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Republicans, Racism, and Reasonable Suspicion


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.