Republicans, Racism, and Reasonable Suspicion

FILED TO: Society and Culture

Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine has been making a spectacle of himself lately, most recently tying himself in knots trying to explain away his essay on race in the Obama Era. On Thursday night’s All In with Chris Hayes, his point seems to have evolved into a plea for fairness to Republicans, while conceding that everything about Republicanism is legitimately racist. He told Chris Hayes that “you can go to almost any issue and see a racial dynamic, and I really think you can, and you can legitimately,” but somehow, legitimately identifying those racial dynamics is somehow unfair, and contributes to a “poisonous dynamic.”

I don’t get it, and I don’t agree with either end of that hypothesis. There are many issues that either don’t have a racial dynamic, or have racial dynamics that intersect the partisan divide, and discussing those issues that do have a racial dynamic in racial terms isn’t just fair, it is essential. However, on Chait’s own terms, if every partisan issue can legitimately be viewed as racial, how could it possibly be unfair to discuss that? We’ll have to wait for Chait’s next appearance on MSNBC to explain that, but in the meantime, we can look for clues in what he actually wrote, and in his cherry-picked response to critics.

The most problematic aspect of Chait’s “The Color of His Presidency” was his assertion that “the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power,” an absurd characterization that’s only sweetened by his comparison of MSNBC commentators’ examination of racial issues to Stop and Frisk.

The abuse of that policy relied on a systematic ignorance of an evidentiary standard known as “reasonable suspicion,” the implication being that MSNBC’s commentators were unreasonable in their suspicion of Republicans. Chait’s own reading of Republican politics contradicts this, but what’s really telling is how he extends the law enforcement metaphor in his followup, “Obama, Racism, and the Presumption of Innocence.”

You see what he did there? With devilish sleight-of-hand, Chait has raised the standard of proof, from “reasonable suspicion” to “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” and asks liberals to apply that standard before they can even ask if race might be an issue. Remember, despite Chait’s terror at the mere accusation of racism, people on MSNBC, or black Twitter, or anywhere in the world, can’t actually convict and sentence anyone of racism. Not even metaphorically. When Republicans say even the most overtly racist things, or produce the most famously racist ads in history, they don’t pay a price, they get paid.

In fact, on the rare occasion in which such a wrongful “conviction” does occur, there are still no consequences. Rick Santorum flat-out did not say “black people,” but everybody thinks he did. This, in my view, is genuinely unjust, because whatever you think about Rick Santorum, he’s actually shown real courage on the issue of voting rights. But that “conviction” of Santorum didn’t hurt him. It was his record in favor of felons’ voting rights that hurt him.

Not only can liberals not enforce any sort of penalty or judgment on Republican racism, they are punished for doing so. One of the “terrifying” examples Chait gives involves Martin Bashir, a man of color who is so terrifyingly empowered over Republicans that he was fired from MSNBC… for calling out Republican racism.

Since liberals can’t actually arrest, convict, or otherwise punish Republicans for racism, Chait’s demand is that they produce proof beyond a reasonable doubt before they even bring it up. That’s a standard that (try not to be terrified) sounds a little racist. Unless you have a smoking n-word, you should completely ignore the subject, lest the people Chait concedes are organized around racism not get a fair shake.

For reasons that Chait excruciatingly details in both of his pieces, though, Republicans are suspect. If, as he says, “white racism is deeply embedded historically and sociologically with conservatism,” then when an issue emerges that may have disparate racial impact, or when a conservative says something that might have a racial aspect to it, it is reasonable to suspect them.

If you concede that modern Republican politics are heavily built on appeals to racial resentment and privilege, which Chait does, then you could argue it is reasonable to suspect any Republican. To use Chait’s earlier metaphor, this might seem, at first blush, like the equivalent of racial profiling. One key difference is that people don’t choose their race. The justification that white people use to legitimize the view that it’s reasonable to suspect someone like Trayvon Martin of being a threat are based on an immutable trait that has no intrinsic relevance. Trayvon Martin couldn’t help being black, and being black did not make him a threat.

If you’re a Republican, though, that means you have chosen to be a Republican, which also means that you either responded to those racial appeals, or didn’t mind them enough to keep  you from making that choice. By Chait’s own reading of Republican politics, it is reasonable to suspect every Republican.

It’s also reasonable to suspect someone whose goal appears to be to provide cover for all but the most explicit forms of racism, especially when he flat-out lies on another black commentator to do it. In his latest essay, Chit writes (emphasis mine):

A few years ago, Melissa Harris-Perry — in a column ironically accusing Joan Walsh herself of racism — argued that those accused of racism should be considered guilty until proven innocent. “I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt,” she wrote. “If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making.” Just how a person so accused could overcome the presumption of racism, Harris-Perry did not explain.

Before I get to the lie, let’s first examine the blatant mischaracterization of what Harris-Perry said. She’s not arguing for a “presumption of racism,” she’s arguing reasonable suspicion, not as a means to convict or punish anyone, but as a means to even consider the impact of race on policy. Here’s a fuller reading of what MHP said (emphasis mine):

The first is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard.

