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Opinion Why Tucker Carlson is boosting NFL reporter Michele Tafoya’s views on race

NBC reporter Michele Tafoya wipes away tears before leaving the field after the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 56 on Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Tyler Kaufman)

“It breaks my heart that my kids are being taught that skin color matters,” now-retired NBC sports reporter Michele Tafoya told Tucker Carlson in the latest installment of his Fox News program.

If you’re not exactly sure what that phrase is supposed to mean, well, that’s the whole point.

Carlson devoted a segment to Tafoya on Wednesday night, now that Tafoya has left sports reporting to join a Republican gubernatorial campaign. Tafoya plans to devote more time to criticizing critical race theory and airing other views about race, and Carlson is trying to turn her into a new right-wing hero.

This episode provides an object lesson in how people such as Carlson claim the mantle of race neutrality as a powerful rhetorical device, a device that has served as the foundation for much of the rhetorical chicanery we’ve heard on race of late.

In this case, the game centers on Tafoya’s lament that her “kids are being taught that skin color matters.” In their exchange, Carlson adored this formulation, and there’s a reason why: It’s a cheap trick, one that allows the speaker to minimize the importance of racial disparities while piously adopting the moral high ground of post-racial color-blindness.

Erik Wemple: He is no longer Tucker Carlson. He’s King Tucker.

Making this formulation even better, it’s so vague that it’s hard to spot how the ruse works. And it’s a ruse that’s everywhere these days.

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“Why are we separating our kids?” Tafoya wondered aloud to Carlson. She noted that she’d recently spoken out about picnics held at their school “for families of color.”

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Video: Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Carlson acted profoundly moved by this, as if he were in the presence of deep wisdom bordering on saintliness. “You must have known that you’d be attacked for defending the American ideal as you did,” he said.

Carlson, a clever demagogue, sees great potential in the idea that Tafoya is being persecuted for saying “skin color” shouldn’t “matter.” He aired a recent exchange between Tafoya and Whoopi Goldberg on “The View” that generated controversy:

TAFOYA: Why are we even teaching that the color of the skin matters? ‘Cause to me what matters is your character and your values.
GOLDBERG: Yes, but you know, you live in the United States. You know that the color of skin has been mattering to people for —
TAFOYA: Can’t we change it, that it doesn’t?
GOLDBERG: We need White people to step up and do that.
TAFOYA: But they’ve been doing that since the Civil War…

Put aside for now the erasure of post-Civil War white terrorism, Jim Crow and the fact that it took until the mid-1960s to achieve multiracial democracy, after decades of violent struggle.

What’s being obscured here is the true nature of the disagreement. Goldberg and many others disagree with Tafoya and Carlson about the amount of racial progress we’ve made, the cause and true nature of lingering disparities, how much work remains, and how to do that work.

Tafoya gestured at this, telling Carlson that we should appreciate “the progress that we’ve made in this country,” rather than “looking in the rear-view mirror.”

Tafoya and Carlson are of course entitled to their opinion, even if it rests on a sanitized vision of our past. Where they stray into sleazy bad-faith rhetorical hustling is by insisting those who disagree with them are the ones who insist “skin color” should “matter," that Tafoya and Carlson represent the only truly race-neutral position.

In their framing, offering a more pessimistic — and less celebratory — view of how much racial progress we’ve made, and what remains to be done, amounts to telling children they are inherently debilitated or tainted.

This cynical scam uses children as rhetorical shields to shut down debate. The real aim is to take that less celebratory view of racial progress off the agenda entirely. If you raise this pessimistic view, you’re telling children their skin color matters!

There are two separate disputes here. One is over how much racial progress we’ve made. The other is over what we should do about it, what tools help us understand how racial injustice persists and how we should rectify it.

On that latter point, Tafoya and Carlson would insist the teaching of critical race theory and various other “race essentialist” exercises do teach children that they’re debilitated in some way. I think that’s mostly wrong. Though some excesses in “wokeness” discourse are objectionable, what’s mainly embodied in that discourse is the idea that racial disparities can be understood systemically, allowing us to fix them with policy changes.

But the point is, Tafoya and Carlson don’t want a good-faith debate on these questions, either. By preemptively casting their position as the only race-neutral one, they seek to remove from the agenda debate on that very idea — that lingering racial disparities can and should be addressed through critical thinking and governmental remedies.

In February 2019, Fox News host Tucker Carlson suggested Democrat Stacey Abrams wants to “overthrow” white men while discussing her essay on identity politics. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Those playing this game should come clean on how they think current racial disparities should be addressed. Instead, Tafoya suggests, if we merely appreciate the progress we’ve made, the rest will apparently take care of itself. Skin color doesn’t matter!

This trickery is everywhere. The phrase “All Lives Matter” advances the deeper premise that the African American experience doesn’t have a special claim on our attention; the truly race-neutral position is that it doesn’t.

When Republicans extol the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream" speech while banning discussion of vaguely defined “divisive concepts,” they’re saying the only color-blind position is the one that minimizes the legacy of racial injustice and takes intellectual tools that might attack that injustice off the table.

Do you disagree? If so, you’re saying skin color should matter!