‘Conservative’ and ‘Racist’
The Ashcroft nomination and the Left's foulest card.


Editor’s note: In the past ten years, we’ve seen a presidential impeachment, 9/11, war in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, and the first female Speaker. We’ve covered these events at National Review and National Review Online with Rich Lowry at the helm; this month Rich celebrates his tenth year as editor (he was named the third editor in National Review’s history in December 1997).

Where you are right now — — is a big part of his vision as editor. He knew early on resources should be put online.

This week, we’ll be taking a tour of the last ten years in National Review, with some key pieces and issues.

This piece by Rich appeared in the February 5, 2001, issue of National Review. —KJL

No one is suggesting he’s a racist,” commentator Mark Shields recently remarked of attorney general-designee John Ashcroft. In this, he was repeating a familiar liberal line. But his comment needs to be carefully parsed, because Shields wasn’t using “no one” in the strict sense meaning “no one” but in the loose sense, meaning, “Some people actually are calling him a racist.” Rep. Maxine Waters has said, “Senator Ashcroft acts like a racist, walks like a racist, and talks like a racist.” Of the ex-senator’s opposition to Judge Ronnie White rejected for a seat on the federal bench by Senate Republicans, led by Ashcroft Jesse Jackson complained, “It was an appeal to race.” Sen. Pat Leahy suggested the White controversy meant that we had “reverted to a time in [our] history when there was a color test on nominations.”

That’s hardly “no one.” But Mark Shields’s remark is noteworthy not just because it is inaccurate. It is part of an odd liberal two-step in the fight over Ashcroft’s confirmation: Race is not the issue, or so we’re told; and at the same time, it’s one of the chief issues. No one can question Ashcroft’s integrity, his more responsible critics concede; but his nomination should be rejected anyway, partly because he’s being called a racist by certain less responsible critics. Indeed, what is at stake in this nomination is an attempt to define racism down, to institute in public life a new racial McCarthyism that would disqualify any public official who is merely accused of racism, and render conservatism itself a form of de facto racism.

New York senator Chuck Schumer has allowed he doesn’t think Ashcroft is a racist, “but at certain instances, I don’t think he’s shown enough sensitivity toward America’s long and troubled history with race.” Activist Ralph Neas goes further: “We do not contend that he is a racist. That’s a straw man erected by his supporters.” Actually, it is a straw man erected by his detractors but that is a mere quibble. Neas finds Ashcroft unsuitable because of his “extraordinary racial insensitivity.”

There is a reason “insensitivity” became the most famous watchword of campus political correctness. It was useful to campus liberals because its elasticity served to make anyone potentially guilty of it. “Racism” is a word with a fairly precise meaning animus against individuals or groups based on race. The charge of racism is largely falsifiable, in that it can be evaluated in fairly objective terms (hence, its inconvenience to Ashcroft’s critics even Pat Leahy must admit he never heard Ashcroft “make a racist comment”). “Insensitivity,” in contrast, is more subjective; it’s a moving target that doesn’t depend on any identifiable attitude on the part of the offender, but on the sensibilities of those taking offense.

In the case of John Ashcroft, of course, it is black-activist groups (“civil-rights groups” is a misnomer) that are offended. It is on the authority of their professed outrage or fear that the likes of Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt chary of calling Ashcroft a racist himself hang their anti-Ashcroft case. Watch the two-step at work: “No one should doubt Mr. Ashcroft’s sincerity [i.e., by any objective standard, he’s not a racist],” Hunt writes. “But neither should anyone doubt that collectively, to many African-Americans, [his] positions suggest an insensitivity, or even hostility.”

Now, if it’s true that Ashcroft is a man of integrity, the worries of black groups should be dismissed as unfounded or trumped up. If, on the other hand, black groups are right that he is “hostile” to blacks, no one should be saying that he is a man of integrity. Both cannot be true. But Hunt and other Ashcroft critics square the circle by making the very fact that Ashcroft is being called a bigot regardless of the merits of the charge among the most damning counts against him. As Time’s Jack E. White summed up the case, “Ashcroft has consistently appealed to the right-wing of his party, even when his approach risked appearing racist” (emphasis added).

“The appearance of impropriety” is a standard Washington weasel phrase used to accuse people of corruption when there is no evidence of it. It, like “insensitivity,” has the advantage of being non-falsifiable. You may be able to prove that you didn’t take a bribe, but how can you ever prove that you didn’t “create an appearance” of doing so? Jack White’s “appearance of racism” and especially his “risk of the appearance . . .” are similar to “the appearance of impropriety.” So Ashcroft’s problem isn’t that, say, his Bob Jones degree or Southern Partisan interview actually demonstrates that he is a bigot, but that he created an opportunity for black groups to call him one hence he “risked appearing” racist.

Washington Post columnist Colbert King has also resorted to the two-step: “[Ashcroft’s] defenders pretend the main charge lodged against him is that he’s a racist. A few are saying that, but they don’t represent the majority. Besides, the racist charge has now become a red herring that diverts attention from a close look at what he stands for.” And how does King conclude? After a few paragraphs of “close” attention to what Ashcroft stood for in the Ronnie White case, he writes, “Ashcroft, in fact, calls to mind the example of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, the aggressive opponent of desegregation at Little Rock’s Central High School.”

Well, which is it? Is it a diversion to call Ashcroft a racist, or appropriate to compare him to a vicious segregationist? For Ashcroft’s fiercest critics, of course, the very act of opposing a black judge proves his racial perfidy. Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice calls Ashcroft’s opposition to Ronnie White “a hate crime.” But this position quickly collapses of its own reductive absolutism. By its logic, Ashcroft’s opposition to another black Clinton nominee to the federal bench, Frederica Massiah-Jackson, must also have been driven by racial animus. But we don’t hear much about Judge Massiah-Jackson, because she had cursed at prosecutors in the courtroom, and engendered the opposition of even Democratic district attorneys in Pennsylvania (her home state). Her example shows that sometimes shocking though it may seem it’s quite reasonable to oppose a black judge.

Again, in the case of White, Ashcroft’s more high-toned critics try a slippery argument. Al Hunt doesn’t charge Ashcroft with blatant racism, but accuses him of playing the “race card for political purposes.” The White controversy prompts Colbert King to make his comparison to Faubus, who the columnist maintains wasn’t a true-believing racist, but a cynical manipulator. Ashcroft, similarly, wasn’t motivated by racist sentiment, he just played to it: “He was motivated by opportunism, not racism; but the outcome was all the same.” But there is no evidence Ashcroft either appealed to racism or achieved a racist goal in defeating Judge White.


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