Stillwater News Press


June 4, 2014

GENE LYONS: How we devalued the ‘R’ word

STILLWATER, Okla. — At the risk of angering somebody, 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

“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. 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.

Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.

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