The Corner

On Race, Sensitivity, and Truth

I don’t have a great deal to say about the inflammatory column that America’s paragon-of-consistent-virtue, Jonathan Chait, hurled out into the ether yesterday, except that it is fatally lacking in both judgment and class. The underlying thesis isn’t terrible, of course. It should be painfully obvious to anyone with eyes that there are some people in America who do indeed still use words such as “uppity” or “haughty” as pejoratives for African-Americans, and also that there are still people who paint pictures of of black Americans in ways that are explicitly intended to be disparaging to the entire race. I don’t know how many of these people there are, but they certainly exist.

Moreover, as Chait correctly implies, it is hideously naïve to pretend that there is no racism left at large in the United States, and downright facile to suggest that we cannot still see the legacies of slavery, segregation, and social ostracism in front of our very eyes. We can — if we’re prepared to look. Agreeing with this, of course, is not the same thing as supporting the particular remedies that the Left suggests to address it, nor is it to indulge in the bizarre everything-is-racist tendency of the MSNBC model. Nevertheless, an intellectually honest conservatism unavoidably requires acknowledgment that there remains a problem with race in America, and Chait is correct to identify it.

That, however, is about as much of his essay that is fair. I will leave to one side for now the casual manner in which Chait impugns the character of Quin Hilyer and then pretends that he has not. That was certainly scurrilous, but it is less intellectually interesting than is the central thrust, which was that Americans (especially conservatives) should moderate their language with this president even if there is no malice in their critiques. Chait writes:

You can accept the most benign account of his thought process – and I do – while still being struck by the simple fact that Hillyer finds nothing uncomfortable at all about wrapping himself in a racist trope. He is either unaware of the freighted connotation of calling a black man uppity, or he doesn’t care. In the absence of a racial slur or an explicitly bigoted attack, no racial alarm bells sound in his brain.

Providing that you will allow the rather uncontroversial premise that there are people in America who are not racists — and I would argue that Quin Hilyer is among them – it strikes me that Chait’s claim here is deeply problematic for the citizens of a free country. What if a black president actually is “haughty”? What if he is arrogant? What if someone who demonstrably harbors no racial resentment whatsoever honestly believes that the president possesses one of the qualities with which all African-Americans were previously unjustly tarnished? Should that person stay away from the word — and from others like it — because of its previous connotations, even when he means it quite literally?

Should he avoid telling the truth because the word was once used in an ugly manner (and is still used by others less generously), or because using it might cause pain to some? Should he stay silent because he lives in a culture in which the previous wrongs have not yet been completely righted? Barack Obama speaks in the same language as the white, male American presidents of the past. Is the citizenry to be denied the same privilege — and in the name of equality to boot? Which, in other words, is the better course of action: To put certain phrases off limits for everyone because a minority uses them for ill, or to judge people by their intent on a case-by-case basis?

Although it irks me, I can certainly respect the utilitarian argument that it is more important for a society not to be constantly reminded of its ugly past than it is for honest critics to have free rein. As it happens, this is precisely the case that Tim Carney, a conservative, made yesterday. Carney wrote:

Put another way, Chait thinks that we should treat Obama differently because Obama is black. And he’s right.

It was stupid when liberals portrayed George W. Bush as a monkey. It would be worse to portray a black president as a monkey.

Racial sensitivity — modifying your behavior to take into account past racism for which you may bear no blame — is a virtue. We need more of it on the Right.Perhaps.

I certainly agree with the monkey example — largely because the comparison serves almost no purpose – but I’m less sure that this applies when it comes to good-faith adjectives such as “haughty” or “arrogant,” or for that matter to pictures of the president looking aloof. “Haughty,” “arrogant,” “aloof,” “detached,” “imperious,” and a whole of other synonyms are not just useful words in a political culture but they are universally applicable. We’re not talking here about terms of indiscriminate abuse — such as, say, the N-word — or about specific words that were very clearly used to describe the claimed attributes of a certain race, but instead about language that helps us to describe the virtues and flaws of human beings of all races and creeds. And make no mistake: It is vital that people be able to judge the virtue and flaw of the most powerful man in their country. How sensible is it to put whole categories of judgment off limits? African-Americans were once hideously accused of being unable to restrain their sexual urges. Should we refuse to judge Tiger Woods harshly because of this? What would Martin Luther King think of that?

One suspects that Chait knows deep down that there are legitimate uses of the words to which he objects, and that it is for this reason that he felt it rhetorically necessary to transmute Hilyer’s word into the much more inflammatory “uppity” — which Hilyer did not use. Maureen Dowd, remember, famously added the word “boy” to Joe Wilson’s outburst in 2010, writing in the New York Times that she could hear it in the air despite Wilson having said no such thing. Why would one do this if one’s case were not weak?

Either way, whether Carney and Chait are right or wrong about the need for “sensitivity,” let’s not pretend that the “treat Obama differently” position doesn’t come with a real cost, nor that this cost isn’t itself racially problematic. If those who believe in good faith that the president is, literally, a haughty and arrogant man are unable to say so because he is black, then that is its own form of racial limitation and of discrimination. Certainly, you can judge that it is less of a problem that the ones caused or perpetuated by such criticism, and you can in good faith advise the press and the citizenry to self-censor for the broader good of harmonious race-relations. But it will remain a problem nonetheless — however viciously and regularly the opposite is declared to be the case.


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