Jonathan Chait Reveals ‘Terrifying Power’ of ‘Racism’

FILED TO: Media and Entertainment

Jonathan Chait is a very smart guy, it must be said. I know it must be said because, even as he’s been mopping the floor with Chait for several weeks now, Ta-Nehisi Coates can’t stop saying how smart he is, and President Barack Obama, another very smart guy, lists Chait among his favorites. I will leave it to those smarter men, then, to explain how Chait wound up writing the single dumbest paragraph about racism, in the single dumbest six million-word column about racism, that you will ever read on a site that isn’t The Daily Caller.

For the past several weeks, New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait and The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates have been engaged in an ongoing debate that was sparked by Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) super-encrypted attack on lazy black culture. Aside from the constant affirmations of mutual admiration and respect (we get it, you’re not mad at each other), it has been a fascinating conversation that you can follow here:

You can judge for yourself which of these men emerged with the cleanest clock, but judging by Chait’s latest column, at least a couple of his springs got busted loose in there somewhere. The premise of the column is that perennial favorite, that both sides are equally at fault, and that as deeply racist as Republican politics is, the “left” is just as guilty of “paranoia” about white racism. In an especially elegant touch, he accuses MSNBC contributor Jonathan Capehart of participating in an “ideological stop-and-frisk operation” for calling out Gov. Jan Brewer’s (R-AZ) finger-wagging tarmac photo op. He omits the clear subtext that Brewer also told reporters that she “felt threatened” by the President, and instead places Jonathan Capehart in the role of the oppressor.

The entire piece is chock full of selective omissions and twisted logic, but I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. The shining jewel in Chait’s essay is his identification of the truly terrifying aspect of “racism,” which I put in quotes because it’s not the actual racism that’s terrifying, it’s the marshaling of the word racism:

Few liberals acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power. Conservatives feel that dread viscerally. Though the liberal analytic method begins with a sound grasp of the broad connection between conservatism and white racial resentment, it almost always devolves into an open-ended license to target opponents on the basis of their ideological profile. The power is rife with abuse.

Chauncey DeVega at We Are Respectable Negroes takes on one side of that absurd premise better than I ever could, noting that :

Jim and Jane Crow were terrifying. Lynching parties that dismembered black bodies, cut them apart, forced black men to eat their own penises as the price for a “merciful killing”, or the white rampaging mobs that destroyed black wealth, life, and many dozens (if not hundreds of black communities) during the Red Summers of the American post World War one era, are terrifying.

The slave ship and the many millions killed during the Middle Passage are terrifying. The chattel slavery auction block is terrifying. The mass rape and murder of black men, women, and children on the charnel house plantations of the American slaveocracy, both after the seasoning process and in the hell that awaited the survivors of the Middle Passage, is terrifying.

Men like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn who can kill black people at will under Stand Your Ground Laws are terrifying. Police who have the power of life and death, and can use that power to murder black people who are “armed” with house keys, wallets, phones, or their empty hands is terrifying. The “don’t get killed by the cops” lecture that responsible black parents give their children is terrifying.

The thought that how despite one’s successes and educational accomplishments that because they are identified, however arbitrarily, as “black” in America means that their resume will get thrown in the garbage, a mortgage will have higher interest, or how doctors will not give proper treatment or necessary pain medication, is terrifying.

On the flip side of that, however, Chait doesn’t give any convincing examples of how this “terrifying power” is used. Is he talking about how Republicans who make explicitly racist statements about black people and food stamps are then never heard from again? Or maybe he’s talking about that one time Fox News was accused of being kinda racist, and immediately went off the air? Or that one time a Republican Senator called a guy the North African French equivalent of the n-word on video, and then was definitely not the Republican Party’s nominee for U.S. Senate in Virginia in 2012? Is it how Ted Nugent has never been heard from again? Where is this demonstration of “terrifying power?”

The only example Chait gives is MSNBC’s Cheerios tweet, which only appears to have terrified Phil Griffin into apologizing.

The good news, though, appears to be that all of this mutual tearing apart that both sides are doing will be over soon, and everyone, liberals included, can stop caring about racism:

Obama is attempting to navigate the fraught, everywhere-and-yet-nowhere racial obsession that surrounds him. It’s a weird moment, but also a temporary one. The passing from the scene of the nation’s first black president in three years, and the near-certain election of its 44th nonblack one, will likely ease the mutual suspicion. In the long run, generational changes grind inexorably away.

Update: As it turns out, Chait wrote this before his chat with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Maybe he’s learned something since then?

Update II: I don’t know how I missed this before, but Jonathan Chait is white. I regret the omission.


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  • Schneibster

    Chait blows it again.

  • MrDHalen

    Coates was right and thanks for writing about this and bringing the topic to the Banter. He has really expanded my thoughts on racism in America. It’s not pretty and I have no immediate solutions, but I am glad it is being discussed.

  • drspittle

    Thank you for writing this piece and for quoting Chauncey DeVega. I appreciate the perspective you’ve provided with all of your articles here.

