Outlook: Liberals and Racism

Jim Sleeper
Monday, September 21, 2009; 11:00 AM

No matter what Jimmy Carter, Maureen Dowd and company say, the Obama backlash isn't about race, writes author and academic Jim Sleeper. By crying "racism," liberals are ducking the deeper causes of fear and rage that are driving the protests.

Sleeper was online Monday, Sept. 21 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about his Outlook article.

Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale University and the author of "Liberal Racism" and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York."


Los Angeles, Ca.: Mr. Sleeper, you and your so-called "Conservative" colleagues should be very proud of the fact that you've silenced the President of the United States from saying word one on the blatant, obvious racism of Rush Limbaugh -- who has called for a return of segregation -- not to mention the "Teabaggers." Speaking as an African-American of 62, I know how the "Race Card" is really played -- by you and your ilk. Don't imagine other Americans -- black or white -- are fooled either.

Jim Sleeper: I'm not conservative (I'd like a single-payer, universal health care system, like Canada's!), and neither I nor other liberals had any role in the silence of the President of the United States.

There's a better reason why Obama is calm while Jimmy Carter was alarmed: He's down-playing Carter's alarm about the racism, not just because he took heat in the summer for saying that James Crowley acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates, Jr., but, more importantly, because Obama's better, savvier side is at work.

Carter's condemnation of racism is justified, but it works best when it's balanced by Obama's reserve, because far more than racism is at stake. Without Carter's penitential moralism on the subject, Obama sees swifter, deeper currents driving the screamers, as I try to explain in the Post column and in other responses here.


Fort Wayne, Ind.: Have liberals forgotten the hue and cry that went up all over this country when Clinton tried Hillary-Care and gays in the military in 1993? Opposition to Obama has nothing to do with race and everything to do with creeping (and creepy) socialism.

Jim Sleeper: Well, I'd put it just a little differently: Opposition to Obama has less to do with racism than Jimmy Carter suggested, but the idea of a government "option" to keep the huge HMO's and insurance companies (and, yes, the doctors) honest isn't socialism, creepy or otherwise; it's republicanism with a small "r".


Dallas: I think that people who are in the baby boomer age group don't see the President as those of us who are younger. I would say the issue is generational instead of race. We have a post Vietnam president, 2 generations removed from WWII. No impact from the Cuban missile crisis, and part of a generation that has embraced technology and doesn't have the opportunity of a long term career. Its a mind set that older voters are not comfortable with. This is what I found speaking to my parents and their friends (in their 60's), while I am 37. Race might be an issue, but I believe its more of a generational thing. What do you think?

Jim Sleeper: I agree with you, and I think I've made this point in answer to the questioner from Florence, S.C.: This is partly an actuarial problem, because the people who are die-hard racists are not replenishing themselves among younger people, even among their own children. Attitudes are changing.

Could there be a reversion to old ways? Yes, the sad lesson of history is that there could be; sometimes it feels like we've taken one step forward, only to take two steps back -- as when the Reconstruction period right after the Civil War was followed by Jim Crow segregation.

But I don't really think that this is one of those times. What we're seeing is a flare-up of racism among those who are becoming desperate because they're losing ground on that and a lot of other fronts. But that doesn't mean that the racists are increasing their numbers, or that the economic and other social dislocations will drive more people to racism as an "answer".


Anonymous: I agree that the overwhelming majority of criticisms of Obama is not about race, though Rush Limbaugh's piece about a school bus fight, in which he somehow concluded that in "Obama's America" white students would be attacked by black students, while the black students yell "Right on!" did definitely seem about race. This wasn't even linked to any Obama action or policy, but Limbaugh still tried (and the police later said the fight wasn't about race). Comment?

Jim Sleeper: This incident strikes me as sort-of a "classic" that can cut both ways. What always happens is that .... we aren't quite sure what happened, or exactly why. (Did anyone mention that because this is "Obama's America," a brave black kid broke up the fight, defended the white kid, and calmed the others down?)

