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The r-word 

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  • Jonathan Chait

At the risk of angering somebody like MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, I sometimes used to joke that I only look white. Actually, I'm Irish. Meaning basically that I wasn't raised to think the man in the big house had all the answers, nor deserved all the power he'd inherited.

It was in that spirit that I recently challenged Rep. Paul Ryan's remarks about the shiftlessness of African-Americans. From the 17th century onward, I wrote, "virtually every negative stereotype applied to our 'inner city' brethren today was first applied to Paul Ryan's (and my own) ancestors. Irish peasants were called shiftless, drunken, sexually promiscuous, donkey strong but mentally deficient. They smelled bad."

No doubt some were; certainly some did. The big question is how to improve lives blighted by historical injustice.

However, my joke was definitely a joke. Here in America, ethnic boundaries can be as fluid as you make them. As long as you're white. My people didn't arrive in the U.S. until 20 years after the Civil War, but the only "ghetto" they were ever confined to was of their own choosing.

One of the formative episodes of my youth was getting caught in a PG-rated clinch by a young woman's old-country grandmother, who in high-level diplomatic negotiations with my mother agreed that it was contrary to God and nature for Irish boys and Jewish girls to so embrace.

If not exactly Romeo and Juliet, we both thought they were crazy.

We used to talk a lot about ethnic groupthink, and our mutual determination to avoid its confines. We were very young, with no more idea of history and fate than two butterflies.

It's the American Way.

For blacks, it's not so easy to leave the "old country" behind. Because you're living there. For the descendants of slaves, America's where your ancestors were bought and sold like cattle: less the land of opportunity than the land of white supremacy.

Even President Obama, while careful not to say that the Trayvon Martin jury decided wrongly, emphasized that "it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

Actually, I'm often amazed that black people love this country as much as they do. What's more, ethnic groupthink definitely comes in Technicolor. You don't have to be Justice Clarence Thomas to see that.

Obama was recently asked what race had to do with his poll ratings. He answered diplomatically: "There's no doubt that there's some folks who just really dislike me because they don't like the idea of a black president," he said. "Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I'm a black president."

Needless to say, the usual suspects, as Jonathan Chait writes in an ambitious New York magazine cover story on Obama and race "exploded in indignation, quoting the first sentence without mentioning the second."

That's standard Fox News-ism.

However, Chait's not your standard Salon/MSNBC-style lefty, accusing the president's GOP foes of bigotry. To the contrary, his is an ambitious, if ultimately unpersuasive attempt to define what he calls "the psychic wound that has divided red America and blue America in the Obama years."

Democrats and Republicans, he thinks, are both "paranoid" about race. They wage an "endless war of mutual victimization" — each side persuaded of its primal innocence.

Violating professional taboos, Chait even lists liberal journalists like Salon's Joan Walsh and Slate's Timothy Noah who have dropped evidence-free "r-bombs" on Obama's critics. Mind readers, most of them. "MSNBC," he writes, "has spent the entire Obama presidency engaged in a nearly nonstop ideological stop-and-frisk operation."

Indeed, while Chait barely discusses it, the network's coverage of the Trayvon Martin case was as factually challenged and racially inflammatory as anything this side of Fox News.

"Few liberals," Chait argues "acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power. Conservatives feel that dread viscerally."

Well, perhaps they should. However, I've got trouble believing that most do. First, because there's really no denying that a visceral reaction to an African-American president has shocked a significant fraction of white America senseless. Much of it's what psychologists call "projection" — mistakenly attributing to Obama an angry radicalism reflective of one's own fears.

Second, because the dread "r-word" has been devalued by overuse. Once signifying a terrible moral sin, it now means nothing more than disagreeing with somebody like the aforementioned Harris-Perry, who berated poor Chait on her MSNBC program for six full minutes the other day before letting him speak.

Then she convened two panels of professors to condemn him in absentia. How dare use the phrase "stop and frisk" without their permission?

Chait's a resourceful fellow, though. I'm confident he'll survive.

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