Everytime [sic] I think the Democratic race card players could not get more vile, more deranged, more patronizingly demeaning to blacks, someone manages to defy even my vivid imagination," thunders blogger William Jacobson. He's referring to a passage in a Washington Post editorial about critics of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice--a passage that in our view is useful for its clarity.
At issue is a Nov. 19 letter to the President Obama, written by Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and signed by 97 House Republicans, which declares that the signatories are "deeply troubled" that the president is considering nominating Rice secretary of state, and that they "strongly oppose" such a nomination.
"Ambassador Rice is widely viewed as having either willfully or incompetently misled the American public in the Benghazi matter," the letter states. We noted Tuesday with some amusement that Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was claiming that "incompetent" was the latest code word for "black."
The Post focuses on the critics rather than their choice of words. Here's the passage that outrages Jacobson: "Could it be, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus are charging, that the signatories of the letter are targeting Ms. Rice because she is an African American woman? The signatories deny that, and we can't know their hearts. What we do know is that more than 80 of the signatories are white males, and nearly half are from states of the former Confederacy."
Let's examine this argument carefully. The Post acknowledges that "we can't know their hearts." But it finds a (literally) prima facie reason to suspect them of invidious motives: Almost all of them are persons of pallor. The Post is casting aspersions on Duncan and his colleagues based explicitly on the color of their skin. And it is accusing them of racism!
A couple of other items related to race and politics caught our attention over the Thanksgiving weekend. First, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat and CBC member, resigned from Congress "amid federal ethics investigations and a diagnosis of mental illness," as the Chicago Tribune reports. That sets up a special election to fill the vacancy:
Some Democrats quickly offered to broker a nominee to avoid several African-American contenders splitting the vote in the heavily Democratic and majority black 2nd Congressional District, which could allow a white candidate to win.
This passes with neither editorial comment nor a disapproving quote. It's hard to imagine the same absence of reaction if a group of pols offered "to broker a nominee" with the goal of preventing a black candidate from winning a white-majority district.
Then there's the email from the Obama campaign--yeah, they're still coming, though at a slower pace than before the election--inviting supporters to take a survey. Among the questions: "Which constituency groups do you identify yourself with? Select all that apply."
There are 22 boxes you can check off. Some are ideological ("Environmentalists" and perhaps "Labor"), some occupational ("Educators," "Healthcare professionals"), some regional ("Americans abroad," "Rural Americans"). There's a box for "Women" but none for men, though there's a separate "Gender" question, which hilariously has three options: "Male," "Female" and "Other/no answer." Touré will no doubt soon inveigh against the "otherization" of the Gender No. 3.
What caught our attention were the ethnic categories: "African Americans," "Arab-Americans," "Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders," Jewish Americans," "Latinos" and "Native Americans" (the last, of course, refers to American Indians, not natural-born citizens).
Notice anything missing?
One explanation for the absence of a "white" or "European-American" category (or, alternatively, several dozen specific European ethnicities) could be that whites tend to vote Republican, and the campaign is interested in Democratic-leaning voting blocs. But several other of the Obama survey categories lean toward the GOP, too: "People of faith," "Rural Americans," "Seniors," "Small business owners" and "Veterans/military families." Counterpart groups that are Democratic-leaning or swing-voting are missing from the list, too, including nonbelievers, urban and suburban dwellers, and the middle-aged (though there are categories for both "Young professionals" and "Youth").
The reason for the absence of a "Whites" category is that white identity politics is all but nonexistent in America today. That wasn't always the case, of course: For a century after the Civil War, Southern white supremacists were an important part of the Democratic Party coalition. They were defeated and discredited in the 1960s, and the Democrats, still the party of identity politics, switched their focus to various nonwhite minorities.
Obama's re-election was a triumph for this new identity politics--but the Post's nasty editorial hints at a reason to think this form of politics may have long-term costs for both the party and the country.
The trouble with a diverse coalition based on ethnic or racial identity is that solidarity within each group can easily produce conflicts among the groups. Permissive immigration policies, for example, may be good for Hispanics and Asians but bad for blacks. Racial preferences in college admissions help blacks and Hispanics at the expense of Asians.
One way of holding together such a disparate coalition is by delivering prosperity, so that everyone can feel he's doing well. Failing that, another way is by identifying a common adversary--such as the "white male." During Obama's first term, the demonization of the "white male" was common among left-liberal commentators, especially MSNBC types. The Post has now lent its considerably more mainstream institutional voice to this form of bigotry.
This seems likely to weaken the taboo against white identity politics. Whites who are not old enough to remember the pre-civil-rights era--Rep. Duncan, for instance, was born in 1966--have every reason to feel aggrieved by being targeted in this way.
The danger to Democrats is that they still need white votes. According to this year'sexit polls, Obama won re-election while receiving only 39% of the white vote. But that's higher than Mitt Romney's percentage among blacks (6%), Latinos (27%), Asian-Americans (26%) or "Other" (38%). It's true that Republicans suffer electorally for the perception that they are hostile to minorities, but Democrats also stand to suffer for being hostile to whites.
The danger for the country is that a racially polarized electorate will produce a hostile, balkanized culture. In 2008 Obama held out the hope of a postracial America. His re-election raises the possibility of a most-racial America.