As I mentioned in passing in the Outlook column, liberals and leftists, too, have sometimes seized on other such incidents to charge that there was white racism in them, when that was far from clear. In both kinds of instance, what you have is a pre-existing mindset in search of a confirmation of it's worldview, and, often, it's the facts that get forced to the back seat in the bus.


Baltimore: I, too, believe that the opposition to Obama is not entirely about race, so I would be interested in your take on what I see as a disconnect in American political consciousness.

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been excoriated by the "populist" right as being elitists, yet both men are textbook examples that the American myth of "from log cabin to the White House" can be a reality. Both men came from humble backgrounds and by dint of hard work and intelligence ascended to the highest educational institutions in this country and eventually to the White House.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, had a more patrician background than any president since FDR, and yet somehow conservative America embraced him a straight shooting embodiment of heartland values.

So my question is...why? What does this say about the role of class in American life?

Jim Sleeper: That's a really good question, and it hits me between the eyes, because, while I did go to Yale and I teach there now, my family background is pretty humble, too (though not as humble as Bill Clinton's).

In my experience, the tendency to call people "elitists" when, like Obama and Clinton, they actually struggled their way up - and to consider a George W. Bush "a man of the people" -- reflects feelings of failure and shame on the part of the people who are hurling these charges. I think it's about education and attitude, even more than about economic class. Lord knows, many people with very modest incomes and modest educations want their kids to do better than they did, and they tell pollsters they have nothing against anyone's getting rich.

If people depart from that pattern, it's often because they're dodging something for which they secretly blame themselves, perhaps because they had an opportunity they didn't take, or took a opportunity but know that they didn't work hard enough. Perhaps they're just blaming themselves wrongly, and the fault is really not theirs but involves economic and institutional injustices that seem too daunting to confront.

So they shift the blame - first to themselves, and then to others who are publicly trying to change the current conditions and, with them, these people's settled, if mistaken, way of looking at things. People who go around calling other people "arrogant" or "elitist" are usually dealing badly with a lot of personal shame, and that shame may not even have been their fault.


Columbus, Ohio: Hi Jim,

You say "Racism is only one of many factors driving the backlash against the president in town hall meetings and in demonstrations on Capitol Hill." You then mention the example of the swiftboaters.

The link between these two things is that both were ginned up and funded by GOP operatives. FreedomWorks and American for Prosperity ("Patients United") are behind the teabagger protests, along with FOX News.

Fish got to swim, birds got to fly, and Republicans scare seniors with lies about health care. Why should we talk about these confused protesters at all? The MSM happily ignored far larger protests against the war in Iraq. Not only were the anti-war protesters more focused, they were actually right on the facts.

Focusing on the astroturfing serves only the interests of the corporations that have a stake in the status quo. We ought to be talking about the fact that we spend more than any other country per capita on health care, yet are only 37th in terms of results.

Jim Sleeper: Well, here's the rub, as I feel it: On the one hand, you're right to say that we should pay more attention to the skilled demagoguery that gets at people's hurts and fears and riles them up. And there's little question in my mind that that's mainly what FOX News exists to do and what certain media personalities there and elsewhere love to do.

On the other hand, the hurts and fears are real. They pre-existed FOX and even the WW II media demagogue Father McCloughlin and, later, Sen. Joe McCarthy. So we have to concentrate more on what makes people so vulnerable to the snake-oil salesmen in the first place. My column was an attempt to warn us not to focus on the symptoms (even thoug they're often deep and powerful) but on the even-deeper causes. The rabble-rousers actually arrive rather late in all this, I think.


Richmond, Va.: I need to ask about a perceived double standard.

When people wildly protest against the Iraq War, poverty, or other benevolent cause, they are labeled "concerned" or "passionate" or living out their "cause." All of a sudden, it seems, when people equally in a wild fashion protest government spending, bailouts or increased taxes the words used are "uncivil" or "rage." Do you see this as a double standard?

Jim Sleeper: No, frankly, I don't see a double standard. As someone who criticized the Iraq War, I experienced the same treatment you describe, and saw it meted out to many others. Remember Cindy Sheehan? The fact that she lost a son in Iraq didn't spare her from a drubbing at the hands of a lot of commentators.

