In response to Jonathan Chait, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg makes an argument that I’ve seen more and more on the right—that noticing racism, and particularly racialized political attacks, makes you a racist:
What I love about this stuff is that liberals tend to insist how racism is not only repugnant to them, but alien to them. And yet, they continually demonstrate a sensitivity and acuity for spotting it that even real racists seem to lack. They’re like people who claim to be nose deaf (if you prefer, anosmic) who nonetheless insist they can pick up an exotic scent from miles away (“A lactose intolerant armadillo has grown flatulent over by the old Miller farm…”).
Regardless, I’ll attempt a response. It’s possible to both oppose racism and have knowledge of racist tropes and ideas. By definition, in fact, racism can’t be “alien” to an anti-racist—it’s impossible to counteract racism unless you can recognize racist things.
For example, the character “Han Lee” on CBS’ 2 Broke Girls is—to borrow from writer Andrew Ti—“a tiny, greedy, sexless man-child,” who speaks with a broken, generically Asian accent. This is incredibly racist, but in order to come to that conclusion, you have to be familiar with stereotypes about Asian-Americans.
Now, for Goldberg, this means that Ti—and anyone else who noticed—is a racist. This doesn’t make any sense. At all.
I myself have noticed attacks on President Obama that traffic in stereotypes and discredited ideas about African-Americans and black masculinity. Does this make me a racist? I hope not, since I’m also, you know, black. It’s not just anti-racists who notice racially charged—or simply racist—attacks in political life. Social scientists have been documenting the use of race in politics for decades, and have identified important and concrete effects.
Hell, our political lexicon is filled with words and phrases that call back to race and racism—“Willie Horton,” “dog-whistling,” “the Southern strategy.” Jesse Helms’ “Hands” ad—used against a black Democrat in 1990—is distilled prejudice, put to devastating political effect. Check it out for yourself:
This is incredibly racist. But according to Goldberg, I’m a racist for pointing that out.
One last point. If there’s anyone who wouldn’t notice racism, it’s actual racists. Remember, if you believe that nonwhites are inferior, you’re unlikely to notice when someone says something—“Blacks just want handouts”—that confirms your biases. In fact, contra Goldberg, it would actually be very odd for a racist to call “racism.” After all, to them, it’s just common sense.