Maybe racism is why people are irritated at Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line

posted at 8:01 pm on July 27, 2012 by Allahpundit

I’m tempted to agree, only because I desperately want white Democratic incumbents also telling business owners “you didn’t build that” while on the stump this fall. No worries, Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill. Free pass for whitey from swing voters on this one.

From Jon Chait’s first post this afternoon:

Mitt Romney’s plan of blatantly lying about President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech is clearly drawing blood. But what makes the attack work so well is not so much the lie itself but the broader subtext of it. Watch Obama’s delivery in the snippet put together by this Republican ad…

The key thing is that Obama is angry, and he’s talking not in his normal voice but in a “black dialect.” This strikes at the core of Obama’s entire political identity: a soft-spoken, reasonable African-American with a Kansas accent. From the moment he stepped onto the national stage, Obama’s deepest political fear was being seen as a “traditional” black politician, one who was demanding redistribution from white America on behalf of his fellow African-Americans.

When conservatives pushed back, he clarified that he’s not saying anyone is racist (including Romney) so much as that everyone is:

Foster writes, “ I don’t even have an argument here — which I suppose is fine since Chait doesn’t either.” He does not take the step of considering the obvious conclusion, which is that I don’t have an argument that Romney’s ad is racist because I don’t argue that Romney is racist.

I certainly do think that race is deeply embedded in American politics in ways conservatives don’t like to acknowledge. As I argued, the collapse of liberalism in the mid-sixties occurred because large numbers of whites came to see the Democratic Party as taking resources from them and giving them to lazy or otherwise undeserving black people. Obama’s election crucially depended on his image as a different kind of black politician, not one who was chastising white America or demanding concessions on behalf of other African-Americans…

Are the ads distorting Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line racist? Of course not. They do activate a set of emotions that are closely linked to racial feelings, but so does almost any debate surrounding Obama. (Read Sasha Issenberg’s pithy explanation.) The inextricable link between race and, well, just about everything accounts for the pathological character of the way we discuss race.

The problem with challenging arguments like this, of course, is that they’re nonfalsifiable. (By design.) The idea that race is inextricably linked to “just about everything” is almost prosaic in light of American history and culture, but once you concede it, there’s no limiting principle on using it to justify accusations of racism except the good will of the accuser. E.g., conservatives were plenty irritated when Elizabeth Warren made the same “you didn’t build that” argument last year, which might be a clue that this is less about the race of the speaker than what’s being spoken. But Chait’s telling you flat out in the excerpt why that counter won’t work. Because race is “deeply embedded” and O is, after all, the first black president, “almost any debate” about him must involve some racial element. The racism’s there, always, even if it’s subconscious, even if it’s grafted on to a more legit race-neutral ideological complaint; how hard you need to squint to see it depends on how badly you need to delegitimize your opponent’s argument. In this case, with Team O panicked about the fallout from “you didn’t build that,” squint hard.

Dave Weigel, who’s no rock-ribbed conservative, says it’s preposterous to think that Obama was talking in a “black dialect” during his “you didn’t build that” comments. Is he right? (Yeah, as you’ll see below.) Or is he simply in denial about the “deeply embedded” racial assumptions that he uses to judge Obama? The answer turns, presumably, on whether Dave thinks the “you didn’t build that” line is a big deal. If he does, then he needs to be delegitimized; if he doesn’t — and it turns out he doesn’t — then his racial bona fides can be assumed. That’s how political opportunism as psychology works. The only difference between Chait and garden-variety “you’re racist!” liberals is that he’s smarter and more ambitious in what he’s doing with this than they are. It’s easy to dismiss someone who screeches that Romney’s a willful racist; it’s harder to argue with the idea that we’re all conscious of race to some degree, even if only subconsciously, purely by dint of having grown up in America. That’s a much bigger net to cast. And if you’re fishing, a big net is what you want.


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