We have to pinch ourselves when we cry, "Double standard!" and make sure that the double standard isn't our own.


Florence, SC: Needless to say, not all vitriolic rants against Obama are racially-inspired. Some are being hurled by people who honestly think Obama is another Hitler because Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck told them so. Still, while it might seem incredible to you, many of The President's critics do dislike him simply because he's black. Here, in The South where Jimmy Carter and I live, "nice" white people share jokes about the Obamas being descended from gorillas. They whisper or even growl about "niggers" in the White House. Here, white people who describe themselves as good Christians send each other emails in which Obama is portrayed as a witch doctor or an ape. Maybe Joe Wilson shouted "You Lie" at Obama while on camera because he thought he could get away with it. Living as he does among white people, who wouldn't have voted for a black man, even if Jesus urged them to do it, filled him with a sense of confidence and superiority. Look at the faces of many people at the tea parties. Look at the expressions of the most vocal at the townhall meetings. Do you see anger? Or do you see deep-seated hate? Maybe it's just me, but I see hate.

Jim Sleeper: Oh, I have no question about the racism that's driving many people's hostility to Obama -- I've seen and heard it, even in Massachusetts and New York, and I've seen it in the South.

But I wrote what I did in the column because I want people to consider two other things: First, the "overwhelming majority" of the people who are screaming at Obama over health care and likening him to Hitler would also be screaming at Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or John Kerry if any of them was the President.

I think you're quite right to say that racism is deep in some people, but please consider that in this case it functions mainly as a handy accelerant, but that something even deeper and broader is really driving these protests. What that "something" is was a little beyond the scope of my short column, but I tried to indicate it.

Second, even granting your point about the depth and virulence of racism, I hope you'll agree that Obama wouldn't have been nominated in the first place -- and he wouldn't have been elected, even with the "help" of severe economic crisis -- unless racism in this country were declining.

Here's what I mean: "Die-hard" racists, while numerous, are not replenishing themselves among the young. It's an actuarial problem: People who'd never, ever vote for a black person are dying off. And it's partly because the die-hards are losing that they're doing some desperate things, just as segregationists did some desperate things in the 1960s, as it became clear that their day was done.


Alexandria, Va.: I really don't think it's racism at all. It's the socialist direction in which Obama is taking America. A lot of Americans have extremely strong feelings about being forced into a socialist society-- into a dependent society, and away from an independent one; into a society not envisioned by the founders of our country, and not in sync with the American psyche of independence. Socialist programs of any kind are simply not going to be tolerated without a fight. I think it's as basic as that. Socialism is a concept that many Americans will simply not tolerate.

Jim Sleeper: Right, but it's far from clear that this debate has anything to do with "socialism," which is a term thrown around by demagogues and taken up by people who have no idea what it means.

The sad irony is that a lot of the people who rail at "socialism" are falling into the welcoming arms of vast, private bureaucratic engines, such as Big Pharma, HMO's, and for-profit hospital corporations, and other entities that don't have their liberty or dignity anywhere near their bottom lines.

It was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, who first said such things and meant them, because he knew what he was talking about. Somehow I think that the people who shout loudest about "socialism" are afraid of standing up to the forces that are really grinding them down.


Old City II, DC: You wrote:

"...to blame racism for an 'overwhelming portion' of the fear and rage rising around us would be to consign legitimately frightened and angry people to demagogues and shut out real change. That would be a strategic blunder, and ultimately a moral one, too."

That fear and rage is stoked by a completely sealed-off reality. Not even the center-right media (like The Post) has any credibility with the Tea Party folks. They are beyond reason.

Isn't the most effective political strategy to marginalize them, since their numbers are insignificant? Instead of just passing good legislation that will be popular and beneficial over time, we get bogged down wrestling over birth certificates, Islamo- Socialism, and, yes, an irrational xenophobic fear that has a very real racial component (e.g welfare queens, etc...).

Jim Sleeper: I agree with you: The best solution is to pass good legislation, as FDR did in the 1930s, that became really popular and proved beneficial over time.

