene Cooper. At one point, the discussion ran like this:
Cooper: Four years of covering Barack Obama, he does not play the race card. Not in a negative way. He does not do that.
Klein: He hates it. He hates it. He probably should, though -- he probably should address it because the bitterness out there is really becoming marked.
Immediately, the headlines on Drudge followed those that appeared at Dan Riehl's wingnutofastic joint, to wit, that Klein was urging Obama to "play the race card" -- even though what Klein clearly said was that what Obama needs to do is address the rising tide of racial animus that's being whipped up out there by the right-wingers playing the race card.
Such nuance, of course, was well over the heads of the folks at Fox News, who followed the Drudge lead and featured a segment on The Five discussing Klein's alleged faux pas as having urged Obama "play the race card". They all agreed that it would be a bad idea for Obama to "play the race card" by discussing racial tensions.
So Klein posted this response:
According to Mr. Drudge and Real Clear Politics, I’ve advised the President to play the race card on the Chris Matthews Sunday show. I didn’t, of course. The question to the panel was whether the President was going to have to address what appears to be a growing racial bitterness in the country. My response was that he should. That’s different from “playing the race card,” which is a term I’ve never used–it’s a cliche and a bad one, implying a political gambit or stunt. Political stunts that involve race are obnoxious. But race and ethnicity are issues that the President has addressed with intelligence in the past and, if the current Republican dog-whistling continues, may be something he might want to address in the future.
I don't normally defend Joe Klein -- the classic Beltway Villager -- but this was a sterling response that addressed the core issue: namely, the Republican campaign to clearly stir up racial resentment against Obama among working-class white voters, which even the most "centrist" observers can see is occurring.
Nonetheless, it naturally drew the ire of the natterers at The Five the next day:
You see, according to Dana Perino, Klein erred in having the audacity to bring up the cold reality that the Romney campaign is using dog-whistle politics in order to appeal to working-class white voters.
You know that this is reality when even a well-noted Beltway "centrist" like Ron Fournier -- remembered here for his GOP-friendly hit pieces and rambling false-equivalency analyses -- writes an exhaustive piece for National Journal explaining just how the Romney dog-whistle campaign actually works:
At Linda’s Place at 9 Mile Road and Harper, where $2.99 gets you two eggs, hash browns, bacon, and an honest conversation about racial politics, I chatted with Detroit firefighter Dave Miller and his pal, contractor Benson Brundage. As it turned out, that breakfast-table conversation helps explain why (and how) Mitt Romney is playing the race card with his patently false welfare ad.
“Let’s talk about your polling,” Benson said. He grabbed from my hand an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey showing that middle-class blacks and Hispanics are far more optimistic about their children’s future than are whites of the same economic status. “What do you think the unemployment rate is among blacks? In Detroit, it’s probably 40 percent. If the unemployment rate is that high, why is it that they are so optimistic about their future and the future of their children?”
Benson paused, heard no reply, and answered his own question.
There it is. The Macomb County buzz word for welfare, a synonym that rests on the tongues of the white middle class like sour milk. Men like Miller and Benson don’t use the N-word and they don’t hate (disclosure: I grew up with Miller, who now lives in Macomb County): For a five-figure salary and overtime, Miller risks his life fighting fires in a black neighborhood just south of 8 Mile Road. But Benson casually overestimated the black unemployment rate in Detroit by more than 10 percentage points, and both he and Miller will talk your ear off about welfare cheats.
“It’s a generational apathy,” Miller said, “and they keep getting more and more (apathetic) because they don’t have to work. If they sleep all day and free money …”
“ … Comes in the mail,” Benson said.
“… not in the mail anymore,” Miller said, “It’s in a magic card they can swipe.”
They poked at their egg yolks until Miller broke the silence. “I feel like a fool for not jumping on that shit and getting some (welfare) myself,” Miller said. “But I couldn’t sleep at night.”
I share this story to crack the code – the subtle language of distrust and prejudice that whites use to communicate deep-set fears, and that cynical politicians translate into votes. Translating Miller and Benson:
“Subsidization” = Welfare
“Generational Apathy” = Lazy
“They Slept All Day” = Blacks Sleep All Day
“I Feel Like a Fool” = I’m Mad As Hell
Please understand that Miller and working-class whites like him have reason to be angry and cynical. First, life is tough and getting tougher for the shrinking middle class, regardless of race. Second, as the National Journal reported in the story involving Miller a year ago, minorities are steadily pushing their way into the middle class, which was once the province of whites.
The most illustrative part of the piece, however, came when Fournier tried to have an honest conversation about the strategy with the Republican operatives behind it. What he got, of course, was the usual blunt denial -- then twisted, a la the "bloody shirt gambit," into an accusation that transforms the person seeking to have that honest conversation into the evil demagogue:
A remarkable piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in my sister publication, The Atlantic, cites several studies linking negative racial attitudes to voting behavior. Coates writes: “The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him) – and yet indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.”
Knowing all this, and with deep personal roots in Detroit’s racial maw, I felt on firm ground Tuesday asking Ron Kaufman, a Romney adviser, why the campaign was playing the race card in places like Macomb County.
“I couldn’t disagree more,” Kaufman replied.
“You know an ad like that touches a racial button,” I said.
“No it doesn’t,” Kaufman replied. “I don’t agree with you at all.”
Kaufman who I’ve known and respected for years, accused me of playing the race card – a fair point, strictly speaking, because I raised the question in a public setting: a joint interview with CBS’ John Dickerson before a large audience and live-streamed.
Still, Romney and his advisors stand by an ad they know is wrong – or, at the very least, they are carelessly ignoring the facts. That ad is exploiting the worst instincts of white voters – as predicted and substantiated by the Republican Party’s own polling.
Not only do they stand by such ads, but any effort to point out that Romney and Co. are in fact playing the race card with their invidious racial appeal to the lowest common denominator in politics is itself proclaimed "playing the race card".
This is why we can't have an honest discussion about race in America: Conservatives will not let us -- because in the end, they are the problem.
There really is a growing race problem in this country, and it has everything to do with the American Right -- the way they are encouraging white Americans to blame minorities for their economic displacement, a problem in fact disproportionately caused by conservative misgovernance, followed by conservative intransigence. Blaming brown people is a convenient way of scapegoating others for your own malfeasance.
This behavior announces itself in ways large and small -- from the continued prejudice that young black men face in getting jobs, to the rise in right-wing domestic terrorism we've seen in recent months.
Mostly, we know about it because it's everywhere among working-class Americans -- the wingnutty belief that Obama is a Muslim bent on imposing socialism and destroying our freedom. You can't turn a corner in the South, or the rural Midwest, or the interior West, without encountering people who believe this stuff as fact. And the GOP infrastructure, most notably Fox News, actively encourages these beliefs without actually endorsing them.
So it's time to begin having that conversation without conservatives, even if it is about them. One other thing has also become clear: The extensive appearance of the "bloody shirt gambit" has also made it nearly impossible for anyone of color -- most particularly the president -- to initiate and (at least initially) lead this discussion, because it has become pro forma to dismiss their contributions as merely arising from self-interest.
Frankly, I believe the initial push is going to have to come from honest white Americans willing to examine the problems unflinchingly -- people of good will who cannot be tainted by the "race card" accusation. Unfortunately, thanks to right-wing intransigence and centrist "but they all do it" false equivalence, they are becoming fewer and farther between.