Racism Everywhere!

Media Matters for America has, rather eccentrically, identified the following line by Chris Matthews on Hardball are meriting scrutiny.

They’re the working-class white voters Hillary won and Barack didn’t. Can Obama win over the regular folks against John McCain?

Shrewdly, Media Matters doesn’t explicitly call this line racist as that would be flatly absurd. But they seem to be suggesting that Matthews has crossed some line by referring to working-class whites as “regular folks.”

Note, incidentally, that Matthews was asking me — a college-educated brown man — about working-class whites, presumably because I know something about them. If I can know something about them, perhaps his suggestion that Obama can’t connect with them has less to do with Obama’s race than with his ideology or sensibility. But we’ll leave that to the side. I happen to think Obama is perfectly capable of connecting with working-class voters, and indeed that he has connected with working class whites, in Oregon and elsewhere in non-Appalachian America.

To the regular folks line, I often quote a statistic I first encountered via Ruy Teixeira: in 1940, non-college whites represented over 80 percent of American adults over age 25. Today they represent roughly 48 percent. To be sure, 48 percent isn’t a majority, but it is darn close. “Regular” implies the norm, what is most common. Note that when we talk about young people in elite media, we focus almost exclusively on the college-bound. Anya Kamenetz of Fast Company and Douglas McGray of New America have both talked about how narrow and misleading this prism can be. The same obtains for the overall population.

That is, Matthews is implying that college-educated whites — who dominate our culture, and our cultural “mindshare” — are not regular. So is this classist? Clearly not. Rather, it is a suggestion that we spend some amount of time thinking about another large and important group that happens to consist of 48 percent of American adults over 25.

Is Matthews implying that Asian Americans over 25, like myself, and African Americans and Latinos are “not regular”? In a manner of speaking, yes. He is implicitly suggesting that they are minorities, and as a result face unique challenges that are not identical to challenges faced my members of the majority. Which is incontrovertibly true. To be sure, these challenges aren’t separate and distinct in every case — many are the same, as we all share a broad economic environment.

But is this racist? Or mildly offensive? Clearly not. Is Media Matters, staffed by very bright people who do a lot of valuable work, being anything other than obtuse in this instance? I certainly think so.

I obviously have a bias here. I was on the segment, and I used to work for Matthews, who was a great boss. But I’m also biased because I am an American of South Asian Muslim origin and I have encountered some actual hostility and discrimination based on my background. This kind of charge trivializes that, and it trivializes experiences that have been far worse than mine.