Politics & Policy

Whitesplain This: A Response to My Hypocritical Accusers, Black and White

(Andrew Burton/Getty)

In my column last Friday, I wrote:

One could argue that [Ben Carson is] even more authentically African American than Barack Obama, given that Obama’s mother was white and he was raised in part by his white grandparents.

In response, pretty much all of the predictable outlets, tweeters, and writers went just a little nuts. Rather than waste my time addressing every individual tantrum and taunt, I’ll mostly just summarize their complaints: “How f***ing dare you!?”

More specifically, I’m accused of “whitesplaining” and talking the way a white person talks when he doesn’t know many black people. They go on (and on and on) about how a white person, never mind a conservative, talking about “authentic” African Americans is outrageous and, naturally, racist.

Where to begin? Well, first, someone should get this news to Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King.

Okay, that was too easy.

It seems to me there are three things going on here: 1) shooting the messenger, rather than engaging with my actual argument; 2) anger at a secondary point — that Obama’s experience as an African American is less “authentic” — and treating it as if that was the point of the column; and 3) racket protection.

Number one is pretty obvious. So let’s start with number two.

The one — and only — concession I’ll make to my critics is that perhaps I should have phrased this sentence differently: “One could argue that [Carson is] even more authentically African American than Barack Obama . . . ”

Now, the sentence is entirely defensible on the merits. But I can see why some bristle at it — even if many of those bristling are incredible hypocrites (more on that below). Also, I did begin with the phrase “One could argue” precisely because I understand that one could make different arguments as well. That’s the point of the phrase “one could argue”  – to implicitly concede that it is just one interpretation among many.

Still, when I say one could argue that Obama’s experience as an African American is less than wholly authentic in comparison with, say, Ben Carson’s, I have some good allies on my side. A good place to start is this Washington Post article: “How Obama Became Black,” by biographer David Maraniss. It’s an excerpt from his book Barack Obama: The Story. It includes such testimonials as this:

[Mir Mahmood, a Pakistani student at Columbia Law School and a friend of Obama’s] also saw a shift. For years when Barack was around them, he seemed to share their attitudes as sophisticated outsiders who looked at politics from an international perspective. He was one of them, in that sense. But that is not what he wanted for his future, and to get to where he wanted to go he had to change — not cut off the Pakistanis as friends, but push away enough to establish a clear and separate identity. As a result, Mahmood recalled, “the first shift I saw him undertaking was to view himself as an American in a much more fundamental way.”

Trying to embrace his blackness, Mahmood thought, was “the second and probably the biggest shift I saw [in Obama during the New York years]. To be honest, he had never had many black friends. Not that he had anything against that, just that he was part of that other set, the international set. So for him this was a big thing. . . . Barack was the most deliberate person I ever met in terms of constructing his own identity, and . . . that was an important period for him, first the shift from not international but American, number one, and then not white, but black.

But why rely on another whitesplainer like Maraniss?

Here’s the African-American writer Stanley Crouch:

Other than color, Obama did not — does not — share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves. . . . So when black Americans refer to Obama as “one of us,” I do not know what they are talking about.

And here’s Morgan Freeman:

First thing that always pops into my head regarding our president is that all of the people who are setting up this barrier for him . . . they just conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white — very white American, Kansas, middle of America. There was no argument about who he is or what he is. America’s first black president hasn’t arisen yet. He’s not America’s first black president — he’s America’s first mixed-race president.

#share#I could go on and on. This idea that Obama’s experience as an African American is atypical has been masticated by liberal and left-wing writers for a decade. Some liberals have actually been pretty racist or otherwise frankly offensive in how they’ve addressed the topic. I wasn’t.  

Obama writes at great length about his longing for black authenticity.

Instead, one can go to the horse’s mouth, as it were, and consult Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father. In it, Obama writes at great length, and at times quite movingly, about his alienation and deracination from the traditional black experience and his longing for black authenticity.

As a teenager, he was a “would-be black.” In college, he affirmatively threw himself into radical politics as a way to compensate and “to avoid being mistaken for a sellout.” He continues:

I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.

He recalls his college friend, Marcus, who seemed to be a more authentic African American:

I watched Marcus as he spoke, lean and dark and straight-backed, his long legs braced apart, comfortable in a white T-shirt and blue denim overalls. Marcus was the most conscious of brothers. He could tell you about his grandfather the Garveyite; about his mother in St. Louis who had raised her kids alone while working as a nurse; about his older sister who had been a founding member of the local Panther party; about his friends in the joint. His lineage was pure, his loyalties clear, and for that reason he always made me feel a little off-balance, like a younger brother who, no matter what he does, will always be one step behind.

After college, you’ll recall, Obama joined the church of Jeremiah Wright, a pastor who has argued that white people and black people have differently wired brains. Talk about inflexible notions of black authenticity!

So, somehow it’s racist or insensitive for me to take Obama at his word? I am an ignorant white guy living in a cocoon because I take liberal arguments seriously? That’s a weird argument.

Liberals routinely play the game of denouncing minorities and women as sell-outs, Uncle Toms, etc. whenever they refuse to toe the party line.

Of course, it’s not really an argument at all. It’s bullying and smearing gussied up as logic. Which brings me to the hypocrisy and racket-protection part. Liberals — white and black — routinely play the game of denouncing minorities and women as sell-outs, Uncle Toms, etc. whenever they refuse to toe the party line. They confuse political conformity with ethnic or sexual authenticity. Hence Clarence Thomas is an Uncle Tom and Ben Carson is a “house negro.” There are too many examples to list, because it is a near daily occurrence. After all, only recently we were told that Bobby Jindal is a fake Indian but Elizabeth Warren is a real one. But my favorite example remains Wendy Doniger’s claim that Sarah Palin’s “greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman.” Even biological facts take a backseat to ideological conformity.

RELATED: Liberals Are Playing a Racial Shell Game

In our culture these days, the ability to take offense is a kind of power. Liberals abuse this power like a drunk cop with a nightstick. They abuse it so much, they have become addicted to it and become blind to the reality in front of them.

#related#And that was the actual point of my column. The Democrats, MSNBC, Salon, et al. are so invested in their narrative that the GOP is a racist cult that they have trouble dealing with the fact that Ben Carson — a black guy — is arguably the front-runner and certainly the most popular figure in the Republican field (and drawing most of his support from precisely the voters the MSNBC crowd is most convinced are the recrudescent racist heart of the conservative movement). Rather than celebrate this huge step forward in racial progress, or at least think about what it really means, they instead ignore it, dismiss it, or attack my “racism” for pointing it out. Well, to Hell with that game. 

— Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review.

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