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Other People’s Racism


Good column about how the extremely common elite media practice of ostensible critics of Trump arguing that while they personally are not racists it is critical to let racists dictate national policy so that they do not become more violent racists:

Like Nixon, Stephens was simply expressing racist ideas that he supposed belonged to someone else—some figure, or mass of figures, offstage, whose point of view deserved a respectful hearing. He was writing, that is, in the dominant mode by which white nationalist ideas are presented in America: as a second-order concern, or, better yet, a third-order one, a warning that liberals, by denouncing racism, run the risk of offending or provoking the people who hold those racist views (or views that may seem, to a snobbish and uncaring coastal elite, to be racist, when in fact they reflect the reasonable or at least understandable frustrations or fears of the people who hold them).

Polite media outlets have been full of these defenses of racism, or defenses of the feelings of white people with racist opinions, since Trump’s victory. Usually, these defenses are presented as critiques of “identity politics,” or, more daringly, of “diversity.” The Columbia professor Mark Lilla, who presents himself as a “liberal” (though his resume suggests otherwise), demonstrated the form in a showcase piece in the Times Sunday Review in mid-November 2016, dismissing the notion that Trump had benefited from a “whitelash,” in which the president-elect was able to “transform economic disadvantage into racial rage”:

[T]he whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.

Can we pause here to note how staggeringly terrible that Lilla essay was on every level and how telling it was that it not merely got widespread praise but generated a quick book deal? Moving right along…

Lilla, who went on to write a book on liberalism’s inadequacies, made it very clear that he wasn’t personally threatening the people who attributed Trump’s victory to racism; he was merely saying that if they kept it up, they could bring a threat down on themselves. Hillary Clinton, he wrote, had alienated the white electorate by “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters.” Identity politics, according to Lilla’s formulation, “never wins elections—but can lose them.”

What Trump had won with, therefore, must not have been identity politics. The whiteness of the nation was presumed to be a fact, before which “identity politics” and “diversity” would have to yield. Andrew Sullivan, when not using his New York magazine column to denounce Trump as a poison in the body politic, writes unabashedly of the menace of immigration and demographic change. In a long column lamenting the multilingual and multiethnic degradation of the genuine Englishness of London—London, of all places, which has been a fully cosmopolitan city since it was Roman Londinium—he worked himself up into an attack on immigration policy in the United Kingdom and United States alike…

[Sullivan prose excluded for mercy]

Sullivan assured his readers that he loves diversity, himself, personally; he was just outraged for his “fellow citizens,” who fear cultural variety and feel threatened by it. To embrace diversity—let alone to simply be alive, as one of the human beings whose existence and location constitute “diversity”—is to insult the older, truer nation.

Ostensibly liberal publications are happy to publish these views, as long as they can be expressed on behalf of others, or attributed to the verdicts of history or sociology. In 2010, long before Trump entered electoral politics, Ross Douthat was using his Times column to argue that the xenophobic strain in American culture had a “wisdom” that deserved fair consideration…

I think this is one genre of op-ed that can be permanently retired at this point.

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