We can all breathe a little easier. Journalistic movie star Matt Bai, fresh from his cameo appearance in House of Cards (possibly the most cynical and depressing take on American politics ever reduced to a miniseries) has effectively declared racism a vestige of the past, best forgotten, and certainly not something to be injected into the modern political debate.
Reacting to the recent acknowledgement by some leading Democrats that the rabid demonization of everything this President has done and said since taking office has been motivated either consciously or subconsciously by an overweening racist impulse in the GOP, Mr. Bai has once again blessed us with his carefully cultivated detachment, in which he glides above the landscape dispensing pearls of political wisdom like a sorrowful, reluctant sage.
The concern runneth over:
[I]t's not the reaction of Republicans that Democrats should probably have some concern about. It's the way American voters, and a lot of younger voters in particular, may view a return to the polarizing racial debate that existed before Obama was ever elected.Bai wrinkles his nose at the smelly idea that a party whose geographic base miraculously falls largely within the same boundaries as the Old Confederacy may actually be acting out of...racism. His main argument is that the Democrats' reaction to racism itself is really generational--that the "old guard" Boomer Democrats represented by the likes of Steven Israel and Nancy Pelosi, growing up as children of the Civil Rights movement, have internalized the racial divide to an extent not shared by later generations, especially the current generation. And he chides them for this, albeit oh so patiently. Because it's really, really not just racism--there are profound principles involved:
[C]onservatives do have profound and principled disagreements with Obama's view of expansive government. And it's worth noting that racial resentment has been a part of the partisan divide for at least 50 years now; it's doubtful that "birther" types hate Obama any more than they did Bill Clinton (whom they accused of serial murder, among other things).True, a few "birther types" did say such things about Clinton. And they said the same about Hillary. But what Bai inexplicably forgets is that those who did so were generally not permitted the option of dragging the nation to the brink of default with their ideology, did not wield absolute veto power over the entire Republican caucus and were rightly perceived and treated as cranks and outliers by a media far more attuned and engaged in examining the real-world consequences of their policies. In short, the entire Republican Party has been high-stepping in time with the "birther types" since the moment this President took office. The opposition has been incessant and seamless--to the point where any Republican deemed insufficiently hateful of anything proposed by Obama is now labeled a moderate and summarily drummed out of office by an amorphous entity called the "Tea Party."
But Bai's point is that Republicans have "principles" too. Fair enough (though Bai doesn't tell us what they are). That doesn't mean their motivational impulse is anything less than racist with this President. Bai might be forgiven for misunderstanding this. But he can't be forgiven for equating the virulent behavior of the GOP to the Democrats' reaction to the real horrors foisted upon us by George W. Bush:
I don't recall Pelosi or Israel making a version of that same speech when the highly educated liberals who despised George W. Bush circulated emails, after their defeat in 2004, depicting a red map of the "United States of Jesusland" and blaring, "F--- the South." Bigotry in our politics now takes myriad forms.That argument and that comparison is, in a word, bullshit.
I paid quite a bit of attention during the Bush years and I don't recall "Fuck The South" becoming anything close to a "meme." The "Jesusland" reference is to a single viral email that made its way through social media, humorously pointing to the Bible belt as an unshakable bastion for the right wing. The idea that Nancy Pelosi would be required to "call out" any email cartoon that happened to pop on the web is frankly preposterous and reeks of false equivalence. The vehemence of Democrats' reaction to Bush was tied directly to his heinous policies and cannot by any leap of logic be equated with "bigotry." There was plenty of anger, yes. Given what he actually did to the country--lying us into a war, wrecking the economy, destroying our international reputation, letting a city drown--anger was a perfectly justified response.
This image, on the other hand, was one of the Tea Parties' favorites. Its presence was ubiquitous in 2008-2010, well before and after the President's election:
As was this, posted prominently on the Drudge report:
How many of us can forget John McCain having to correct that woman who declared with certainty that Obama was not a "real American?" Not to drag you down memory lane, Matt, but maybe you should have paid more attention to what your own colleagues were writing about the astonishing disrespect and malignant rhetoric aimed at this President:
There has been a racist undertone to many of the Republican attacks leveled against President Obama for the last three years, and in this dawning presidential campaign.* * *
You can detect this undertone in the level of disrespect for this president that would be unthinkable were he not an African-American. Some earlier examples include: Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” at one of Mr. Obama’s first appearances before Congress, and House Speaker John Boehner rejecting Mr. Obama’s request to speak to a joint session of Congress—the first such denial in the history of our republic.
