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:
Coates: Other People’s Pathologies
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.
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.