Yes, I Think It’s Fair to Call This Minstrelsy.

by drucebag, via Creative Commons.

(cross-posted from U.S. of J.)

Yesterday’s Charles Blow column has inspired some particularly obtuse punditry. I expected it of Tom Maguire, who as a run-of-them-mill right-winger is prone to completely missing the point. But I’m honestly surprised to see Conor Friedersdorf stumble blindly down the road of understanding.  In a recent post at the American Scene, Friedersdorf takes Blow’s column as further evidence that race is used as a cudgel against the right:

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. [Emphasis mine]

I wouldn’t say that Friedersdorf is missing the point here, I’m not sure if he’s aware enough to grasp the problem with this particular display of “diversity.” Conor calls Blow’s piece unfair, asserting that “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.”

But the “minstrelsy” Blow decries doesn’t flow from the mere presence of minority voices at a conservative rally — which is what Fridersdorf 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. The exact opposite dynamic occurs on the left, for the simple reason that white liberals feel they can readily assume ideological sympathy from any given person of color, regardless of circumstance. Which, admittedly, is also very problematic.

One last (baffling) thing: it’s clear that Friedersdorf doesn’t understand why conservatives are far more open to racial criticisms than liberals. But it’s really not that complicated. As I wrote last week:

William F. Buckley Jr., the preeminent voice of conservatism for half a century, opened his editorial salvo with a defense of segregation in the National Review. Barry Goldwater wasn’t a racist, but he didn’t hesitate to harness white racism in his presidential bid. Richard Nixon turned racial resentment into an art form, and Ronald Reagan took it a step further, inaugurating his 1980 campaign for president at the final resting place of three civil rights workers, gunned down by Klansmen. Even George H.W. Bush, a careful moderate, stoked resentment and fear for political benefit. These days, conservatives hold to a stance of anti-anti-racism, where accusations of racism are far, far worse than actual prejudice against minorities.

And this is to say nothing of the current conservative affinity for overt displays of white nationalism, or the fact that the two most prominent spokespeople of the Right regularly peddle racial paranoia to their basehead devoted followers. Given the obvious reasons people of color have to be skeptical of the conservative movement, it really shouldn’t be this hard for Conor to see why conservatives might have to be especially sensitive about these things.

Photo credit: Amanda Lucidon/New York Times


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • ackrite55

    I would like to see Blow interview Zo.

  • Eli

    I understand why it may not be the most polite, or diplomatic thing to say, but the elephant in the room is this: in today’s world, conservatism is an argument for racism. One can be a racist and not be conservative. And one can be a conservative, and not racist. But the two certainly seem to go together like cookies and milk.

    The reason for this is really quite simple. The most basic principle of modern conservatism is that we all create our own success; each of us, no matter our lot in life, is perfectly able to grab those bootstraps and give ’em a good tug. The problem is, decades after the civil rights act, there is still a profound amount of racial inequality. And while some of it might be explained by racist managers or schoolteachers, the overwhelming fact is that minorities just aren’t doing that well.

    Now, liberals have an explanation for this. It’s the old story (now with 1000x more scientific data!) about good old social determinism. “You are what society wants you to be.” The whole thing can get pretty complicated, but the internal logic is damn airtight: Beginning at birth, via structural mechanisms, social capital is built that will lead one into a statistically predictable social outcome. That’s a fancy way of saying, “Growing up in a posh Greenwitch home is a lot better for you than a project in Detroit.” (The sad thing is that we know how to change all this but… well that’s a whole ‘nother post.) Anyway, racial inequality solved.

    Poor conservatism. It still believes in fairy tales. Well, at least the one about contra-causal free will. Conservatism can’t have racial inequality as long as it’s not law. According to its charming view of human nature, we can all be CEOs and corporate bankers, astronauts and doctors! And if we aren’t, well it’s our own damn fault for not dreaming!

    But then there’s the racial thing. If all this were true, then we should, year in and year out, see a pretty random distribution of success. Since no structural inequalities exist to hold us down, the same number of kids from Greenwitch should be going to Ivy League schools as kids from Detroit. Since all of us has, at the moment we turn 18, access to the same level of social capital, then we shouldn’t see the effects of parenting, culture, schools, income, education, neighborhood, etc.

    But wait… maybe there’s something else that might account for the persistence of these social indicators. Something impervious to environmental and social pressures. Something inside these individuals that makes them behave this way… I know, how about their race?!!!!!!!!

    Of course, the racial explanation is incoherent for a variety of reasons, none of which are worth getting into. But suffice it to say that, to someone maybe on the fence, not that comfortable with the whole lovey-dovey, multicultural, let’s try and change the world thing – conservatism provides a nifty explanation for this seeming conundrum. Not that anyone will admit to it. It’s kind of a hush-hush thing. I’m not sure one better even admit it to oneself. But then again, conservatives don’t really believe in the power of the unconscious either…