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.
One might understand why I could be expected to take particular offense, therefore, at Chait’s attempt to use me as a race-issue piñata. Despite all his disclaimers that he feels “highly confident” (note the element of doubt he inserts, a step down from feeling “certain” that I oppose slavery) that I abhor racial discrimination, it is a far different thing to accuse somebody of garden-variety insensitivity than it is to do so specifically in the context of calling him a “cultural heir” to a brutish overseer guilty of “horrific torture.”
What is saddest about all of this is that Chait’s smarmy, below-the-belt attack on me (funny that he never seems to have noticed a single thing I’ve ever written until immediately after I mildly tweaked him on Twitter) is that it actually detracts from, rather than adds heft to, some thoughtful and interesting observations he makes about how conservatives and liberals see race. In truth, the rest of his column is a worthwhile (even if ultimately wrong-headed) contribution to a tremendously important topic of national debate.
What on a personal level is the most tendentious sentence in Chait’s column also probably happens to be, alas, quite true on another level: “Most African-Americans, and many liberal whites, would read [my NRO passage] as a cultural heir” to the brutal overseer described above. Therein lies the problem. Far too many black Americans and liberal whites really do assume that racism is lurking in every conservative heart. It’s not merely a political tactic to put us on the defensive (although surely some demagogic politicians know they are spewing bilious rot when they make such accusations); instead, much of the Left really has convinced itself the accusations are true.
While Chait pretends to absolve me personally of intentional racism, he clearly is sympathetic to a similar reading of conservatives in general. Because “no racial alarm bells sound in [our] brain[s],” we therefore are to be held guilty in effect, if not in specific intent, of furthering a modernized form of cultural slavery. Or, as Chait calls it, of “the broad social structure of white supremacy.”
Well, if he wants to accuse us of not hearing alarm bells that shouldn’t exist in the first place, conservatives must plead guilty. It is leftists, not conservatives, who are obsessed with race. It takes more twisting of logic to see latent racism in all descriptions of Barack Obama as “haughty” (or arrogant, or uncompromising, or ill-intentioned) than it does to fail to hear “racism” when somebody justly criticizes the vast expansion of the phone-subsidy program now commonly (if somewhat inaccurately) called “Obamaphones.”
The Left is so eager to see racism in every conservative heart and utterance that it ignores overwhelming evidence that more blacks these days feel racial animus toward whites, and more act in race-antagonistic ways, than do whites toward blacks. By huge margins, blacks vote in racial blocs more often than whites do. By significant margins, blacks commit a larger percentage of reported hate crimes (20.9 percent) than their total share of the population (12.6 percent) while whites under-commit hate crimes (59 percent) compared with their overall population share (72.4 percent) — even after what anecdotal evidence suggests is a reporting bias to the contrary. And at least some polls show that even blacks are more likely to attribute racist attitudes to their own race than to whites.
The point is not that blacks are inherently racist or ill-motivated, or that there aren’t good historical reasons for more residual black distrust of whites than vice versa. Of course there are strong historical reasons, sickeningly and inexcusably strong; and of course there is still too much white racism toward blacks, with such racism being more potentially devastating because of that terrible history. (One more personal note: I endured quite a backlash from some whites when I first moved to Mobile and wrote columns calling attention to some of this recurring racism.) And of course there is more white racism in private hearts than that which shows up in identifiable incidents.
But white conservatives have good reason to believe that wolf cries of racism do at least as much these days to exacerbate racial discord as do real racist incidents or even unexpressed racist thoughts. The reason we are oblivious to “alarm bells” is because so many of the bells are clanging so falsely.
It also would help promote racial understanding if liberals were not so likely to refuse to acknowledge the human cost to aggrieved whites and to unprepared blacks (note: not incapable blacks, but unprepared ones) when race-based government edicts stack the deck in education or access to employment.
If Chait is right that conservatives who are tired of the cacophony of bells clanging “Racism” sometimes pull a see/hear-no-evil act even when racism actually is evident — and, less often than he thinks but still to some extent, he is right — so too do liberals willingly see and hear no evil from their favored groups or policies even when the evils are blindingly obvious. Meanwhile, Chait gives far too little credit to conservatives under 50, to so many of us who grew up as admirers of the famously minority-friendly Jack Kemp, for being perfectly well aware of, and greatly saddened by, what he calls the “still-extant residue” of the more virulently racist society that once existed. If he would only look, he would find plenty of examples of conservative thinkers and writers expounding thoughtfully and sympathetically on problems still faced by black Americans and on the Right’s own failures to address them.
It’s hard to make progress in good faith when the other side refuses to assume you possess good faith to start with.
Down here in Alabama, we remember well when Ted Kennedy and company blocked the judicial nomination of one Jefferson Sessions because Sessions supposedly exhibited racial animus. The same Jeff Sessions, now a U.S. senator, was the leader for nine solid years in the ultimately successful effort to reduce the disparity in criminal sentencing for crack-cocaine possession versus powder-cocaine possession — specifically to alleviate unfairnesses to blacks who disproportionately use the former. It’s amazing what conservatives will do when you give us a chance.
The first time I ever saw my father cry — not even close to weeping, but just quickly wiping a few escapee tears from his cheek — was when he got the news that Louis Armstrong had died. Dad, in the segregated South, used to steal out to the back alleys between musical sets to hang out with and hear stories from the black jazz musicians who weren’t allowed to mingle inside the clubs while not playing. Earlier, as a high-school student, he had welcomed the news of the Brown v. Board desegregation decision, telling his teacher that it wasn’t fair to black children to provide them inferior facilities. This was the same man who was an enthusiastic Goldwater conservative and an attendee at the famous Sharon Conference where the Young Americans for Freedom was founded — because there was no natural, philosophical link between conservatism and racism.
So yes, Chait is right that my criticisms of Obama have nothing to do with an imagined “long-ago-imbibed white southern upbringing bubbling to the surface,” because my “white, southern upbringing” was devoid of racial animus.
What Chait doesn’t understand is that I am hardly unique. Almost every American under 50, conservatives most definitely included, was raised in a culture where such animus was shunned. We’re all the “cultural heirs” far more of Martin Luther King Jr., or at least of his famous speech on the National Mall, than of George Wallace. We’re not oblivious to racism; we just want to transcend it by leaving it out of discussions where it doesn’t belong.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior fellow of the Center for Individual Freedom.