The most amazing thing about Jonathan Chait’s most recent essay is not that he smeared me by kinda-sorta likening me (personally) to a slave overseer. The most amazing thing is that Chait is largely right in many of his other assertions. The most telling thing is that Chait doesn’t realize that those things about which he is correct are far more an indictment of leftists like himself than of conservatives.
Let’s unpack this slowly and carefully. (And please forgive the personal references in the first part of this essay, which are unavoidable; they will serve to set the context for the far more important second part, which discusses the important subject, raised by Chait, of how Left and Right think so vastly differently about race.)
First, the background: Having long thought that Jonathan Chait is a particularly irresponsible and sometimes even vicious columnist, I engaged in a bit of Twitter snark on Tuesday by asserting — in response to a comment that Chait “destroyed” an argument made by Charles Krauthammer — that “Chair [my own sic] is incapable of destroying anybody on any subject.” I later tweeted a comment poking fun at my own typo and good-naturedly inviting Chait to “put me in the chair.”
Within two days, Chait had done just that, or rather on the psychiatrist’s couch, while he probed my psyche for latent racism. He wrote of a paragraph of mine published right here at NRO
that “most African-Americans, and many liberal whites, would read Hillyer’s rant as the cultural heir to Northup’s overseer: a southern white reactionary enraged that a calm, dignified, educated black man has failed to prostrate himself.”
A host of oh-so-clever caveats followed, but only after the smear’s impression was indelibly branded on my forehead. Accusing me of “wrapping [my]self in a racist trope,” he wrote quite falsely that I was guilty of “the freighted connotation of calling a black man uppity.” (Actually, I had called Barack Obama “haughty,” which has significantly different connotations.)
Very quickly, long before I was even aware of Chait’s column, a number of conservative writers came to my defense on Twitter and even in a formal column, for which I am quite grateful. I do, however, feel it important to lay out my own bona fides on race, so as to claim some legitimacy for the discussion of racial issues that follows. As I wrote at The American Spectator in 2011:
Among a much longer list of activities I could cite, I served as a leader on three different fronts of the effort to stop the then-meteoric political rise in Louisiana of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke – including being on the original ten-person board of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, which earned international acclaim for its successful work against Duke. As a columnist in Mobile, Alabama, I crusaded against white racism in the private sector, repeatedly took up the cause (when almost nobody else would) of the overwhelmingly black town of Prichard (which had gone bankrupt but which I argued could make a comeback), and tacitly endorsed black Democrat Sam Jones to be mayor of majority-white Mobile over a white Republican — and wrote about it at The New Republic.
I would also note that I added significant weight (quoted in the Wall Street Journal, for instance) to the effort to convince Trent Lott to step down as Senate minority leader after his unfortunate comments regarding Strom Thurmond; that I was endorsed in my special-election race for Congress this year by both former Democratic U.S. representative Artur Davis and by Democratic former mayor Ron Davis of Prichard; that my civic leadership includes major efforts on behalf of education for minorities (not even related to school choice) in two cities; and that, in an issue not specifically connected to race, I several times wrote with considerable sympathy for troubled Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., even as most other conservatives were trashing him for ethical violations.