Is Pat Buchanan a racist? Is Rush Limbaugh?
Am I? Are you?
I discovered after writing my Rush Limbaugh post that there is no set definition for identifying a racist - at least one not fraught with politics, and informed by partisan rancor. “It’s obvious” is not an argument either way. Nor is there much agreement on whether one can be a racist subconsciously. This “all white people are racists and don’t even know it” idea was very popular a couple of decades back. But I don’t think anyone save committed racialists think that way anymore.
But does that mean that there is not a nurtured outlook of white superiority in our society that makes some of us oblivious to our own bigotry?
In the end, it all comes down to perception, and whether one has a decidedly deterministic worldview. How one experiences race in America has an awful lot to do with how low or how high we set the bar that defines for us whether one is a race hater or not.
Attorney General Eric Holder remarked early in Obama’s term that America was “a nation of cowards” because we wouldn’t talk candidly about race. I think he is right we don’t talk candidly about race but he is wrong when he says the reason is cowardice. How can there be a discussion on race when there is no agreement on what actually constitutes racism? Oh, there are “speech codes” and “hate crime legislation” that deal with the most obvious, outward manifestations of racism that help define, in the broadest possible terms, racists.
In fact, I would argue that speech codes and hate crime definitions further muddy the waters with regard to defining racism. In my estimation, such remedies lower the bar on what defines a racist, mixing legitimate free speech issues with racial issues. If one defines racism according to racial sensitivity, simply stepping on someone’s toes verbally can be construed as “hate.” That defeats the purpose of the First Amendment, and I believe is the reason many conservatives reject the idea of speech codes altogether.
(Hate crime legislation is an entirely different matter and goes to “intent” - a tricky legal definition that I wish would be used judiciously but the potential for abuse, and inconsistent application is too great to justify its passage.)
So are all racially insensitive people racists? Does the use of stereotypes automatically make one a racist? If you reject the NAACP position on affirmative action, are you a racist?
Most mindless partisans eschew the questions and simply go for the jugular. But for those interested in exploring these questions, we have an excellent exhibit in the form of an Op-Ed by paleoconservative Pat Buchanan that, on the surface, appears to be something of a “white man’s lament” at the loss of “traditional” America:
In their lifetimes, they have seen their Christian faith purged from schools their taxes paid for, and mocked in movies and on TV. They have seen their factories shuttered in the thousands and their jobs outsourced in the millions to Mexico and China. They have seen trillions of tax dollars go for Great Society programs, but have seen no Great Society, only rising crime, illegitimacy, drug use and dropout rates.
They watch on cable TV as illegal aliens walk into their country, are rewarded with free educations and health care and take jobs at lower pay than American families can live on – then carry Mexican flags in American cities and demand U.S. citizenship.
They see Wall Street banks bailed out as they sweat their next paycheck, then read that bank profits are soaring, and the big bonuses for the brilliant bankers are back. Neither they nor their kids ever benefited from affirmative action, unlike Barack and Michelle Obama.
They see a government in Washington that cannot balance its books, win our wars or protect our borders. The government shovels out trillions to Fortune 500 corporations and banks to rescue the country from a crisis created by the government and Fortune 500 corporations and banks.
America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.
Buchanan is not the first conservative to incorporate these concepts in their critique of the Obama administration. But Buchanan scores the trifecta of hyperbole by collating race, class, and fear of “The Other” in his lament.
And he proves himself once again to have the historical sense of a marmoset about America. What is America ever been about but change? I’ve said it many times, and it is born out by even a cursory understanding of the thrust of American history; this is a nation on the move, has been on the move, and will always be on the move as long as we are free.
We stand still for nothing, for nobody - no institution, no philosophy, no group, industry, or movement. To be static in America means that you are already on your way out. We reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat, with impossible speed. What takes European democracies decades, we do in one or two election cycles. It is frightening. It is marvelous. It is the defining characteristic of this country and it is one of those things that makes us exceptional.
I know what Buchanan is trying to say - he’s not saying it well and he is mixing a witches brew of politics and racial identity in with his critique. What he refers to as “traditional America” is defined by his enemies as white America. But if we are to postulate that Buchanan’s “traditional Americans” are upset because we have an African American president and preferences for minorities, doesn’t that make “traditional Americans” themselves racist by definition?
Beware, a trap Mr. Serwer:
I’d love to just leave this post with snark, but I have to say one last thing. Black Americans have shed blood in every American war since the Revolution. This country, even the very Capitol building in which today’s legislators now demand to see the birth certificate of the first black president, was built on the sweat and sinew of slaves. Before we were people in the eyes of the law, before we had the right to vote, before we had a black president, we were here, helping make this country as it is today. We are as American as it gets. And frankly, the time of people who think otherwise is passing. If that’s the country Buchanan wants to hold onto, well, he’s right, he is losing it.
Did Mr. Serwer not just define “traditional” Americans?” I believe he did. Race, or gender, or sexual orientation has nothing to do with whether one is a “traditional American.” Some may believe that Buchanan is limiting himself to the white race, but his critique echoes in those communities where “traditional American” is broadly defined as anyone who respects and reveres the first principles upon this nation was founded; among them - self reliance, a respect for individual rights, and the investment of the nation’s sovereignty in the Constitution. One doesn’t need to be a conservative to believe in the traditional American values Buchanan believes are disappearing. And it is insulting, as Mr. Serwer points out, to limit the idea of traditional American to one race.
The question then becomes not whether Buchanan is a racist but whether he’s right. As usual, Buchanan overstates the case but hits upon something that critics ignore at their peril.