In a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. More than 100 years of philosophical, psychological and sociological research that begins, at least, with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois has mapped the deeply entrenched realities of racial bias on the American consciousness. If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making.

The best example of this distinction is, of course, the Voting Rights Act, a portion of which the Supreme Court struck down on the very logic that Chait espouses, that states and jurisdictions with proven records of discrimination ought to be afforded a “presumption of innocence” when forming election policy. Pre-clearance isn’t a “conviction” or a punishment, it is a precaution against suspicion that has been earned.

As for the lie, the quote Chait provided was accurate, but nowhere in Melissa Harris-Perry’s column does she remotely accuse Joan Walsh of racism. That’s just a flat lie, and one which may provide a clue as to what’s behind all of this. Chait’s entire first essay is really about conservative panic over accusations of racism. It’s true that when they are accused, or even questioned, over matters of race, conservatives flip out, and it really does have the effect of stopping some conversations cold. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Maybe there’s an argument to be had over more productive ways to engage conservatives on race, but their panic is really not our problem.

But those question and accusations about race also seem to cause something of a panic in Jonathan Chait, who not only sees them as a “terrifying power,” but also sees an accusation of racism where there clearly isn’t one. When his last column was poorly received, Chait tweeted “Favor to ask from leftie critics: I forget what race I am and I have no mirrors so please remind me every five seconds or so. Great, thanks.”

Jonathan Chait is white (Breaking News!), but in this case, it isn’t his whiteness that is suspect, just his logic. That it also shields him, and other white liberals, from suspicion is, I suppose, too terrifying to contemplate.

Update: I just started reading Chauncey DeVega’s two blog posts on this issue, so any similarities are purely coincidental, if eerie, but you should read them both here and here.


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  • Schneibster

    There’s a bunch of racists over on the Hank Aaron thread claiming Hank is racist because people spit on him and called him a nigger for breaking Babe Ruth’s record, and now he’s telling about it.

    AFAIC the Republican party demonstrated they are racists when they hosed the US economy in their temper tantrum about a black man getting elected President. They also proved they’re traitors.

  • Jason E

    Please don’t confuse my prejudice with racism!

  • joseph2004

    Making assumptions about whole groups of people is always dangerous. I’ve been lectured on this site (or its sister site over at Cesca) about the legitimacy of tossing the accusation of racism in someone’s face, especially if it’s a Republican’s. Moreover, having made the accusation, if the accused denies the charges, the accuser claims that denial is admission.

    Convenient, isn’t it?

    There is documented proof that liberals view the accusation as mighty powerful and have been willing to use that power in our political process. JournOlists anyone?

    And it does indeed leave many “sputtering” over the accusation, not the least because when attempting to talk frankly about an issue, say, black incarceration rates, or documented studies showing that children raised by single parents are statistically less likely to be financially secure in adulthood, or immigration laws should be enforced, one can quickly find oneself not talking substance but rather defending against the charge of racism. The accuser has the “advantage” of not having to understand anything about anything but often will come away feeling “the victor” for having shut down any discussion about a controversial issue. It’s what Spencer Ackerman clearly believed was the best tactic in diverting critics from anything controversial about Obama or his associations, such as over his pastor of 20 years, Rev. Jeremiah Wright:

    If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them–Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares–and call them racists. Ask: why do they have such a deep-seated problem with a black politician who unites the country? What lurks behind those problems? This makes *them* sputter with rage, which in turn leads to overreaction and self-destruction.

    The ink-stained proof that the “race card” has been, is, and will be employed by the left as a tactic to scare the opposition into silence. None of the questions Ackerman suggests be leveled at Conservatives has anything substantive to do with who Barack Obama was or is and how who he associates with informs who he is; it was all meant to deflect from issues the left worried could be damning about their candidate. Call them racists!

    • Schneibster

      When I see a white US citizen claiming black people are racist against him I know he’s lying. And I know he’s a racist.

      Simple as that.

    • ssj

      Read i_a_c above.

  • Jason E

    Caution: White Comfort Zone Ends In 1/4 Mile

  • tmaxpa

    That last tweet from Chait seems to summarize the problem, which is an extreme lack of self-awareness on the part of the right wing. If I’m not mistaken, this whole thing started when he talked about how mean Stephen Colbert’s humor was, how he uses demeaning stereotypes that don’t apply to every “conservative”. And then to defend himself, he ends up basically repeating one of Colbert’s bits, the “I’m color blind, I only know I’m white because….” line, one of Colbert’s most iconic take-downs of white privileged and the implicit racism of American society. It seems pretty clear that Colbert’s humor is both very effective as a form of social protest, and very accurate in its depiction of modern conservatives.

  • Schneibster

    Chait got fired from MSNBC for making shit up.

    Looks like he hasn’t stopped.

  • Frederic Poag

    Everyone stumbles. I enjoy Chait’s writing, still do. I don’t agree with him on this. Sometimes people can’t evolve on an issue, and race is one of those topics that’s scary for a lot of people. I think Chait’s sin is hanging on to this intellectual bias, not necessarily a racial one, instead of fully examining it.

