I think I’ve got it figured out: Republicans don’t really hate black people. They just have no interest in figuring out why and how African Americans live and think.
That’s my best guess as to how we arrived at last week’s right-wing manufactured “scandal” du jour: It turns out that in the 1990s, Barack Obama (literally and figuratively) embraced a legal scholar named Derrick Bell—a black man who advanced something called “Critical Race Theory,” which posits that racism is embedded in America’s history and institutions.
Apparently this is controversial—or, at least, we’re told it is by Breitbartian Republicans who want us to believe that such opinions (along with Jeremiah Wright and his infamous “God damn America” sermon) are “racist paranoia” that have shaped President Obama into a reverse racist who is and will continue to advance a reparations-minded agenda, unless American voters stop him.
“Policies of racial division and racial preference have characterized this administration, even if most in the media have failed willingly to cover them,” J. Christian Adams wrote at the conservative Big Government website.
That sounds a little crazy. Except for the long-ago brouhaha over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Obama as president has seemingly gone out of his way to avoid enmeshing himself in racial issues. Despite this, Republicans are seemingly obsessed with proving that Obama is a secret racist.
Why? Let’s be generous and assume the GOP isn’t being merely cynical. Instead, let’s think about the possibility that Republicans are guilty of a devastating failure of moral imagination. So let’s try an experiment, white conservatives!
Imagine that you’re a black man who was born in 1930. Even though you live in the north, you arrive in adulthood right on the cusp of the Civil Rights Era. You watch as white sheriffs sic attack dogs on your compatriots and white governors stand in schoolhouse doors to prevent black children from entering. And though laws are passed to bring an end to segregation and bring about voting, too much remains unchanged: For decades afterward, African Americans are underrepresented in the highest councils of power, but overrepresented in prisons and on death row. And this represents progress after 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow.
How would the world look to you then? How much would you trust the country’s government and institutions? How likely is it that you would believe that America really stands for values of “equality, justice, and colorblindness”? And how much credence would you give to conservatives who call you “un-American” because of your skepticism on that account?
Probably not much. Individuals vary in their responses, of course. But it’s not difficult to see why Derrick Bell and Jeremiah Wright might be skeptical of American exceptionalism. With that view on things, it seems that President Obama’s real sin is to have known and learned from black men whose opinions about racism and white supremacy were shaped by the lives they’d actually lived—and not by some hand-me-down nationalism that tries to assert the country is without sin.
Here’s the crazy thing: The skepticism of American institutions that Bell taught isn’t so far removed from the libertarian-flavored conservatism practiced by today’s Tea Party-loving Americans. On the flip side, you’d think conservatives who mock any hint of utopianism in progressives would know better than to suggest the country’s laws and institutions had been completely swept free of racism.
You’d think there might be some common ground here, in other words, but throw race into the mix and everything goes to hell.
I have conservative friends. You can call them any number of names and it rolls off their backs. But they hate being called racist. And I don’t think they are racist. Instead, I think they’ve adopted a kind of Stephen Colbertian “I don’t see race” belief in color-blindness, in which anybody who continues to make a big deal about racial inequality is the real problem. They truly believe that African Americans have been fully welcomed to participate in all of the opportunities that America offers—and that continued griping about old grievances amounts to “race hustling.”
What they forget is that President Obama was born before Jim Crow died—that official racism (and plenty of unofficial racism) is part of the real experience and living memory of millions of Americans. Derrick Bell really did live in a country where white supremacy was embedded in law and custom. In a better world, the GOP could use that history to campaign for conservative policies among black voters. Instead, we are all cursed with the Republican failure of moral imagination.