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U.S. President Barack Obama, who won a second term in office by defeating Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, waves as he addresses supporters during his election night victory rally in Chicago, November 7, 2012.    REUTERS/Jim Bourg (UNITED STAT
He's black. He's also the president.
Perhaps it's uncouth to keep on belaboring a point that has occupied certain corners of leftblogistan for this entire month, but this stuff is important. And by this stuff, I refer to the ongoing parade of criticism and commentary that has emerged from New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait's perspectives on racial politics in the era of Obama. Two weeks ago, my topic was an exchange between Chait and his fellow essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which Coates explained to the the world how Chait's perspectives on race relations in a political context totally ignored minority perspectives. But on that same Sunday, Chait published yet another piece on the topic—this time, a cover story that equated, in Chait's view, the left's eagerness to see racial animus behind every political action of the right with a supposedly equally naive perspective on the right that pretends racial animus is never a politically motivating factor for them, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Over at New Republic, the ever-incisive Brian Beutler did a thorough analysis of the ways in which Chait's equivocation falls short. Follow below the fold for details.

Beutler's basic argument is that Chait's basic premise is false. Far from believing that every single political action of conservatism is driven by racial animus, liberals tend to believe more strongly in plutocratic motivations for the right's political ideology:

In reality, many if not most liberals correctly believe that the GOP's organizing modus operandi is plutocratic in nature, but that a plutocratic agenda is politically unsustainable without being fused to a distinct populism of some sort. For both historical and natural reasons, the GOP's populism is often the populism of white racial resentment. This is a cardinal fact. It also makes it difficult to trace a boundary between the right's racial and non-racial public appeals.
Indeed, the right wing's return to Ayn Rand's objectivism and its division between producers and parasites, between makers and takers, could theoretically apply regardless of race. But even though "black culture" and "culture of poverty" are hardly synonymous, it's often shockingly obvious who conservatives stereotypically view as the takers and the parasites; and even if it weren't, Paul Ryan and Ronald Reagan are right there to make it perfectly clear.

Beutler does an excellent job of highlighting the fused and blurred lines that form the motivation behind conservative economic policy; but is racial hostility toward the average poor person adequate explanation for the asymmetrical ferocity underlying conservative opposition to certain policies? As Beutler says:

At best this is mistaken. At worst it is willful blindness. Somewhere in between it is a willingness to rationalize away the outsize impact not expanding Medicaid will have on people of color. But here we've reached the mutual incomprehension Chait correctly identified, and find that he's over-diagnosed its causes. It's not because liberals are racially blinded to abstract conservative arguments against the Medicaid expansion; or because they don't see any legitimacy in the preference for smaller government; or because anyone claimed individual Republican governors or conservative intellectuals are racist for opposing it. It's because those arguments, even when sincerely held, are inadequate to the task of explaining the breadth of resistance. They fail utterly to account for the full array of motivations. And if you allow conservatives to omit the racial component, you're not being polite—you're just participating in a false debate.
The point here is well taken: there certainly is racial animus at work. But it's not just towards poor minorities. Instead, it's directed most significantly at one minority in particular: President Barack Obama. For conservatives with racial animus, it's bad enough for any president to advocate for economic policies like food stamp assistance or Medicaid expansion that, rightly or wrongly, could be seen as predominantly helping minorities. But a minority president attempting to implement these same policies is fodder for a paranoid mind. In this context, the Shirley Sherrod incident, where a selectively edited video was used to accuse her and by extension the Obama administration of oppression of whites, comes prominently to mind. Eugene Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the incident in the context of the fear among certain white conservatives that were minorities given substantial political power, they would seek vengeance against the white people they deemed as their oppressors. Coates' examples are particularly salient:
The opinion is unoriginal. Steve King thinks "the President has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race - on the side that favors the black person."

Rush Limbaugh thinks that in Obama's American "the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering 'yeah, right on, right on, right on.' Of course everybody said the white kid deserved it he was born a racist, he's white."

Glenn Beck believes that Obama is a "a guy who has exposed himself, over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture....I'm not saying he doesn't like white people, I'm saying he has a problem...This guy is, I believe, a racist."

The legendary Lee Atwater quote that informs much of this conversation clearly underlies a significant portion of conservative messaging; even if not from an ideological perspective, then definitively from an activist code-switching message, as Beutler says. But simply by virtue of of being black, President Obama has turned what, for conservatives, used to be simply a bitter ideological struggle into a conspiracy-theory-laden quest to "take their country back." As Chait correctly noted, the election of Obama has changed conservatism from something that used to have an ideology separate from racial resentment into something where racial resentment is closely linked at the hip to Republican orthodoxy. And given the fact that racial resentment and Republican orthodoxy are so closely linked—by Chait's own admission—is it any surprise that liberals might impugn conservative motives along these lines during the Obama presidency?

Beutler's critique of Chait may be incomplete insofar as it does not mention how the context of Obama's race changes the situation. But Chait's declaration that an entire politics of racial resentment is no less immoral that liberal overeagerness to ascribe such a motivation to their conservative counterparts? That's a grievous sin.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Apr 20, 2014 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community.

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