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The Color of His Presidency

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The authors suggest that the economic shock of emancipation, which suddenly raised wages among the black labor pool, caused whites in the most slave-intensive counties to “promote local anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, racist norms and cultural beliefs,” which “produced racially hostile attitudes that have been passed down from parents to children.” The scale of the effect they found is staggering. Whites from southern areas with very low rates of slave ownership exhibit attitudes similar to whites in the North—an enormous difference, given that Obama won only 27 percent of the white vote in the South in 2012, as opposed to 46 percent of the white vote outside the South.

The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.

And yet—as vital as this revelation may be for understanding conservatism, it still should not be used to dismiss the beliefs of individual conservatives. Individual arguments need and deserve to be assessed on their own terms, not as the visible tip of a submerged agenda; ideas can’t be defined solely by their past associations and uses.

Liberals experience the limits of historically determined analysis in other realms, like when the conversation changes to anti-Semitism. Here is an equally charged argument in which conservatives dwell on the deep, pernicious power of anti-Semitism hiding its ugly face beneath the veneer of legitimate criticism of Israel. When, during his confirmation hearings last year for Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel came under attack for having once said “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” conservatives were outraged. (The Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens: “The word ‘intimidates’ ascribes to the so-called Jewish lobby powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent.”) Liberals were outraged by the outrage: The blog Think Progress assembled a list of writers denouncing the accusations as a “neocon smear.” The liberal understanding of anti-­Semitism is an inversion of conservative thinking about race. Liberals recognize the existence of the malady and genuinely abhor it; they also understand it as mostly a distant, theoretical problem, and one defined primarily as a personal animosity rather than something that bleeds into politics. Their interest in the topic consists almost entirely of indignation against its use as slander to circumscribe the policy debate.

One of the central conceits of modern conservatism is a claim to have achieved an almost Zenlike state of color-blindness. (Stephen Colbert’s parodic conservative talking head boasts he cannot see race at all.) The truth is that conservatives are fixated on race, in a mystified, aggrieved, angry way that lends their claims of race neutrality a comic whiff of let-me-tell-you-again-how-I’m-over-my-ex. But while a certain portion of the party may indeed be forwarding and sending emails of racist jokes of the sort that got a federal judge in trouble, a much larger portion is consumed not with traditional racial victimization—the blacks are coming to get us—but a kind of ideological victimization. Conservatives are fervent believers in their own racial innocence.

This explains Paul Ryan’s almost laughable response to accusations of racial insensitivity over his recent comments. “This has nothing to do whatsoever with race,” he insisted. “It never even occurred to me. This has nothing to do with race whatsoever.” Why would anybody understand a reference to “inner cities” as racially fraught?

And so just as liberals begin with a sound analysis of Republican racial animosity and overextend this into paranoia, conservatives take the very real circumstance of their occasional victimization and run with it. They are not merely wounded by the real drumbeat of spurious accusations they endure; this is the only context in which they appear able to understand racism. One can read conservative news sites devotedly for years without coming across a non-ironic reference to racism as an extant social phenomenon, as opposed to a smear against them. Facts like the persistence of hiring discrimination (experiments routinely show fake résumés with black-sounding names receive fewer callbacks than ones with white-sounding names) do not exist in this world.

Conservatives likewise believe that race has been Obama’s most devious political weapon. Race consciousness, the theory goes, benefits Democrats but not Republicans. “By huge margins,” argues Quin Hillyer in National Review, “blacks vote in racial blocs more often than whites do.” Obama’s race, conservatives believe, lent him an advantage even among white voters. (As 2012 candidate Michele Bachmann put it in real-talk mode, “There was a cachet about having an African-American president because of guilt.”)


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