Somehow, conservatives have gotten it into their tiny little heads that Attorney General Eric Holder thinks it’s racist to say “take back our country,” and are falling all over themselves to point out that liberals have said that, too, so how could it be racist? Ipso facto, checkmate. There are just two problems with this, the first one being that Holder didn’t say what they think he said.
In an interview with ABC News this weekend, Holder was asked about how he and President Obama have been treated, and Holder said, without mentioning race, “There’s a certain level of vehemence, it seems to me, that’s directed at me, directed at the president. You know, people talking about taking their country back.”
Only then does ABC’s Pierre Thomas ask Holder if he thinks this is due to race, to which Holder replied, “There’s a certain racial component to this for some people. I don’t think this is the thing that is a main driver, but for some there’s a racial animus.”
So, even though Holder wasn’t willing to say what conservatives think he said, he was clearly daring to talk about race, which means it is time for everybody to freak out. Panicky googling ensued, and conservatives everywhere declared, in one voice, “I am NOT RACIST, man who didn’t call me racist, so STOP SAYING I’m racist!”
This phenomenon took an especially nauseating turn on CNN Tuesday afternoon when Don Lemon brought on white conservative Ben Ferguson to advise Holder on how to talk about race, and had Marc LaMont Hill in a separate-but-equal Skype box trying not to concuss himself on his desk over and over again.
There was quality derp coming out of Ferguson’s face the whole time, like the choice assertion that the Attorney General’s job “is to make sure that everyone, regardless of their color or skin, regardless of their political viewpoints or background, has a fair day and a fair chance in the United States of America,” and not to talk about racial and other injustices. All kinds of people are dumb, but you have to be white and dumb to think up some shit like that.
But central to Ferguson’s claim that the phrase in question isn’t racist was his repeated insistence that “Hillary Clinton, when she was running against President Obama, said ‘It’s time we take our country back,'” which Hill sort of missed for the trees, and tried to argue on more nuanced grounds of context.
Ferguson is right, of course, Hillary did use that expression a lot in 2008, but without knowing the context at all, how could she possibly have been trying to “take the country” back from a junior Senator? Is Ben Ferguson convinced that Hillary Clinton was a Terminator, sent from the future to preserve the white presidency? And, of course every time Hillary used the phrase, she explicitly referenced the Republicans, including when she used it in her endorsement of Barack Obama, and at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Now, even though Holder didn’t say it, since Ben Ferguson brings it up, “Take back our country” actually is only racist when Republicans say it. As my friend Ed Morrissey pointed out not long ago, the phrase has been around for a very long time, and has been used by Democrats and Republicans alike. The difference is that, ever since the Southern Strategy, the Republican Party and the conservative movement have been devoted, in word and deed, to preserving a white status quo, Even people who don’t believe in Republican racism recognize this. The Republican Party is overwhelmingly white, and stands in opposition to an ever-more-diverse coalition that includes a significant minority of white people. As Hill said, when Republicans want to take the country back, they mean back to a time when white male supremacy was codified by law, and protected from on high.
This was as true of Bill Clinton as it is of Barack Obama, because “taking back our country” from Democrats has long meant taking it back from a party whose policies, relatively speaking, overwhelmingly benefit minorities. Why do you think Clinton needed a Sister Souljah moment?
None of this is to say that every Republican who says “Take back our country” is racist, because like Holder, I can’t read people’s hearts, but when a Democrat wants to take back the country, it’s always from a white guy who idolizes the inventor of the “welfare queen.”
That’s also not to say that Democrats can’t be racist. Ferguson’s memory must be seriously deficient if he can’t remember all of the racially charged incidents that flared up during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. But “Take back our country” just isn’t one of them.