Race as a Cudgel, Cont'd

Adam Serwer and Jamelle Bouie disagree with my recent post on racism and the Tea Party movement as analyzed by Charles Blow.

Mr. Blow attended a Tea Party event in Texas, witnessed speeches by a black doctor, a Vietnamese immigrant, and a Hispanic immigrant, and wrote the following:

I found the imagery surreal and a bit sad: the minorities trying desperately to prove that they were “one of the good ones”; the organizers trying desperately to resolve any racial guilt among the crowd. The message was clear: How could we be intolerant if these multicolored faces feel the same way we do?

And later in the same piece:

Thursday night I saw a political minstrel show devised for the entertainment of those on the rim of obliviousness and for those engaged in the subterfuge of intolerance. I was not amused.

In response, I wrote:

In any context except a Tea Party, the vast majority of liberal writers would praise the act of highlighting the voices of “people of color” even if they aren’t particularly representative of a crowd or corporation or university class…
It’s this kind of piece that causes people on the right to think that on matters of race, they’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t — if they don’t make efforts to include non-whites they’re unenlightened propagators of privilege, and if they do make those efforts they’re the cynical managers of a minstrel show, but either way, race is used as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.

In his critique of my post, Mr. Serwer writes:

There are cultural and historical reasons for that, which Friedersdorf doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge.

There are, in fact, cultural and historical reasons for everything. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge all the culture and history related to race, politics, conservatism, and political opportunism. They don’t change the fact that in this case, race is unfairly used “as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.”

Mr. Serwer goes on:

More to the point though, Blow’s reaction, which I think was unfair, was a visceral one related to seeing people of color engage in what Bouie refers to as the “elaborate tribal rituals” necessary for them to gain acceptance in a conservative setting.

Yes, Mr. Blow was writing about his visceral reactions. But did he actually see the minorities at that rally engage in “elaborate tribal rituals”? I’d appreciate it if Mr. Serwer could specify what these elaborate tribal rituals were, because on reading the column, it seems to me that these people just stood on a stage, held a microphone, and complained about liberals.

Mr. Serwer continues:

This isn’t mere conjecture on Blow’s part. Think about Republican Congressional Candidate Corey Poitier calling Obama “buckwheat,” or Michael Steele assuring Republicans that Obama only won because he’s black, or Marco Rubio insisting the president is an idiot savant who just knows how to read from a teleprompter. Is it any surprise that black conservatives feel like they have to engage in baroque gestures of solidarity, considering that merely being a black stranger in a conservative crowd puts one at risk of being mistaken for a member of ACORN?

Actually, today’s populist conservatives basically demand “baroque gestures of solidarity” from white people too. If Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin were black, Mr. Serwer would be pointing to the former’s “let’s double Gitmo” comment and the latter’s whole oeuvre as evidence that movement conservatism rewards only those minorities who offer baroque gestures of solidarity.

Mr. Serwer writes:

The disturbing implication of these events is that many conservatives use skin color as a shorthand for identifying those who are “on their team,” and Friedersdorf seems uninterested in addressing this. White liberals can’t really do exactly this because the Democratic Party is much more diverse, but liberals also often make problematic assumptions about black people and their politics. If you think the old tribal instincts can’t be rekindled on the left, I would direct you to some of the liberal reactions to Prop 8’s passage in California. No party or ideology has a monopoly on racism, but let’s not pretend that there isn’t anything implicitly racial or problematic about a movement that claims the mantle of being “real Americans” and just happens to be overwhelmingly white.

Look, I do think some conservatives have a problematic tendency to see minorities as others — and that liberals, for their part, tend to assume that “people of color” must be “on their side” — but the right’s “real Americans” nonsense isn’t about race. Trust me, Sarah Palin is denigrating Ivy League colleges, the richest households in Manhattan, and coastal dwelling white liberals far more than, for example, black folks in Mississippi or Hmong in Wisconsin.

Mr. Serwer writes:

In any case, what conservative Tea Partiers are doing in Blow’s piece is not minstrelsy, which implies an active effort to harm other black people for personal gain by reinforcing long-held black stereotypes. The Tea Partiers of color here are instead trying to signal solidarity with a group of people who are suspicious of them because of their skin tones, and that’s both sad and frustrating.

This presumes that the people at the rally were suspicious of the black, Vietnamese, and Hispanic speakers. Where is the evidence for that? Of course, the three were trying to signal solidarity with the Tea Partiers, but no more than white speakers, or white attendees holding political signs or adorning their cars with bumper stickers or whatever.

In his post, Mr. Bouie writes:

…the “minstrelsy” Blow decries doesn’t flow from the mere presence of minority voices at a conservative rally — which is what Friedersdorf seems to think — it flows from the fact that those voices are forced to engage in elaborate tribal rituals to show the white Tea Partiers that they’re on their side. And that’s precisely because there are so few people of color within the Tea Party Movement, and conservative circles more generally. From what I’ve seen, conservative activists have a habit of categorically defining people of color as ideologically hostile, so that their mere presence isn’t enough to convince organizers or attendants that their sympathies are shared. In turn, this suspicion requires those singular voices of color to “perform” and show their loyalty, in order to gain acceptance.

Had the column by Mr. Blow offered evidence for all these assumptions, its problematic elements might have been less egregious. But if we look at what Mr. Blow wrote, there is nothing to suggest that the folks at that Tea Party rally defined minorities as ideologically hostile, or that the minorities were “required” to “perform” to gain acceptance, or that they engaged in “elaborate tribal rituals” — perhaps there are “historical and cultural reasons” that cause Mr. Bouie to assume that all these things happened, but in fact, all we’re told is that “the speakers included a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism, a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement and a Vietnamese immigrant who said that the Tea Party leader was God.”

Mr. Serwer writes:

Where Blow is reductive, Friedersdorf is oblivious. Friedersdorf writes that he is certain that the Tea Partiers Blow criticizes are “interesting people with honestly held convictions that are understandable outgrowths of their reason and experience.” Of course. But why is part of their experience having to try so hard to convince their ideological cohorts they’re on the same side? Instead of asking this question, Friedersdorf whines that conservatives are held to a different standard on issues of race than liberals, which is a funny question to ask during Confederate History Month.

Again, this assumption that the minorities at that rally had to “try so hard” to persuade ideological fellows they were on the same side. I am hardly blind to Confederate History Month, or the subset of Southern conservatives whose ideas about race in America are quite wrongheaded. I just think its nonsense to invoke those conservatives in order to defend a New York Times column that Mr. Serwer himself calls “unfair” and “reductive,” or to call someone oblivious because they don’t include in every blog post on race a paragraph that says, “To be sure, it is understandable for a writer to pen a wrongheaded, reductive column attacking conservatives as minstrel show managers given the fact that some other conservatives who are completely uninvolved in this particular controversy hold problematic views on the subject of race.”