Every once in a while, something will happen that makes me think, “Oh, yeah — that’s why I became a conservative in the first place.” Does that ever happen to you? (Or maybe you were born one.)
Robert De Niro made a joke, just a joke. But sometimes — often — jokes tell us something. He said, “Callista Gingrich, Karen Santorum, Ann Romney. Now, do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady? Too soon, right?”
When I was growing up, the liberals around me seemed to think of everything and everyone in black and white — literally. They had race on the brain. People weren’t people, with their virtues and flaws, but skin colors.
Does it occur to you that Michelle Obama is black? Not to me: It occurs to me that she’s a left-winger, a fitness enthusiast, a left-winger, a fashion-plate, a left-winger, a jet-setter, a left-winger, etc.
Does it occur to you that those other women, those other wives, are white? Not to me. Frankly, I don’t know enough about them to think of them as anything at all. But I’m pretty sure that their skin color is one of the least important things about them.
How sad — how wrong — to live in a black-and-white world.My first inclination was to think Nordlinger was being disingenuous, but he does have a track-record of being remarkably (and conveniently) ignorant. Let’s assume, then, that it really was something of a bolt from the blue when Robert De Niro reminded him that the first African American First Lady was African American. Jay Nordlinger is America and so can you.
Fine. But it’s hardly as if this somehow reflects better on Nordlinger than if he were simply lying. It’d be better, really, if he were lying. Because if he — and the many, many other conservatives who have made an equivalent argument — were being untruthful, at least we’d know that they weren’t so remarkably insensitive, clueless, and disinterested in how people different than themselves would like to be seen.
When they assert that race is such an abstraction to them, so completely irrelevant, that it might as well not even exist, conservatives must think they sound ultra progressive.* They don’t. What they do sound like is someone who is so caught-up in their fear of offending that they betray their fundamental discomfort and thus offend. Denying a clear, morally contentless reality like someone’s race sends the implicit message that race is something left unsaid in polite society. It’s, in a word, patronizing.
But, again, thus is the norm for the contemporary far-right. Take these statements from Rick Santorum on Obama’s recent comment that, if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon Martin [emphasis mine]:
Rick Santorum told conservative radio host Scott Hennen a little bit ago, when asked if President Obama was “pouring gas on our racial fire, over the Trayvon Martin death, said, “It’s clear the president has been not a uniting figure on an issue that, I think many Americans thought he would be. And it’s very tragic and to take a horrible situation like that and inject this issue, which, you know, may be a factor, may not be a factor, but even if it is a factor, it’s one… If it is a factor, it’s obviously one sick man and to use that instead of just saying, as a healing president would do, try to bring people together, but instead try to divide people is really a sad, tragic legacy of this president.”
He also told Laura Ingraham earlier today: “It sounds like a heinous act and condemn it for being a heinous act, but to introduce this type of rhetoric that is clearly meant to bring up these very sensitive issues I just think is out of line for this president. It’s very, very unfortunate that he seizes upon this horrific thing where families are suffering and inject that type of divisive rhetoric and that to me is one of the disappointing parts of what this president has brought to the table.”
The euphemism “very sensitive issues” — you’ve gotta figure this refers to race, generally, and Obama’s being black, specifically. Now, what’s the most logical inference we can glean from this? Considering what Obama said was so anodyne that even the New York Post responded positively, Santorum must take issue with Obama’s simply acknowledging his own blackness. If Obama were a truly unifying figure for America vis-a-vis race, Santorum implies, he’d prove it by evincing a stalwart unwillingness to ever mention, much less embrace, his racial identity. Anything otherwise is to “inject…divisive rhetoric” into the nation’s rhetorical bloodstream.**
Keep in mind this weird, neurotic, “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” approach to race the next time you hear someone (most likely a conservative) talk about “post-racial” America. Because until Jay Nordlinger can see Michele Obama’s skin, or Rick Santorum can hear Barack Obama speak about his, it’ll be what it is today: pious baloney.
*Ironically, this kind of enlightenment maximalism — this conception of humanity as uniform, rational, indistinct — reminds me of one of the American Right’s favorite bêtes noires, the French.
**Santorum’s use of pseudomedical language here is interesting, too. Suffice it to say the history of politicians bringing scientific terminology into issues related to national identity is not composed of happy moments.