    • i_a_c

      I think Chait’s thought process is kind of an offshoot of the “colorblind” idea which allows people to appear noble in supporting something that sounds virtuous but in fact sidesteps and utterly fails to confront reality.

      • Frederic Poag

        You said it better than I did. Dead on, totally agree.

  • MrDHalen

    Thanks again for bringing this topic to the Banter!

    I personally think racism or the preservation of white privilege is the fuel that drives the GOP today. The republican voters want it and the republican politicians sell the promise of its preservation, while shielding and allowing big business to strip mine this nation of its labor and resources. As this cycle continues and the standard of living continues to decline for middle-class and poor whites, the GOP keeps the finger pointed squarely at the brown people. Rinse and Repeat!

    Democrats need to stop pretending that there is some other true belief to the GOP. Any good people with conservative views have left the party already. Privilege is the demand and there is money to be made selling it!

  • i_a_c

    If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making.

    This quote by Melissa Harris-Perry shouldn’t be controversial at all. It would be dishonest to say that we, white people, don’t from time to time act or react to people of color in a way that has been imprinted on us by society. It does take some serious introspection by an individual to admit this much, though, hence the visceral reactions you get when you point out that a particular action or line of thinking is rooted in racial bias.

    I think a lot of the time when people bring up the possibility of racial bias, people sort of knee-jerk into thinking that they’re being accused of overt, hardcore racism. People do not like thinking about the fact that certain behavior is racially insensitive. I do think that there is a sliver of a point that these types of cases of “soft racism” brought about by societal conditioning ought to be treated more gently so as to not totally shut down the conversation.

    There was one case I encountered recently where someone brought up the idea that it’s a double standard that calling GWB a “chimp” is okay while calling Obama the same is not. One participant in the conversation called that line of thinking racist, which it is, but it pretty much stymied any productive discussion. I tried to point out that in everyday life we tend not to say certain things to certain people based on context and history. One would typically not extoll the virtues of atheism in a room full of devout Catholics, for example. By claiming a double-standard surrounding the word “chimp” would effectively exclude black people from the same kind of thinking behind not promoting atheism in a room full of Catholics. The double-standard claim basically chooses to ignore the context, which is that black people have been unfavorably compared to apes for generations. One would not expect the room full of Catholics to suck it up and get over it, so why should they expect that black people do so?

    Republican politicians frequently play on “soft racism” to their advantage. Paul Ryan’s comment on inner city culture is merely the latest example. I think that Chait falls into the all-too-common trap that I alluded to above, that it’s uncomfortable for people to think about why certain comments are racially insensitive, so we ought not talk about it when we see it. In general, virtually nobody on the left who regularly speaks about race issues is accusing anybody of KKK-style hardcore racism, although that is a common perception. Pointing out that Republicans tap into societally-rooted conceptions about race and explaining why those are inaccurate are vastly different than knee-jerk response you get from Chait.

    • Schneibster

      We tried “soft.”

      The racists laughed.

      They made their bed, let them lie in it a while. (And I DO mean lie.)

      • i_a_c

        There is no doubt that there exist many hardened racists who just plain don’t like black people or what have you.

        I think to key to reaching those who might be predisposed to “colorblindness” is to get them to recognize their own shortcomings. Not easy to do–everybody thinks their own motives are pure. It’s an uphill battle. Most people have never tried to think about this from anybody else’s perspective other than the one that has been instilled upon them.

        Some of those people can be reached. But we have to recognize how difficult it is for people to stop misleading themselves.

        • Schneibster

          The whippings will continue until the racism stops.


  • aceshigh

    Chait is usually very solid. I don’t know what the hell he’s trying to prove with this latest fight he’s picking.

  • sherifffruitfly

    chait’s logic (ILlogic) is a perfect replication of what happened in math 100s of years ago:

    The intent of Saccheri’s work was ostensibly to establish the validity of Euclid by means of a reductio ad absurdum proof of any alternative to Euclid’s parallel postulate.
    To do this he assumed that the parallel postulate was false, and
    attempted to derive a contradiction. Since Euclid’s postulate is
    equivalent to the statement that the sum of the internal angles of a
    triangle is 180°, he considered both the hypothesis that the angles add
    up to more or less than 180°.

    The first led to the conclusion that straight lines are finite,
    contradicting Euclid’s second postulate. So Saccheri correctly rejected
    it. However, today this principle is accepted as the basis of elliptic geometry, where both the second and fifth postulates are rejected.

    The second possibility turned out to be harder to refute. In fact he
    was unable to derive a logical contradiction and instead derived many
    non-intuitive results; for example that triangles have a maximum finite
    area and that there is an absolute unit of length. He finally concluded
    that: “the hypothesis of the acute angle is absolutely false; because it
    is repugnant to the nature of straight lines”. Today, his results are
    theorems of hyperbolic geometry.”

    The basic problem in both chait’s and saccheri’s cases was the same: “just knowing” ahead of time what your final result was “supposed” to be.

    • Schneibster

      But that’s not the end of the story: hyperbolic geometry is Einsteinian relativity.

  • stacib23

    I saw that interview – currently have a bag of pulled out hair next to my recliner.


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