April 14

“To a significant extent, the Republican base does have elements that are animated by racism and that’s unfortunate.”

That was DCCC chair Steve Israel, responding to Candy Crowley on State of the Union yesterday. She had asked:  “Do you think your Republican colleagues are racist?” That was a reference to Nancy Pelosi’s comments on Thursday that there is a racial element to Republicans’ reluctance to pass immigration reform.

Conservatives were enraged by both Israel and Pelosi — the latest sign that there may be no political issue today around which there is more misunderstanding, mutual suspicion, and accusations of bad faith than race.

On one side, liberals have been appalled and dismayed at the kind of ugliness the Obama presidency has brought out in so many people. They’re also gobsmacked by the conservative refusal to acknowledge the persistence of racism in so many areas of American life. On the other side, it is almost impossible to overstate the degree to which conservatives believe they are constantly subjected to unfair accusations of racism. So here are a few important distinctions to keep in mind on this topic that could lead to more productive discussions:

Politicians and constituents are not the same thing. When Israel said that there are some racists who vote for Republicans, that isn’t an accusation that Republican politicians are, in their hearts, racist. Crowley was trying to get Israel to point his finger at the Republican caucus in the House and accuse them all of keeping white hoods in their closets. But you can say that many Republicans represent districts where a significant number of people harbor racial resentment, and acknowledge that those representatives understand who their constituents are, without making any statement about what’s in those representatives’ hearts.

That’s what Pelosi was getting at: if you’re a Republican who knows that there’s a lot of ill-feeling in your district toward Spanish-speaking immigrants, and that not all of that ill-feeling is based on logical, reasonable economic assessments, you’ll probably decide that comprehensive immigration reform is just not worth your trouble. That doesn’t make you a racist, it makes you a risk-averse politician. But that also doesn’t mean that race has “nothing to do” with why reform is so difficult to achieve.

Racism and race-baiting are not the same thing. This is a distinction liberals sometimes glide over, but it’s an important one. Conservative media figures, many of them with huge audiences, engage in race-baiting all the time, and whether they are personally racist is utterly irrelevant to how much they should be condemned for doing so. When Rush Limbaugh tells his audience, over and over and over, that Barack Obama’s policies on things like health care and economics are about exacting revenge on white people for slavery, it doesn’t really matter what’s in Limbaugh’s heart. What matters is that he is trying to use the racial resentment and fear he knows exists within his audience to get them riled up.

Similarly, when Fox News spends hundreds of hours on a couple of guys from the comical and tiny New Black Panther Party giving voters dirty looks, it’s trying to make its viewers believe that the country is full of scary black men who are coming to do them harm, and it doesn’t matter what the good folks on Fox & Friends actually believe about race. Conservative media have been marinating their audiences in a rancid stew of race-baiting since 2008, and they can’t escape responsibility for it by saying, “Hey, we hired Juan Williams!”

Racist intent and discriminatory outcomes are not the same thing. If a party tried to keep people of color from the polls because it wanted to maintain white supremacy, that would be a horrible thing. But it’s also a bad thing when a party tries to keep people of color from the polls for purely partisan reasons. When Republicans pass laws restricting voting and insert one provision after another they know will have a disproportionate impact on certain voters — not just ID requirements, but also curtailment of early voting (particularly on the Sunday before election day, when many black churches run voting drives) — it doesn’t mean they’re racist in their hearts. But it does mean they’re instituting discriminatory policies, and they shouldn’t be surprised when some time later they try to “reach out” to minorities and are met with distrust and hostility.

Liberals should be able to say “That statement is racist,” or “That policy is racially discriminatory” or “That argument seems designed to play on voters’ racial fears,” without also saying, “You are a racist.” And conservatives should be able to hear criticisms of the racial implications of their statements or policies and engage them directly, without immediately crying “You’re always accusing me of being racist!”

I know it won’t be easy. But we can try.