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If you want someone to listen to you on race, you don't start by likening him to a slaveowner


Liberal writer Jonathan Chait wrote an extended analogy as a blog post today, and it's unambiguous that the analogy is this: Conservative critics today are to President Obama as slaveholders were to slaves who dared speak their mind.

There’s really no other way to understand the structure of this article. The pictures alternate between slave Solomon Northup and Obama. The headline is “12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era.” Chait wrote, “To identify '12 Years a Slave' as merely a story about slavery is to miss what makes race the furious and often pathological subtext of American politics in the Obama era.”

Chait writes that “the social system embedded in slavery” is one “in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.” Chait then slides immediately to quoting conservative writer Quin Hillyer's knock on Obama:

“The man has no shame, no self-doubt, not a shred of humility, no sense that anybody else has legitimate reason to question him or hold any other point of view.”

This is the central and unambiguous structure of Chait’s piece: Conservatives' criticism of Obama is of a kind with slaveowners' abuse of slaves.

For that reason, I reacted with anger when I read it. You can't argue with people who will imagine and posit evil intentions when those intentions don't exist. Or, as Jonathan Chait circa 2009 would say, “I think the public discourse would improve if more people would refrain from inferring bigoted motives in their opponents.”

The discourse would improve because it would be easier for conservatives to listen to people like Chait if Chait wasn’t smearing them.

At this point, you might ask, “Why is it important to listen to Chait?”

Because Chait actually makes a good point here. Buried beneath the conservatives-slaveholders analogy (and before an assertion that teleprompter jokes are racist) is another critique of American conservatives that is neither slanderous nor pointless.

Here’s the critique, as I understand it: Many conservatives wrongly assume that racism is gone because they have a narrow definition of racism.

I'll tweak that a bit to say this: Defining racism narrowly can make one blind to the unfair difficulties and unfair treatment black people suffer in America today.

When a conservative hears the word “racism,” he assumes it refers to a specific hateful act or set of acts driven by a hatred of blacks or a belief that blacks are inferior. Of course, this sort of racism persists in ways ranging from awful to simply upsetting, but most white people of good will are pretty sure they're not guilty of it.

When others talk about racism, sometimes there is no specific perpetrator. The blame may lie with a system rather than with individuals — and the blame for creating that system may lie with people who aren’t alive today.

In other words, “racism” sounds like a individual indictment to some white conservatives. This leads many white people to deny racism exists — because they know they don’t oppress blacks. By extension, it can lead white conservatives to deny that life is any harder for blacks than for whites, except to the degree that black people make their own lives harder.

The result may be a lack of empathy for black people who look at their lives and see that they do face difficulties because of their color of their skin.

After Chait implies Hillyer is like a slaveowner, he writes something actually defensible: Critics of Obama should be careful not to use language that will come across as racially tinged.

Put another way, Chait thinks that we should treat Obama differently because Obama is black. And he's right.

It was stupid when liberals portrayed George W. Bush as a monkey. It would be worse to portray a black president as a monkey.

Racial sensitivity — modifying your behavior to take into account past racism for which you may bear no blame — is a virtue. We need more of it on the Right.

But here’s a point for Chait: The worst possible way to cultivate racial sensitivity is by haphazardly crying racism.

I try to be racially sensitive. But nobody can be racially sensitive if that means avoiding the words Obamacare, Chicago, skinny or golf.

Liberal writers in the Obama era cry racism so often that it is easy to see the charge as a goonish way of trying to silence criticism of the president. Amid these lame charges of racial insensitivity, sincere calls for sensitivity are drowned out. (I made a similar point in August)

If you want someone to listen to you on race, you don’t start by likening him to a slaveowner.