Fresh off his debate on race and poverty with Ta-Nehisi Coates (which I wrote about here), Jonathan Chait published a piece that attempts to reconcile our collective racial anxiety during the Obama presidency. To Chait, this anxiety has been both subterranean and omnipresent, unleashing crisscrossing resentments from all sides. Chait ultimately attributes this “racial obsession” to our unique historical moment, tipping from one demographic norm to a new and different one. “We are living through the angry pangs of a new nation not yet fully born,” he contends.
It’s a complex terrain, one laden with mutual senses of suspicion and aggrievement. Liberals stand guard against efforts to delegitimize our first black president. They see racial distrust (or worse) as central to the ferocity of opposition against President Obama and his policies. Conservatives lash out against liberals too eager to characterize principled opposition as racism. They feel stifled by dishonest efforts to marginalize conservative ideas and to silence dissent.
Wary of dog whistle tactics to undermine Obama, liberals have not hesitated to point out suspected conservative racial appeals. While some liberal objections have been unavoidable (think of the McCain-Palin campaign’s efforts to paint Obama as the exotic “other,” “paling around with terrorists”), liberals have also grasped for more nuanced cries of race. Chait himself is not immune. In 2012, he claimed to identify the real reason that Romney ads blasting Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comments were effective:
“The key thing is that Obama is angry, and he’s talking not in his normal voice but in a “black dialect.” This strikes at the core of Obama’s entire political identity: a soft-spoken, reasonable African-American with a Kansas accent. From the moment he stepped onto the national stage, Obama’s deepest political fear was being seen as a “traditional” black politician, one who was demanding redistribution from white America on behalf of his fellow African-Americans.”
To some, this kind of reasoning back to find racial motive is so attenuated and abstract as to suggest cynical bad faith on the part of accusers like Chait. But to others, the Obama years (and the corresponding digital media environment) have been valuable moments to smoke out discreet racial appeals in our politics that had gone undetected and unchallenged for too long. As Chait says, “[o]ne of the greatest triumphs of liberal politics over the past 50 years has been to completely stigmatize open racial discrimination in public life.” Many liberals now want to chase discrimination from its private spaces too – to attack the ways that submerged animus and subconscious bias can shape our public discourse.
Consider a parallel movement happening on college campuses: the exposure of so-called “microaggressions.” This movement wants to educate victims and perpetrators alike about the unintentional slights and invalidations that minorities face in daily interactions. The theory’s author, Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, describes racial microaggressions as “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.”
This all-encompassing definition includes everything from outright slurs (i.e. implying a minority got accepted into college because of affirmative action), to ill-conceived qualified compliments (“You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” or our own Vice President’s characterization of candidate Obama as “articulate” and “clean”), to unintended reminders of foreignness through oblivious ethnic inquiries (“Where in Asia are you from?”).
To its advocates, the microaggression movement is a valuable tool to force white people to confront the degrading effects of unconsidered assumptions and linguistic goofs that they’d otherwise find de minimis.
To critics, however, the theory aims to unfairly malign well-intentioned whites. Writing for the conservative National Review, Alec Torres warns that, “without a ‘multicultural’ education for the young and a thorough reeducation for the rest, all in the ‘empowered’ class may be interminably consigned to unknowingly making racist remarks or unintentionally engaging in sexist and homophobic behaviors. For all they know, they already are.” Another skeptic argued that the idea of microaggressions “exaggerate[s] the meaning of such encounters in the interest of perpetually seeing oneself as a victim.”
As in our modern politics, an attempt to redefine the sphere of what constitutes discrimination and to expose covert bias is met with objections against unfair overreach. Such is our racial politics in 2014.
As a liberal, I have no doubt much of the conservative opposition to Obama comes from honest policy disputes, yet I also suspect that race contributes to the intensity of the right’s instantaneous hostility to Obama’s presidency. The effort to delegitimize a cautious center-left pragmatist who was twice elected by majority vote has been relentless: he’s a socialist tyrant, he’s a Kenyan, he’s a terrorist. There can be little doubt that race fuels these delusions.
I understand the conservative frustration with liberals seeing racism lurking around every corner. But these suspicions are not exactly unwarranted. Throughout still recent history, conservatives have been all too willing to dip into murky waters; all too comfortable exploiting racial divisions for electoral gain.
As Chait writes, race and politics are bound up by our growing polarization. For instance, have Red States declined to expand Medicaid because safety net programs are anathema to conservatism, or because the benefits would flow disproportionately to Other People? Is there any difference between the two? We know that racial pluralism has hampered the American welfare state project – is this project anathema to conservatism because it benefits Other People? And what of the fact that the Other People also vote for the Other Party?
In the American story, race is inseparable from how we construct our political coalitions. Our appeals, our language, and our policy choices matter – for who we appeal to and who we appeal against, for who our policy proposals benefit and who they disinherit.
So perhaps this is all a political Rorschach test. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama compared himself to a blank screen for self-projection. Maybe our complicated racial discourse under his presidency is such a blank screen. If so, the debate tells us more about ourselves, our political futures, and our racial anxieties than anything else. Conservatives, seeing the power of their narrow coalition already jeopardized by demographic shifts, fear deliberate and hastened marginalization from public debate by undue charges of racism. Liberals, observing an ascendant class of young people and minorities asserting their claim to power, seek to blunt any attempt – subtle or blatant, hidden or public – to delegitimize this group’s political rise. Birth pangs of a new nation, indeed.