New York Times columnist Frank Rich argues that opponents of Obama's healthcare legislation are motivated by racism. The Washington Post's Colbert King believes Tea Party activists "forerunners" are Southern segregationists. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution's Cynthia Tucker views racist incidents as a "reflection on the Grand Old Party" overall.
We heard the same arguments last September. Liberals were struggling to make sense of the angry town hall meetings. "An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man," Jimmy Carter said. Days before, the Times' Maureen Dowd concluded that the "shrieking lunacy of the summer" had "much to do with race."
Gratuitous charges of racism are no sideshow. They capture an enduring mistake of modern liberalism. And that mistake disserves liberals most.
Rich's Sunday column was indicative of the problem. "When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan ‘Take our country back!,' these are the people they want to take the country back from," Rich wrote. It's demographics to Rich. Whites are not upset about healthcare or even policy. Their issue is the browning of America, Rich argued.
Disregard centuries of furious debate over the role of government. Disregard the Great Recession, historic economic anxiety, this hyper-partisan era, or the comparable vitriol Bill Clinton knew. Disregard white working class skepticism of liberalism since the Great Society, when liberal policy became less concerned with them. Disregard the average man today who sees rich guys and poor guys getting the big breaks from big government. No, Rich explains, it's all about whites who want to "take our country back" from a black president.
What then shall we make of Howard Dean? Over and over, fiery Dean railed during the 2004 campaign, "It's time to take our country back!"
This is the argument that suffices for logic. Rich tosses out the most loaded charge in American life, racism, without evidence. All he has are anecdotes of angry white activists. So he stereotypes. It's like a white person who watches a black criminal on the local news and draws racist generalizations.
Clearly, some Tea Party activists are driven by racial animus. We read it in the signs. Dale Robertson, Teaparty.org founder, held up a sign last year that read, "Congress = Slaveowner, Taxpayer = Niggar." Recently, in an ugly scene near the Capitol, some Tea Party protesters reportedly hurled racist epithets at members of the Congressional Black Caucus (including civil rights hero John Lewis).
But it's the generalizations that are absurd and self-defeating. The largest Tea Party protest occurred in September 2009 in Washington. About 70,000 activists attended. Now follow Rich's logic. Presume, however wrongly, that all of these activists are really upset by "the conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House" rather than politics, as Rich argued.
There are 187 million white adults in the United States. Only 39 percent of whites approve of Obama, according to Gallup. That means about 114 million white adults do not approve of this president. The largest Tea Party rally represented .0006 percent of these whites.
Only one-third of white women and white men approve of the healthcare law, according to Quinnipiac. If Rich is correct, and opposition to the healthcare overhaul concerns race, then roughly 125 million white adults are racists.
For decades, leading liberals explained white concerns about urban upheaval, crime, welfare, school bussing, affirmative action and more recently, illegal immigration, as rooted in racism. Not safer streets or safer schools. Not concern about taxes for welfare, as working class whites (like all races) struggled in their hardscrabble lives. Not regular men who never knew "white male privilege" but were on the losing end of affirmative action (recall Frank Ricci). Not job competition or economic class. Instead, leading liberals constantly saw the color of the issue as the only issue.
Ironically, the healthcare debate is far less racially loaded than welfare or affirmative action. Yet it's still explained in racial tones.
"People say that opposition to all Presidents, even the most unpopular white ones, sounds like this. No, it doesn't," wrote the Daily News' Mike Lupica on Monday.
Back in Clinton's day, former Republican House majority leader Dick Armey, now a Tea Party movement leader, denied the legitimacy of Clinton's presidency. On the House floor, Armey referred to Hillary Clinton as a Marxist (sound familiar?) and called Clinton "your President."
Then there was the death of Clinton confidante Vince Foster. Conservative group Accuracy in Media ran a full-page ad in the Times alleging the Clintons' were possibly behind Foster's death (more recently, the group took up the Obama "birther" conspiracy). Social conservative leader Jerry Falwell and GOP Georgia Rep. John Linder actually promoted the murder theory, while Rush Limbaugh peddled it.
Most infamously, recall North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms: "Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He'd better have a bodyguard." And this was a time of booming far-right militias, on a scale unknown today.
The same far-right fringe that dogged Clinton now dogs Obama. And on that fringe, George W. Bush faced a strong leftist radicalism of his own. It's not race. It's our politics. And it gets ugly sometimes.
But this racism charge is also a unique matter. It creates a whirlwind that always hurts liberals in the end. Many liberals still presume whites' politics are racist rather than reasonable. Pretty soon, many whites stop listening to liberals. And in time, the overuse of the race card dulls the impact of the charge itself.
Obama won roughly the same share of, if not slightly more, whites as Al Gore and John Kerry. Obama polled like Gore and Kerry throughout the race. Yet many analysts, including those tossing the race card today, saw Obama's white troubles in racial terms – despite the facts.
Obama's approval rating has fallen 24 percentage points with whites, since his first week. How these whites see Obama has changed. Obama's race has not.
Fringe activists are often a story of fringe activists. Democrats have exponentially larger problems. They have not won a majority of white men or white women since 1964. Obama's gains with white men in 2008 are gone, and getting worse. The sooner many liberals seriously consider why Democrats are struggling with whites, all over again, the sooner they will win some back. Until then, calling them racist won't help.