  • Tom Blue

    Great piece, Mr. Christopher. I’ve found the back-and-forth between Chait and TNC brilliant and clarifying and profoundly educational. Chait has the brass to expound on the liberal side’s fuzzy denial and rationalizations, which are big fat juicy softballs for Coates. But Chait keeps pitching and Coates keeps swinging and the whole thing is an epic debate the way a debate on race or any subject should be conducted. Enlightening and exquisitely civil.

    You can’t have that kind of much-needed exchange with the right — they lie distort, talk over your and do the galloping gish. You can’t have that kind of constructive exchange with the emoprogs and the dudebros either. It’s all personal attacks, vendettas, and name-calling.

    • CL Nicholson

      The conversation was civil and engaging, but frankly, it didn’t really get at the bigger roadblocks on discussions of race, class and the rather simplistic view. The problem with the whole TNC/Chait ‘beef’ (more like Morningstar Black Bean Burger than an actual beef) was kind of disappointing, as Chait came off as the clueless white guy instead critically challenging TNC’s often myopic histrionics on Race and Class.

      But like you Tom, at least they didn’t devolve in tasteless one liners like its a game of ‘The Dozens’. Like I said, its a ‘Boca Burger’ Beef.

  • alwaysthink

    I sure hope that someone will start to acknowledge what is really going on here with the bashing that Chait is taking. There is a bigger lesson to learn which is most white folks have been sheltered from the worst of the Black experience. It’s outside our frame of reference.

    My question is “how do we move forward?” Really, I mean that. We need to change hearts to reduce racism. Complex arguments have their place but we now need to move forward and address the problem from both sides.

    • stacib23

      “How do we move forward?”

      It’s outside our frame of reference.

      THIS!!! A simple acceptance that one may have no actual frame of reference in a particular situation outside of opinion and, therefore, may need to temper their “beliefs” and not be so quick to discount what others say on personal interpretations of what is racist behavior.

      • beulahmo

        On a person-to-person level, this works very well for me.

        But this brings to mind something that has bothered me for a while now. There’s something about the social frame of interaction, i.e., the grouping of people engaged in interactions, where distinctions get blurred and discussions go sour. For example, I’ve observed a person who speaks very well about race and privilege within a large group of generalized public discussion. But then I’ve observed that same person, within person-to-person interactions, employ shocking disregard and contempt toward people who have less social power due to race, and it appeared (though of course I can’t prove it) that this very same person was dismissing them because he was recognizing and invoking his social privilege. I observed multiple instances of this, and his behavior seemed so contemptuous it just appalled me.

        It was disheartening to see the drastic contradictions in this person’s thinking and behavior, seemingly because he was operating in different social groupings (large group vs. person-to-person).

        • stacib23

          My experience has been that even conversations that start out with two people basically on the same side of the road re race can devolve to the point where each is not so sure they still like the other. A person that I liked and generally agreed with their opinions quite a lot (right here on this very site) is now pretty much persona non grata to me because during a conversation they were insistent on telling me how I felt and what I really meant by what I said, etc. There was nothing I could say to this person to convince them they couldn’t deduce my meaning from their personal preconceptions. I repeatedly said, no, that’s not what I’m saying and her response was “I know what you’re thinking” and “that is what you mean”. I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated I was that as an adult person I had an anonymous internet “friend” person dictating to me what I felt / meant.

          • beulahmo

            “…insistent on telling me how I felt and what I really meant by what I said…”
            Ugh. I’m sorry you had that experience here. That’s just an awful thing to do to a person, regardless of the subject. And it’s especially awful when a person with greater social privilege does it to a person with less social privilege.

    • ForsettiJustice

      I am not sure we can move forward without an intellectual acknowledgement and some serious understanding of the Black experience, especially the worst of it. When someone is in denial, there is no moving forward.

    • Steven Skelton

      There are far too many people making far too much money off of racial animus to allow any sort of progress to be made….

      But we could start by not calling each other racists willy nilly.

      • Schneibster

        That would require that you stop making racist comments on Internet blogs which I’m not exactly holding my breath waiting for.

        • Lady Willpower

          The Republican answer is to keep saying racist stuff but complain that they’re tired of being called racist. That or “black people are the REAL racists because Al Sharpton.”

          • Schneibster

            Actually I just got two “black people are the REAL racists because Hank Aaron.”

            No joke.

          • Lady Willpower

            Of course. Because what does an 80-year old black man, who played much of his career in the Deep South, and who endured thousands of actual death threats from white racists, know about racism?

            He must be the real racist.

  • petesh

    Coates is mostly right. There is far more and far worse and far more dangerous racism on the right, but all our politics, indeed pretty much all our society, is suffused with racism, and much of the left is not innocent.

  • OC_DC

    Accusations of racism are a powerful weapon, but I’m not sure why Chait thinks this is a bad thing. Making conservatism unacceptable because it’s linked to the most vile and foul things a human can be is key to defeating it.

    Chait shouldn’t run from this, grab the ring of power and use it to cow and bash upper class whites into line and to remove power from hicks in flyover.

    • Steven Skelton

      So the ends justify the means? No matter if these people are actually reprehensible, we will just link them to people that are so our political philosophy can win?

      What a horrible thing to do to people!


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