Politics

It's Not Just MSNBC Making Flip Assumptions About Non-Liberal Racism (UPDATED)

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Last night, the official Twitter feed of MSNBC used a Cheerios Super Bowl commercial to make a crack about non-lefties being uncomfortable with race-mixing:

Maybe! |||

After an eruption of outrage on Twitter, including a volley of colorful family snapshots under the hashtag #MyRightWingBiracialFamily, MSNBC online chief Richard Wolffe withdrew the Tweet:  

The Cheerios tweet from @msnbc was dumb, offensive and we've taken it down. That's not who we are at msnbc.

Sending out an S.O.S. |||

The "that's not who we are" claim generated a flurry of LOLs, and not just from conservatives. New York magazine put the issue succinctly in a headline: "MSNBC Is Very Sorry for Suggesting Conservatives Are Racist (Again)."

But making broad and essentially pejorative generalizations about giant swaths of non-Democrats is hardly the exclusive domain of the racist-chasers at MSNBC and Salon.com. Journalistic outlets at the highest levels have been making non-jokey versions of the same accusation throughout the Obama presidency, ever since the twin ascension in 2009 of the Tea Party and opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

For an example, check out this passage in New Yorker Editor David Remnick's extraordinarily long and often insightful recent profile of the president.

In the electoral realm, ironically, the country may be more racially divided than it has been in a generation. Obama lost among white voters in 2012 by a margin greater than any victor in American history. The popular opposition to the Administration comes largely from older whites who feel threatened, underemployed, overlooked, and disdained in a globalized economy and in an increasingly diverse country. Obama's drop in the polls in 2013 was especially grave among white voters.

Where's that confounded bridge? |||

Italics mine, to underscore what one of the nation's most decorated journalists felt zero need to substantiate in a 16,000-word article. Do older white voters really feel more "threatened" and "disdained" by a "globalized economy" and "increasingly diverse country" than other age and ethnic/pigmentation cohorts? I'm sure there's plenty of interesting poll data out there, but Remnick (a 55-year-old white guy, FWIW) doesn't need to cite any: He knows it's true, his readers know it's true, and the only real question is how much you can respectably pin opposition to this twice-elected black president on racism.

This isn't just bad journalism, it's bad tolerance. Attributing a single set of personality traits to scores of millions of people whose only commonality is age and race is the opposite of judging people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. It's also a cheap way to wave off the substance of anti-Obama criticism—why bother figuring out why a majority of Americans have consistently disliked the flawed Affordable Care Act when you can just roll your eyes and assert that the real reason is white anxiety and worse? There is nothing tolerant about assuming that those who have different ideas than you about the size and scope of government are motivated largely by base ethnic tribalism.

MSNBC, on whose shows I have happily participated* (see update below), engages daily in the othering business, of making conservatism itself (and sometimes libertarianism, and other non-Progressive ideological strains) a disreputable condition, explicable in terms of pathology. That this is done in the name of tolerance and sensitivity to punitive stereotypes is one of the ironies of our age.

To his credit, Barack Obama himself seems to have a more nuanced understanding of race and his own popularity than many of his supporters and interlocutors. Here he is in the Remnick piece:

"There's no doubt that there's some folks who just really dislike me because they don't like the idea of a black President," Obama said. "Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I'm a black President." […]

"There is a historic connection between some of the arguments that we have politically and the history of race in our country, and sometimes it's hard to disentangle those issues," he went on. "You can be somebody who, for very legitimate reasons, worries about the power of the federal government—that it's distant, that it's bureaucratic, that it's not accountable—and as a consequence you think that more power should reside in the hands of state governments. But what's also true, obviously, is that philosophy is wrapped up in the history of states' rights in the context of the civil-rights movement and the Civil War and Calhoun. There's a pretty long history there. And so I think it's important for progressives not to dismiss out of hand arguments against my Presidency or the Democratic Party or Bill Clinton or anybody just because there's some overlap between those criticisms and the criticisms that traditionally were directed against those who were trying to bring about greater equality for African-Americans. The flip side is I think it's important for conservatives to recognize and answer some of the problems that are posed by that history, so that they understand if I am concerned about leaving it up to states to expand Medicaid that it may not simply be because I am this power-hungry guy in Washington who wants to crush states' rights but, rather, because we are one country and I think it is going to be important for the entire country to make sure that poor folks in Mississippi and not just Massachusetts are healthy."

There is plenty to disagree with here—not least of which is Obama's asymmetrical desire to have federalists answer for racism while Progressivism's nasty history of same gets a pass, and also his inability to process the substance of anti-Medicaid complaints. But the president's broad framing offers the modern left a useful alternative for talking about race in 2014 America. Namely, that it's complicated, and that reducing entire population blocs to caricatures does not necessarily improve the conversation.

* UPDATE: To clear up a possible misconception: I am not remotely complaining about my treatment on MSNBC, which has typically been very generous and open-minded, particularly on the longer discussion shows like those hosted by Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry. These are not the only shows on the network, however, and even in those thoughtful venues (as in, it should be said, plenty of shows on Fox and CNN) you can see evidence of othering.