A little less than a week ago, News Corp’s new iPad publication, The Daily, ran a Reihan Salam op-ed which attempted to argue against, or at least unpack, the common opinion amongst those to his left that much of the Tea Party movement is animated by racism of one kind or another. Reihan’s a good writer and skilled thinker, so you’d be best served reading the whole thing. But if you don’t have the time or inclination this, the final paragraph, is a pretty fitting summarization:
One thing that is undeniably true is that American conservatives are overwhelmingly white in a country that is increasingly less so. As the number of Latinos and Asian-Americans has increased in coastal states like California, New York and New Jersey, many white Americans from these regions have moved inland or to the South. For at least some whites, particularly those over the age of 50, there is a sense that the country they grew up in is fading away, and that Americans with ancestors from Mexico or, as in my case, Bangladesh don’t share their religious, cultural and economic values. These white voters are looking for champions, for people who are unafraid to fight for the America they remember and love. It’s unfair to call this sentiment racist. But it does help explain at least some of our political divide.
Now considering that this was a conversation about race, and thus highly likely to devolve into a food fight characterized by the free trade of assaults on character, I thought much of the liberal blogosphere’s response to Salam was respectful and temperate in its criticism. Indeed, on the whole, Salam’s dissenters (rightfully) granted his fundamental point that it’s not necessarily wild-eyed hatred that animates much of the 55+ white right, but rather a kind of fearful, perhaps less than wholly thought-out, nostalgia.
Yglesias, for example, attempted to direct the conversation not away from the powerful motivator of nostalgia, but rather towards a more nuanced examination of it — specifically, he asked us to look at the content of various groups’ nostalgia, rather than simply assuming all rose-colored memories of the past are the same:
This puts me in a mind of House Speaker John Boehner’s explicitly expressed view that the problem with President Obama is was that he and the 111th Congress were “snuffing out the America that I grew up in”.
As I said at the time, on its face it’s difficult to make sense of that. John Boehner was born in 1949. Does he feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in? For the much larger labor union share of the workforce? The threat of global nuclear war? It’s difficult for me to evade the conclusion that on an emotional level, conservative nostalgics like Boehner are primarily driven by regret at the loss of social privilege by white men. In Boehner’s defense, I often hear white male progressives express nostalgia for the lost America of the 1950s and 1960s and think to myself “a black person or a woman wouldn’t put it like that.” But progressive nostalgics do at least have the high-tax, union-dominated economy and egalitarian income distribution as the things they like. But from a non-bigoted conservative point of view, what is there really to miss about the America John Boehner grew up it? [sic]
And to the same point, Isaac Chotiner added this question:
Let’s be generous and say that nostalgic conservatives are not driven by the regret Yglesias notes, but are rather longing for other, less problematic aspects of the past. My question for Salam is this: how racially insensitive does one have to be to prefer an America with segregation because he or she saw other advantages to 1950s society? What possibly could outweigh the disgusting racial status quo of the 1950s (I am leaving out the status of women and gays)? To wish for a return to that America, I would argue, one has to be so racially insensitive that bigoted seems like an apt descriptor. The alternative answer, of course, is complete solipsism.
This was good stuff, and I looked forward to reading Salam’s response. As I said, I think he’s a very smart guy. Two days ago, his response came; but unfortunately, I found it severely wanting.
I have a narrow definition of racism: a belief in the intrinsic, innate superiority of some groups relative to others. To believe that Bengalis are on average more gregarious than, say, Finns isn’t to believe in Bengali superiority. One could, and should, also believe that this gregariousness reflects cultural practices more than genetic proclivities, though it isn’t to dismiss the (rather remote) possibility that the latter plays at least some role. And of course this brackets the question of whether gregariousness, or an affinity for racquetball or the accumulation of land as opposed to less-tangible assets, etc., should be considered a uniquely important virtue. My suspicion is that dominant groups define the qualities with which they are associated as virtuous, and evaluate members of other groups by these often rather arbitrary yardsticks. Moreover, I don’t think it is racist for, say, Tamils to prefer the company of other Tamils, even if this fellow-feeling is grounded in something other than language. Ethnocentrism might not be a praiseworthy impulse, but it is not identical to racism.
Besides a brief detour that I thought was a bit passive-aggressive and whiny (a criticism to which Salam responded with, well, a bit of passive-aggression), it seemed to me that the main thrust of Salam’s retort was to move us from what could have been a worthwhile path onto that wasteland to which any good debate slinks off before withering in the sun, the land of the Semantic. I don’t think Salam’s definition of racism is unreasonable or anything of the like. But neither is it fully in keeping with the term as commonly understood in our culture, and certainly as understood by those who responded to his piece.
And even if we grant Salam’s definition, it’s still quite problematic. Is someone who says that there are “good” members of racial or ethnic groups (though, to be sure, such good’uns few and far between) no longer a racist, not now nothing more than a harmless, garden-variety adherent of ethnocentrism? When Robert Farley writes of his uncle, who longed for the days when African Americans in his North Carolina home showed “respect” (manifested by their stepping aside from the counter whenever a white man entered the store), is he wrong to note that the presence of nostalgia in his uncle’s thinking “hardly made it either admirable or worth apologizing for”? Does changing the one word to the other in any significant way alter the essence of the criticism? I don’t think so.
In general, Salam’s error appears to be one of imagining that those more comfortable with using the “r-word” somehow envision this sad social phenomenon in simpler terms than he. Racism is very, very complicated! Anyone worth their salt in discussions of the matter can tell you as much. And while I understand the instinct of Salam and others to push back against a description that oftentimes shuts down conversation, the proper response is not to deny the existence of this ugly and ever-present system of thought. Rather, we’re best off noting its presence where it is clearly felt, and responding with both empathy and respect enough for all involved to refuse to take it lightly.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)