It’s really bad to be a racist in America today—and this is unquestionably a good thing. Just ask Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who took advantage of the spotlight provided by his recent standoff with the federal government by ranting about whether or not slavery was such a bad thing after all. Or Donald Sterling, the embattled owner (for now, at least) of the Los Angeles Clippers who told his decades-younger (and mixed-race) girlfriend that he didn’t want her to bring black people with her to his team’s games. Both of these men have been effectively castrated by the national news media, as pundits and ordinary citizens alike trip over each other for a chance to talk about how awful these comments are and how fervently they disagree with them. Again, this isn’t a bad thing.
Although I do find these periodic nationwide fits of outrage to be manufactured and more than a little put-on, I’d much rather it be that way than for the American public to tacitly condone openly racist behavior. Now, there have been some attempts to defend Mr. Sterling (Bundy, I think we can all agree, is pretty indefensible). There are some people, Bill Maher among them, who object to crucifying a private citizen based on remarks made in the privacy of his own home. Well, yes, I suppose there is some kind of privacy invasion there, but I find it hard to care when there is already a pretty strong case to be made that Sterling is an active racist. We’re talking about a man who has a long history of discriminatory practices and who had to pay the Justice Department $2.725 million when he was sued for housing discrimination in 2009. Honestly, I could care less what he says in his own home. Actions speak louder than words, after all. If anything, I’m ashamed that the NBA didn’t take notice of any of this until he whined to his girlfriend about taking Magic Johnson to games with her.
So, yes, I think it is a fundamentally good thing that it is virtually impossible to be a public racist in modern American society without being hung out to dry. That is, at least it’s impossible if you’re white. Amid the outcry over Sterling and Bundy’s comments, I noticed very little outrage directed toward Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who referred to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as an “Uncle Tom” just a week later. He defended the use of this racially-charged term, saying, “Well, if you look at his decisions on the court, they have been adverse to the minority community, and the people I represent have a real issue with an African-American not being sensible to those issues.” When a reporter had the audacity to point out to Rep. Thompson that “Uncle Tom” is in fact a racial epithet, he dropped this nugget of wisdom in response: “But I’m black.”
Oh, I see. I guess that solves that problem. It may be terribly offensive and outright intolerable when an old white man tells his girlfriend not to bring black people to his basketball games, but when an old black man accuses a Supreme Court justice of not favoring a particular race and then calls him a racial slur, that’s just fine. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) certainly agrees with that sentiment, as the third-ranking Democrat in the House took to the airwaves later that week to defend his colleague’s remarks. According to Rep. Clyburn, not only is Justice Thomas an “Uncle Tom,” but he is also “insulting” and “disappointing.” Well, actually, Clyburn didn’t really have anything to say about the whole “Uncle Tom” thing. He completely chickened out on that, saying, “Well, I don’t know,” when asked if he thought the epithet applied to Justice Thomas. Yeah, we’re really having that conversation about race now.
Rep. Clyburn also agreed with other remarks made by Rep. Thompson, who had a few things to say about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, too. According to Thompson, the level of Republican opposition faced by President Obama is unlike anything any other president has faced. Speaking about McConnell specifically, Rep Thompson said, “That Mitch McConnell would have the audacity to tell the president of the United States -- not the chief executive, but the commander in chief -- that 'I don't care what you come up with we're going to be against it.' Now if that's not a racist statement I don't know what is.”
I posit here that Rep. Thompson indeed does not know what a racist statement is, seeing as how he uttered one himself without realizing it and then accused someone else of making a racist statement when they did not. Rep. Thompson has joined the Eric Holder club, mirroring remarks by our Attorney General last month that “The last five years have been defined ... by lasting reforms even in the face of unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity…What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”
I’d like to address both Mr. Holder’s and Rep. Thompson’s concerns that our president has been treated in an unprecedented manner by the opposition political party. Mr. Holder’s remarks were made in the aftermath of his questioning by a House oversight committee; the full House had voted to hold him in contempt of Congress some time earlier. As a former member of the Clinton Administration, I’m sure Mr. Holder remembers when a House oversight committee held then-Attorney General Janet Reno in contempt by a party-line vote in 1998. Ms. Reno was not black; could it be that such things are motivated by partisanship rather than race? What a thought.
As for Rep. Thompson, he should also know better. He claimed that Sen. McConnell’s remarks to President Obama were extraordinary because “I've never heard him say it to any other president.” Well, let’s see. McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984, when President Reagan was reelected in a landslide. I’m sure we can do this, kids—who were the presidents between then and now? Bush. Clinton. Bush II. Obama. So that’s two Republicans and two Democrats. I’m not altogether surprised that Sen. McConnell didn’t have anything antagonistic to say toward the Presidents Bush. After all, they are in the same party. As for Clinton? Well, McConnell wasn’t in a leadership position back then; he only was elected to that post in 2007, so his opportunities to grandstand against the Clinton presidency would have been more limited. But even so, I’m sure Rep. Thompson remembers when Sen. McConnell voted to convict President Clinton on both of his impeachment counts in 1999. I’ve never seen him do that to any other president, either—including Obama—so does that mean McConnell has a racial animus towards whites? No, I don’t think so. Again, this seems more a product of partisanship than racism to me.
So, the moral of my story here is this: racism is a bad, bad thing. It’s bad when white people engage in it, but it’s also bad when non-whites do it. You don’t have to be white to be racist and you shouldn’t get away with it if you’re not. And for goodness’ sake, could we please just all accept that it is possible to criticize our president without having some kind of hidden racial motivation? Could we realize, once and for all, that conservatism has strong intellectual and policy-driven roots that have nothing to do with racism? And maybe this is too much for me to ask, but could we start acknowledging the similarities between the people who say otherwise and the likes of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling?