White Racists Are the Real 'Victims': Jonathan Chait Turns Heel in His Feud With Ta-Nehisi Coates
Last night, at the WWE's 30th annual Wrestlemania, one of its most legendary figures lost his first match at the event in 22 years. The defeat of the "Undertaker" caused utter shock, dismay, and confusion among professional wrestling fans. That the unbreakable and indefatigable Undertaker would lose a match in "his yard" caused a collective moment of cognitive dissonance and a collective "huh?" as it trended around the world via social media.
The sun sets and rises everyday; the Undertaker does not lose at Wrestlemania. It would seem that rules are made to be broken--even those once thought immutable.
I use the phrase "politics is professional wrestling" as a way of describing how, just like the scripted events in the squared circle, that much of American politics is a battle of good guys and bad guys over relatively predetermined outcomes within what is in practice a very narrow issue space. Politics is professional wrestling is also my way of alluding to the spectacle, fun, entertainment value, mayhem, madness, and polarization that has come to typify American political discourse in the 24/7 cable news cycle.
The much discussed public debate between The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates and New York magazine's Jonathan Chait about the "bad culture" and "pathological" ways of black folks was a very useful and necessary conversation, one stimulated in its most recent incarnation by the bigoted, white supremacist, dishonest, lazy thinking of Paul Ryan, the Republican Party's wunderkind "big ideas" guy.
Chait and Coates are so very smart. Their writing is a joy to read. Their debate, has for the most part, been a net gain for a public that has been trained for soundbites as opposed to an extended dialogue and deep thinking about serious public policy matters.
As in professional wrestling, there is a natural ebb and flow to a feud. Chait and Coates's "program" reached a climax this week with the latter appearing on the Sunday morning edition of Melissa Harris-Perry's essential MSNBC program.
Unfortunately, Chait was unable to be on Melissa Harris-Perry's show with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
A great feud also has falling action and closure--in wrestling parlance this is called the "blow off" match.
The blow off match is a way to milk a now concluded storyline for more money, to set up a new feud in the future, for a competitor to leave the promotion and pursue other ventures, and/or to give the fans a final taste of the sport and entertainment provided when competitors have great chemistry with one another.
As with boxing (Ali-Frazier), sometimes the rematch is a story unto itself and surpasses the first parts of the narrative.
Shawn Michaels' and the Undertakers' two classic matches at successive Wrestlemanias would fit the latter model.
Unfortunately, most blow off matches diminish the quality of the events and climax that led up to them. And in the most egregious examples, the blow off match can actually hurt the fans' memories of what transpired beforehand: the failed follow-up match is the heavy shadow that comes to color our memories with an ugly tint.
I am concerned that Jonathan Chait's new piece on race in America is the failed blow off match in what was a thrilling feud with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Chait is now baiting Coates in order to get a cheap "pop" from the fans.
There were earlier signs of Chait's change in attitude.
In a previous essay, Chait hinted that he was going to turn full on heel when he deployed Malcolm X as a cheap shot against Coates.
Chait has taken one step forward in that storyline as The Color of His Presidency reads like it was written by a man who was once an honorable foe, and is now having his Hulk Hogan turn, breaking character, and telling the public what his real thoughts were all along.
Chait has been held up by many of his fans as a defender of liberal and progressive values, a smart thinker (which he clearly is) and a carrier of the metaphorical flame.
To point. In The Color of His Presidency, Chait marshals solid social scientific research on the deep and profound links between contemporary conservatism and racism.
As I have said many times, the Republican Party in the post civil rights era is a white identity organization: it has fully embraced white supremacy as a brand name.
Thus, I nodded while reading Chait's use of the compelling evidence that support the above thesis. He has done his homework. However, it would appear that Chait is willing to reject inconvenient empirical findings in the service of advancing his character's storyline(s).
Like professional wrestlers who want to shock the audience, Chait "swerves" the readers in The Color of His Presidency by chasing something worse and more facile than the obligatory cult of false equivalence which now governs American political discourse. Chait presents white conservatives as victims of persecution by some ominous cabal comprised of the "Left" and "Liberals" who use the exaggerated and unfair "cudgel" of racism against their ideological foes.
Chait is the fallen hero, the angry professional wrestling character who--and this can be great character development if used properly--adopts a distorted view of reality because they are feeling hurt, beaten, defeated, or smarting from how the climax to the feud ended badly for him or her.
His final sections of The Color of His Presidency capture this energy perfectly:
The racial debate of the Obama years emits some of the poisonous waft of the debates over communism during the McCarthy years. It defies rational resolution in part because it is about secret motives and concealed evil.
Few liberals acknowledge that the ability to label a person racist represents, in 21st-century America, real and frequently terrifying power. Conservatives feel that dread viscerally. Though the liberal analytic method begins with a sound grasp of the broad connection between conservatism and white racial resentment, it almost always devolves into an open-ended license to target opponents on the basis of their ideological profile. The power is rife with abuse.
If Chait is serious and sincere in the above paragraphs, his liberal defenders and fans have seriously misjudged the seriousness and rigor with which he has internalized and reflected upon the empirical data that compelling details the strong positive relationship between racism, conservatism, public opinion, racial attitudes, and the Republican Party.
Racism is a productive tool for the White Right and the Republican Party--to the degree that such elements can be dis-aggregated in the post civil rights era. White people who are racists are not "victims". For Republicans, charges of being racist are not punished. They are lucrative launchpads that secure prominent positions in the media or validate a candidate's bonafides among the white reactionary populist base as a "real American".
Chait also ignores how charges of "reverse racism", "playing the race card", or being a "race hustler" are devastating moves in the Republican Party's arsenal against those who dare to show concern about how white supremacy damages the life chances of people of color in America.
Despite Chait's claims, anti-racism has no "terrifying power".
Jim and Jane Crow were terrifying. Lynching parties that dismembered black bodies, cut them apart, forced black men to eat their own penises as the price for a "merciful killing", or the white rampaging mobs that destroyed black wealth, life, and many dozens (if not hundreds of black communities) during the Red Summers of the American post World War one era, are terrifying.
The slave ship and the many millions killed during the Middle Passage are terrifying. The chattel slavery auction block is terrifying. The mass rape and murder of black men, women, and children on the charnel house plantations of the American slaveocracy, both after the seasoning process and in the hell that awaited the survivors of the Middle Passage, is terrifying.
Men like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn who can kill black people at will under Stand Your Ground Laws are terrifying. Police who have the power of life and death, and can use that power to murder black people who are "armed" with house keys, wallets, phones, or their empty hands is terrifying. The "don't get killed by the cops" lecture that responsible black parents give their children is terrifying.
The thought that how despite one's successes and educational accomplishments that because they are identified, however arbitrarily, as "black" in America means that their resume will get thrown in the garbage, a mortgage will have higher interest, or how doctors will not give proper treatment or necessary pain medication, is terrifying.
Likewise, how white folks can commit any number and type of heinous crimes such as destroying the American economy or committing mass shootings--and Whiteness and White Privilege shields the white community from any amount of recrimination, consequences, or communal reflection about what are in fact deadly white pathologies--is terrifying in the extreme.
Holding white conservative racists and their allies responsible for their conspiracy campaigns such as Birtherism, death threats against Obama, a concerted campaign of herrenvolk-fueled political obstructionism and neo Confederate politics, waiving the American Swastika (i.e. the Confederate Flag) in front of the White House, subtle and overt racial claims (and lies) that Obama is the "welfare" or "food stamp" president, how black Americans are lazy, Hispanics and Latinos are parasitic, and black and brown children should pick up mops and brooms to learn a work ethic because their parents do not have one, is not "victimizing" white conservatives as though they were being subjected to harassment by McCarthy, the FBI, and Cointelpro.
When Republicans are confronted by decent and civic-minded people who find white racism objectionable, obnoxious, and contrary to the Common Good, they are actually leveraging conservatives' favorite slogan--"personal responsibility".
Why should movement conservatives be spared from the fruits and consequences of their own speech, deeds, and beliefs?
Chait ends his heel turn promo in The Color of His Presidency by offering up a final dagger in the form of a pretzel-logic defense of white conservative victimology:
Obama is attempting to navigate the fraught, everywhere-and-yet-nowhere racial obsession that surrounds him. It’s a weird moment, but also a temporary one. The passing from the scene of the nation’s first black president in three years, and the near-certain election of its 44th nonblack one, will likely ease the mutual suspicion. In the long run, generational changes grind inexorably away. The rising cohort of Americans holds far more liberal views than their parents and grandparents on race, and everything else (though of course what you think about “race” and what you think about “everything else” are now interchangeable). We are living through the angry pangs of a new nation not yet fully born.
In Chait's version of the X-Men's classic storyline the Days of Future Past, white conservatives are going to be subjected to witch hunts for (imagined) racism.
Despite the mass of evidence, racism and white supremacy are not the core of conservative (and other) political attitudes in the post civil rights era. No, these are debates about principle, which for Chait, should be evaluated in a social and historical vacuum. Moreover, the ostensibly abstract values that drive white supremacy in the aggregate, and which manifest themselves through a near pathological hostility to Barack Obama, as negative attitudes towards people of color, or impact a range of other policy matters, ought not to be engaged, challenged, and exorcised.
Jonathan Chait is suggesting that this new America will mercilessly and unfairly punish white conservatives. Of course his claim is utterly ahistorical: America was founded as a white republic by law; America does not punish white people en masse for racism.
The innocence of Whiteness, and its inherently benign nature, are part of the (White) American creed.
As such, white racism is an outlier by definition in post civil rights colorblind America. White racism is a means through which the vast majority of white folks can imagine themselves as racial innocents in order to validate their own Sainthood and goodness in the Church of Post Civil Rights America Anti-racism.
The religion is wonderful: it requires no great deeds, commitments, alms, or real personal sacrifice. All one has to do is stone "those" racists as a means of offering up protection and absolution from any charge of one's own complicity with white supremacy, be it active or passive.
Politics is professional wrestling. Chait has apparently decided that there is more attention and popularity to be gained by turning heel in his feud with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Such a choice worked for Hulk Hogan in the short-term those decades ago in the mid 1990s after he left the (then) World Wrestling Federation for its rival World Championship Wrestling.
But even Hulk Hogan, who hosted Wrestlemania 30 on Sunday night, realized that you have to eventually come home.