It is the pace of change that has people of many races, many backgrounds worried. If it were only tea partiers and loudmouths at town hall meetings, the sense of unease that runs the length and breadth of the land would not be so obvious - obvious enough to be reflected in poll numbers and soon, at the ballot box. It is difficult to argue that the pace of change doesn’t matter or that traditional Americans are not worried that the many changes being proposed by the president cannot be shoehorned into their vision of what America is supposed to be all about.
You can argue that African Americans as a group are less critical, or that the Hispanic community may not be as worried about the pace of change as white Americans. But to dismiss this phenomenon as a white only construct is naive. To do so identifies the critic as someone too enamored in viewing the nation’s problems through the prism of race and racism.
This plays to the idea that many whites are subconsciously racist - that when they lament the passing of an America with which they are familiar, what they are really saying is, “I don’t like that black man as president:”
I agree with the substance of Adam’s case against Pat Buchanan; the vision that Buchanan is putting forth of America is both racist and ahistorical, and is genuinely dismissive of the contributions of every non-white American (not to mention women, immigrants, and so forth). At the same time, I think that there’s more going on; Buchanan has always been more willing than most conservative pundits to make forthright, and in some sense honest, defenses of unpalatable elements of the right wing worldview. I recall at some point in the 1990s that Buchanan was asked why the United States was willing to sacrifice treasure for Bosnia and not Rwanda, and he gave the straightforward answer that Rwandans weren’t white enough.
In this case, I think that Buchanan is invoking a genuine sense of loss of entitlement on the part of a substantial portion of white America. This isn’t to defend or justify the white privilege that created this entitlement entailed, or to justify Pat Buchanan’s nostalgia for it. Nevertheless, I think that Buchanan is pointing to something that’s very real, or at least as real as any sociological fact. White America, as the construct exists in the mind of many Americans, is disappearing, even by some objective criteria; it’s retreating deeper into exurban communities, and it’s very, very slowly ceding political and financial power. Moreover, the idea of America is changing; Buchanan has a very definite vision of what America is, and is smart enough to understand that his vision is losing traction. In this context, it’s hardly surprising that the response is a combination of rage and raw panic. That the ideological structure that supports White America is racist and has a disturbing narrative of American history is academically relevant, but it’s also not the central point. Those who hold Buchanan’s vision (and many do, although often not in terms as explicit as Pat is willing to put forth) really do find themselves under siege, and pointing out that these beliefs are both crazy and immoral has very limited effect.
Spoken like a true determinist. Positing the notion that white Americans obsess about race, or their “entitlement” makes sense if you believe the rush to create a different kind of America doesn’t involve a radical movement away from what all races, all creeds who believe in “traditional America” see as fundamentally important to their identity. How do those black and Hispanic veterans who shed blood in our wars view the president’s foreign policy? Or do the black and Hispanic communities march in lockstep with the idea of national health insurance? Bail outs for big banks and corporations? A larger federal role in educating their children? A radical restructuring of our energy policy?
A determinist can ascribe all of this to white racism because looking at the country through the warped vision of racial conflict, everything becomes explainable as “loss” defined as privilege or status. People don’t think that way, have never thought that way, will not act in that fashion as evidenced by the fact that Communism is, for all intents and purposes, dead. This phenomenon resists a deterministic explanation. We must look to history for answers.
It has never been that white America, or traditionalists of any kind have been resistant to all change, everywhere, all the time. There have been pockets of resistance throughout our history to change (some larger than others, as was the case in southern resistance to integration). The social history of America is replete with examples of a “brake” being placed on change that turned out to be both necessary and good.
But unless you are willing to argue that “traditionalists” wish to see Jim Crow reestablished or women denied the right to vote, you must accept the fact that rapid change, while causing some dislocation, is nevertheless accepted by tradtionalists eventually. This does not mean that southern whites were correct in resisting integration, or men were spot on in their opposition to a woman’s right to vote. But in a nation that can alter its political landscape every four years, some anchors must be recognized if change that is proposed is to be folded into our national consciousness and become part of our national character.
Looking at the long view of history, I find it absolutely astonishing that in my youth, a black man couldn’t get a sandwich at a southern coffee shop and yet, I live in a time where an African American received more white votes for president than his party’s predecessor.
Is it the position of critics that this miracle was accomplished without the traditionalists? I beg to differ. I believe it was the traditionalist’s eventual acceptance of racial integration - begrudging though it might have been - that made the election of Barack Obama possible. And the fact that we have gone from Jim Crow to an African American president in less than one human lifetime only points more strongly to the idea of American exceptionalism and the idea that rapid change, when governed by applying first principles - in this case, equality for all - will eventually be accepted even by those who oppose the change in the first place.
Mr. Serwer rejects the findings of the Democracy Corps focus groups that race plays a small part in opposition to the president because it doesn’t feed his thesis that Buchanan (and Limbaugh) are explicitly lamenting a “loss” to white America as the result of the election of a black man.
I don’t doubt that there is an element of racism - clear, nauseating, and shocking - that is a significant part of Obama hate. But limiting one’s critique to a purely racial explanation belies the fact that traditionalists (sometimes incoherently) are more concerned about the president severing connections to the past than any non-acceptance that a black man can be president, or that the very fact that a black man sits in the White House gives them cause to lament their being marginalized in this “new” America.
I am not accusing Mr. Serwer of deliberately misinterpreting Buchanan’s critique. But rejecting out of hand empirical evidence that your own critique is off base smacks of partisanship, not rigorous analysis.
President Obama ran on a platform of change. He is giving his supporters exactly what they voted for. But from recent poll numbers, it is clear that even many of those who voted for Mr. Obama are feeling uneasy about what he is doing, that he is moving too quickly in some areas, without giving proper respect to the principles that America was founded upon or the “traditions” if you will that binds this nation as one. Whether they are white, black, brown, or purple matters not. And those who seek to muddy the waters by making opposition to the president’s idea of change a question of race hate are missing the boat.