In a stunningly myopic essay published this week, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait identified the real victims in discussions of white supremacy: white liberals. Chait claims that referring to people who have not “argued explicitly for white power” as white supremacists — including President Donald Trump, who, two days before Chait’s essay was published, called black athletes protesting police brutality against black Americans “sons of bitches” — can have “potentially dangerous consequences.” The most dangerous consequence, of course, is that well-meaning, definitely-not-racist white liberals will be the next target of the left’s anti-racist fervor.
Don’t be fooled: Chait isn’t actually interested in interrogating white supremacy, nor does he seem to think it’s a particularly pervasive ideology. (He writes off the white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia as “a tiny number of Third Reich cosplayers,” for example.) As Splinter’s Alex Pareene wrote yesterday, Chait’s essay isn’t about racism; by the end, it “reveals itself to be just another paint-by-numbers ’the greatest threat to free speech in the nation today is college students heckling an asshole’ column. Regardless, the intellectual hurdles Chait leaps over to make his point reveal his deep-seated anxiety that he will be labeled racists himself.
“It may seem pedantic, in the face of a threat as radical as the Trump presidency, to quibble over ideological distinctions between different varieties of odious people,” Chait writes before doing exactly that. His argument is simple: white supremacists are people who call themselves white supremacists, and that’s it. In Chait’s mind, the “alt-right” is not inherently white supremacist (because it “did not identify itself” as such), but instead was “co-opted” by white supremacists almost immediately.
Unfortunately for Chait’s argument, these semantic distinctions don’t matter very much in the real world. It’s unlikely that people like the parents of the 8-year-old biracial boy who was allegedly lynched in New Hampshire last month are interested in whether their child’s assailants identified as white supremacists, alt-right, racists, or nothing at all.
On Twitter, Chait deflected criticism by doubling down on semantics with the fervor of a Brown sophomore who just discovered Alfred Tarski. “The broader the definition [of white supremacy], the more people can be swept up inside it,” Chait tweeted in response to the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer. And “while [white supremacists and traditional conservatives] share some traits in common, there are important and perfectly clear distinctions between the groups.”
supremacists alongside passages from traditional conservatives, you'd have no trouble identifying which was which.— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 26, 2017
It implies that, while they share some traits in common, there are important and perfectly clear distinctions between the groups.— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 26, 2017
What came from this was an inglorious journo-man pile on. After New Republic editor Jeet Heer pointed out that Chait’s distinctions were “about manners” instead of about “goals or their impact,” the Week’s Damon Linker told Heer that he and “others on the left are playing Manichean politics: Either you’re on the left or you’re a racist.” The irony of white men explaining racism to people of color — and defining white supremacy narrowly enough to exclude themselves — was completely lost on Chait, Linker, and those who agreed with them. Again, the racial anxiety was clear: Conservatives want to support policies that harm people of color, but they don’t want to be called racist, a point conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat unwittingly made while responding to Heer and Linker.
“I think the Q is whether current left conceptions [of racism] allow for a conservatism on race issues distinct from white supremacism,” Douthat tweeted, “e.g., is anti-immigration sentiment ispo facto white supremacist? skepticism of affirmative action? support for drug war? Etc.”
(The answer, of course, is that advocating policies that directly harm people of color is one of the many ways in which white people are complicit in racism, an argument that has been made by numerous racial theorists, including Angela Davis and bell hooks.)
There’s very little distinguishing Chait’s argument from the conservative refrain that liberals will smear anyone with whom they disagree as a racist, a neo-Nazi, or both. After Trump was elected, New York Post columnist Jonah Goldberg claimed “liberals insisting that Trump was elected by racists” actually help Trump, because most white people “aren’t racist and therefore don’t like being called racist or being berated about how their country is racist. They also sense that the ‘Everything is about race’ crowd is using race as a cudgel to silence critics and have their way.” Conservative pundit Tomi Lahren, whose claim to fame was filming thinly-veiled racist rants for Glenn Beck’s news network, made a similar point last month:
Hollywood Libs throw out the racist & Nazi labels so often-they are Snowflakes that cry wolf. Someone isn't a racist because you declare so! https://t.co/gpGd8sJiL4— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) August 22, 2017
Goldberg and Lahren insinuate that “racist” is among the ugliest slurs, an insult that should only be used to describe the Adolf Hitlers and David Dukes of the world. Chait’s pedantic debate rests on a similar point: “white supremacy” is an extreme fringe ideology that doesn’t include the polite white conservatives who definitely don’t see race but wish those football players would stand up and respect the flag, or the polite white liberals who definitely don’t agree with neo-Nazis but will defend their right to chant “blood and soil” on public property.
In his book Dog Whistle Politics, legal scholar Ian Haney López argues that contemporary white supremacy and racial pandering “always [operate] on two levels: inaudible and easily denied in one range, yet stimulating strong reactions in another.”
“The new racial politics represents itself as steadfastly opposed to racism and ever ready to condemn those who publicly use racial profanity,” Haney López writes. “Meanwhile, though, the new racial discourse keeps up a steady drumbeat of subliminal racial grievances and appeals to color-coded solidarity.” White supremacy hasn’t gone away, nor has it become a fringe ideology; if anything, coded language has turned otherwise “good” people on to racist policies while making it easier for them to deny accusations of racism.
“Typically, those claiming to have been denoted as racists exude outrage or distress. The imagined accusation, their emotions communicate, has wounded them personally, deeply bruising their sense of themselves,” Haney López writes. “Racial ideas perpetually adapt to reassure members of the dominant group that, however unjust the social arrangements are and whatever the attendant violence, they are good and decent folks.”
Take the private Facebook page “UES Mommas,” which has nearly 28,000 members, some of whom are more offended by being called racist than they are by witnessing acts of racism. In August, a lawyer representing two of the group’s members sent a cease and desist letter accusing four other group members of libel for calling the two women “racists” in a heated debate about the Charlottesville rally. “As you are well aware, one’s reputation and good name can easily be irreparably damaged by the materially false statements which you have made,” the letter, which was obtained by Jezebel, read.
Under this logic, racism is something individuals — bad people — do to other individuals, not a system all white people benefit from and are complicit in by virtue of their own existence. This ideology extends beyond liberals to all white Americans who may oppose key tenets of racial justice (affirmative action, reparations, and less stringent immigration policies, to name a few), as well as to those who may support these policies but nonetheless think racists’ freedom of speech is sacrosanct, even if it’s at the expense of people of color. For Chait and others, the problem isn’t white supremacy, but that leftists refuse to politely disagree with white supremacists.
I want to live in a world where ppl wearing swastikas or rainbows or Black Power shirts can coexist without physically attacking each other.— Chad Felix Greene (@chadfelixg) September 19, 2017
Near the end of his essay, Chait turns one of bell hooks’ most famous quotes — “All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity” — on its head, perhaps accidentally evoking it. “You are either with the people beating up the racist-fascists, or you are with the racist fascists themselves. To oppose one is to support the other,” Chait writes. “See how quickly and easily the category of fascists and racists can grow?” The subtext is clear: White liberals, the PC police are coming for you next. You better not let them.