Magazine | April 19, 2010, Issue

‘Worst People’

The point of that chin is not its color.
Some notes on racism and anti-racism in America

Have you ever been called a racist on national television? It’s not the most pleasant experience, I can tell you. Last January, after the State of the Union address, I did some blogging, like so many in my racket. I made approximately 40 points about the president and his speech. Some were complimentary, some were un-. One was merely observational: “Obama looks arrogant, whether he’s arrogant or not. I don’t think he can help it: It’s the upturned chin. When actors want to preen and so on, they turn that chin upward. Yikes.”

For this observation, Keith Olbermann named me one of “The Worst People in the World.” That’s a recurring feature of this MSNBC talk-show host: He declares someone “The Worst Person in the World,” or more than one “The Worst People in the World.” I and several others had described Obama as “arrogant,” or in my case arrogant-seeming. And that made us racists, said Olbermann — because “arrogant” is a racist codeword.

I must say that I had hesitated before writing that “Obama looks arrogant, whether he’s arrogant or not” — because my racial antennae are hyper-sharp, you might even say ridiculously sharp. It has to do with the environment in which I was raised. I knew that “arrogant” was related to “uppity,” and that I would be open to an ugly charge.

By the way, there are people in America who have no idea that “uppity,” historically, has been a sneer at blacks. During the 2008 presidential campaign, a Republican congressman from Georgia said that Senator Obama and his wife were uppity — he actually used the word. When a storm ensued, he said he had no idea that the word had racial connotations. In a column, I noted this curious episode. And many readers wrote me to say, “I don’t regard myself as sheltered, but, like the congressman, I had no idea.” I believed them.

In any case, I hesitated before writing about Obama and arrogance, but I went ahead and did so anyway. Because, what the hell? Sometimes you have to leave race-consciousness behind and deal with people as people, skin color be damned. Arrogance and humility have nothing to do with pigmentation: They are simply human qualities.

And yet, racial taboos constantly hover over us, or at least some of us. I don’t think I would ever describe a black person as “articulate,” even if he were the most articulate person in the world — because that has been a white-condescension word for years. I even balk at referring to a five-year-old black kid as a “boy” — just because of the sting of history. Last fall, I reviewed a concert in which the performer had an exceptionally good sense of rhythm. But I didn’t say so, because the performer was black.

Was I being sensitive to the point of absurdity? I think so, yes — but I hope you will allow that American mores can do that to you.

To be a conservative, or even anti-Left, is to be called a racist. That much is written in stone. I have been called a racist ever since I began to express classical-liberal views, while in college. And it’s easy to be a racist, or rather, a “racist.” If you oppose preferences based on skin color, favoring colorblindness instead — you’re a racist. Do you remember what Al Gore told the NAACP? “I’ve heard the critics of affirmative action. They talk about a colorblind society. Give me a break! Hel-lo? They use their ‘colorblind’ the way duck hunters use their duck blind: They hide behind it and hope the ducks won’t figure out what they’re up to.”

#page#Are tax cuts racist? Charlie Rangel said so. And, appearing on Keith Olbermann’s show, Howard Fineman suggested that there was a “racial aspect” to Scott Brown’s pickup truck. Fineman is a Newsweek columnist, and Brown — now Senator Brown — was a candidate in Massachusetts. Look, if a cigar is sometimes a cigar, a truck is sometimes a truck.

If you’re a conservative with any public role, you get used to being called a racist — but not really. And why should one become entirely inured to it? The charge of “racist” is about the worst that can be leveled in America. If we must merely shrug it off or ignore it, we’ve reached a sorry pass.

I was involved in a little storm the other week — a stormlet. On the day “Obamacare” was passed, I received an e-mail from a reader. I published it on National Review’s website, calling it “unusual and thought-provoking,” which it was. I publish many such letters online. Some I agree with, some I don’t. That same day, I published a second letter, this one from a liberal citing “the lies and bad behavior of the Republicans.”

Anyway, the first letter-writer said he had been struck by two stories in the national news. First, a man in the crowd at an anti-Obamacare rally had allegedly used a racial slur. Second, a 16-year-old kid had been arrested for making a strange racial comment over a Wal-Mart PA system. Our reader wrote,

That these things are even remotely newsworthy leads me to one conclusion: Racism in America is dead. We had slavery, then we had Jim Crow — and now we have the occasional public utterance of a bad word. Real racism has been reduced to de minimis levels, while charges of racism seem to increase. I’ll vote for the first politician with the brass to say that “racism” should be dropped from our national dialogue. We’re a good nation, among the least racist on earth . . . 

That made a lot of people very, very upset. Olbermann read excerpts from the letter over the air, with the words on the screen. Under the words, the viewers saw “Jay Nordlinger, National Review.” Accuracy is apparently not this show’s strong suit. Olbermann said to his guest, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D., S.C.), “Do people say this you suppose because they’ve never been personally the victims of racism? Do they say it to reassure racists that they’re not really racist?” If you can think and talk like that, you too can have a show on MSNBC, evidently.

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune wrote a column attacking the letter (acknowledging that it was a reader letter). He called its contents “the Nordlinger thesis.” And Meteor Blades of Daily Kos wrote, “It’s no surprise that conservative white folks like Nordlinger . . . would promote the lie that racism is dead.”

#page#Racism will never die, of course, until the human animal is dead. But our letter-writing reader had a point: If an alleged N-word at a rally and an adolescent prank at a Wal-Mart are national news, haven’t we achieved some victory? Can we acknowledge racial progress when we see it? Are we terrified of complacency, so terrified that we can never put our racial dukes down? Are we too devoted to America the Racist — a concept drilled into us (many of us) from the cradle — to give it up?

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan stepped in it. What I mean is, he triggered a little storm. He suggested that civil-rights leaders had an interest in stoking racial grievance, in order to keep themselves in business. Benjamin Hooks, the NAACP head who constantly called Reagan a racist, had a fit, understandably. He went on television to list all the other things he could do in life.

People are stepping in it — really stepping in it — all the time, where race is concerned. Some get a pass, some don’t. It usually depends on the gaffe-maker’s politics. During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Candidate Biden called Candidate Obama “the first mainstream African-American” contender, going on to assess him as “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Al Sharpton protested that he took a bath every day. What ever became of Joe Biden, anyway? Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said that Obama was a “light-skinned” black “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Obama forgave him, saying that “I know what’s in his heart.” Well, conservatives have hearts, too — even some older ones who might get foggy and say “Negro.” (I don’t know about “dialect.”)

Most recently, Dan Rather described Obama as “very articulate” — there they go again — but said “he couldn’t sell watermelons if you gave him the state troopers to flag down the traffic.” Watermelons? Of all the products under the sun? Rather later said, “Anyone who knows me personally or knows my professional career would know that race was not on my mind.” I’m sure that’s true. But would he give a break to any conservative who committed a similar faux pas?

There may come a day when race fades from the scene — what a great gittin’-up morning that will be! But Americans will have to be willing to let it fade: will have to be willing to zap genuine racism while keeping perspective about the frivolous. Jerks at rallies, we will always have with us; Bull Connor’s dogs and hoses, no.

After the Academy Awards in March, there was a headline: “Mo’Nique is 5th black woman to win acting Oscar.” Okay, fine — great. But how long will we keep counting this way? Unto the 10th Oscar? The 15th, the 25th? When do actresses become actresses, race aside? After the State of the Union address, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said, “I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.” Maybe such people can work on going for two hours, and then an entire day, and then maybe a week, and then . . . We can always dream (to use an MLK word).

In This Issue


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