More recently, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, in a conversation overheard at Reagan National Airport in Washington, said of Michelle Obama: “She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself.”* * *
Sometimes the racism is more oblique. Newt Gingrich was prattling on the other day about giving “poor children” in “housing projects” jobs cleaning toilets in public schools to teach them there is an alternative to becoming a pimp or a drug dealer. These children, he said, have no work ethic. If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t get that poor kids in housing projects is code for minorities, he or she hasn’t been paying attention to American politics for the last 50 years. Mr. Gingrich is also fond of calling Mr. Obama “the greatest food stamp President in American history.”Bai believes that Obama voters can be divided into generational categories--the Pelosis, Holders and Israels, elders and late Boomers all, described above; a middle generation aware of the history of the civil rights movement but raised in an environment of "political correctness" (a phrase Bai throws out apparently without understanding what it actually means); and a younger generation, for whom racism is now apparently a foreign concept:
Millennials, who have grown up in a vastly different, more racially complex country. The racial recrimination that felt inescapable 30 years ago is as far removed from their experience as the Red Scare was to Obama's and mine. It's telling to hear today's college students campaign against the hurtful slights (or biased compliments) they call "microaggressions." Even the terminology suggests that all the larger racial battles have already been fought.The picture of Millennials one gathers from Bai is that of a harmonious bloc of young adults who have transcended racism. Bai actually suggests the Democrats are wasting their time disturbing the colorblind coexistence he imagines these young people are enjoying:
And so you can imagine that the sudden outburst from party leaders about racism did little to advance their cause with these voters, who are, just by the way, crucial to the Democrats' electoral math for years to come. The politics of racial grievance and identity feels about as contemporary to millennials as a floppy disk.But some things aren't just about politics, but about the way things are:
Applied Research Center, the nation’s leading think tank on racial justice, today released a 40-page study on the racial attitudes of young people, whom many pollsters and commentators have prematurely labeled as "post-racial."(The full ARC study is here).
Although the “Millennial Generation” (born post-1980, ages 18-30) is the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation the US has ever known, it is clear that race continues to play a role in their lives.
“Contrary to widespread labeling of the millennial generation as 'post-racial,' young people actually see a lot of racial problems. Many are concerned that race continues to impact outcomes in society, and they want to talk about it," said ARC President & Executive Director Rinku Sen. "What's more, the gap in perception between how white millennials and millennials of color see race points to continued racial conflict, demonstrating how important these conversations are."
Denise Oliver Velez has written about race and young people here:
Hate is alive and well and targets blacks, Jews, Muslims, LBGTs, immigrants, women and all people of color. The new cadres of organizers and perpetrators are not old and gray. They are youthful, white and educated. They attend tea party functions and conventions like the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). They form bands and play concerts at political rallies and state fairs.And maybe Matt Bai could even understand this:
So what is "hipster racism"? West identifies it with catchphrases like "#whitepeopleproblems," ironic use of the N-word, Urban Outfitters' "Navajo Hipster Panties" and "Stuff White People Like."So no, Matt, we're not wasting our time pointing out where racism shows its ugly face in the Republican Party. You're the one who's wasting time pretending it doesn't still exist.
Pointing to millennial phenomena like "Blackface Jesus" and "Kill Whitey" parties, Gawker's Read says "'hipster racism' acts like a behavioral flannel jacket or a trucker cap, a rejection of perceived upper-middle-class values, still wrapped in enough layers of irony to create a distance from the mythical rednecks or hillbillies it's thought to be emulating." (Others have accused Gawker Media of its own hipster racism).
If all this sounds insular and obscure, that's because it is -- think Brooklyn or Logan Square in Chicago -- except to the black or Asian or Native American millennials who find themselves on the other side of a race gap that never really disappeared after their parents grew up.