Unfortunately, like the Greek hero Odysseus's efforts to reach his destination, passing good legislation means getting around or through or past the demagoguery that terrifies the legislators themselves. When people are voting their fears instead of their hopes, you almost have to fool them into voting for what's good for them. Just ask Lincoln or FDR, or even Bill Clinton -- who, it will be remembered, risked liberals' undying wrath for supporting necessary reforms to welfare.

The wonderful thing about the 2008 election was that no one had to be fooled; Obama was pretty much an open book -- one-third Harvard neo-liberal, one-third Chicago politician, but one-third a genuine keeper of the flame of the best of the Civil Rights movement and of the better angels of our American Democratic nature. I can't say the same about the congressional elections, though.


Upper Peninsula, Michigan: While race is a factor, I think it is important to note what Richard Hofstadter identified as the Paranoid Style in American politics (almost 50 years ago). This is the strain of fear that produced McCarthyism and gained Goldwater a Presidential nomination.

Hofstadter observed that when the far Right (what he called the psuedo-Conservative) doesn't get their way, they don't blame the tides of history or the mechanics of the poltical system, but rather sinister individuals and malevolent conspirarcies.

The racist aspect, I think, grows out of this larger paranoid state of mind.


Jim Sleeper: Yes, this is what I've said in response to another question here, but it's worth repeating, and you're right to cite the historian Richard Hofstadter on this.

We have had these upsurges of paranoia since the American Revolution. They usually peak and crest somewhere short of a majority, but not before they cow a lot of people into silence, as McCarthyism certainly did.

In other places, I've pointed out that liberals and the left have not themselves been immune to this: Any honest record of the 1960s will show that racial "mau-mauing" and white-radical disruptions (including dozens of bombings) were much worse than what we're seeing now.

(The difference, I might note, is that left-liberals were protesting a truly futile and destructive war that was slaughtering millions of people and tens of thousands of our own young men, while the current shouters are protesting health care reform. Now, that's really paranoia, even though there can be principled disagreement in it, too.)


Austin, Tex.: Doesn't it bother you that you are trying to "explain" people that you are not one of? Does it not bother you that you are imputing causes of action to individuals you probably haven't met and haven't talked to?

Frankly, I find your remarks condescending. As someone who opposes the fascist health care bill making its way through Congress and who couldn't care less about Obama's race, it makes me livid to hear pundits resort to demagoguery about race, and I have to wonder whether the reason that they toss around so many ad hominems is because they have no real excuse or logic to support what amounts to the entrenchment of vested corporate interests and greater government control over what care citizens are allowed to receive, all at the expense of individual doctors and patients.

And you, rather than contribute to the debate about why this is a good or bad thing, instead have devoted an entire session to a discussion of values that you have imputed to some 52% of the population without any statistics or proof. Does this not bother you?

Jim Sleeper: My Dear Austin:

Doesn't it bother you that you are trying to "explain" people that you are not one of? Does it not bother you that you are imputing causes of action to individuals you probably haven't met and haven't talked to?

I'm not just quoting you: I'm asking you your own question! An earlier column of mine might be of interest to you and others who feel as you do. The truth, Austin, is that there is no escape from talking about groups you're not part of, because we're all one country. Try this on:

"Yoo Es Ay! Yoo Es Ay!"


Cicero, New York: Jim, I'd like to refer to the incidents at the August Town Hall meetings where some citizens decided that it was appropriate to show up with guns strapped to their bodies. Many commentators loudly upheld the rights of those gun owners to bring and display their weapons at such a meeting. What do you think the reaction of these commentators (and other like-minded citizens) would have been if the people bringing guns were black or Hispanic. Would they have reacted in the same manner?

Jim Sleeper: I think that your question almost answers itself. Everyone reading this knows well that justifications of "Second Amendment Rights" would take a back seat to cries about racial Armaggedon.

I take you up on this -- and I agree with the thrust of your question -- because the problem of double standards is one of the most difficult we have to face. Some others who've sent in question have noted this problem, as you have; and many others simply exemplify it. We're all prone to it, me included, and it's something that people who really care about the country learn to watch for and head off in discussions of this kind. Thank you for reminding us of this.


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