Ross Douthat — who isn’t a moderate common-sense conservative but plays one in the NYT opinion pages — yesterday penned his latest overwrought defense of his party’s fringe, this time hoping to mainstream the right’s worrying rediscovery of reverse racism.
For those just joining us, one of the right’s dominant narratives in the time since Obama’s accession is that a black man’s success necessarily implies the end of white dominance, with all the horrors that attend such an inversion. The idea that black and white America exist in some sort of zero-sum relationship sometimes finds more toned-down iterations, or spawns spin-off theories — like the idea that a minority Supreme Court justice can’t understand white America — but in all, the theme, that minority victory means white defeat, is the same.
This species of thought isn’t as noxious as classical racism, but we should realize, the difference is one of degree, and learned subtlety. It’s still racism, and it’s still wrong. Per Ta-Nehisi Coates, “the most potent component of racism is frame-flipping–positioning the bigot as the actual victim.” Any narrative that puts race at odds with race is inimical to a happy, just society, no matter how much you dress it up.
Douthat’s column takes this new, old racism — the medium favored by your Becks and Buchanans — and tries to equate it with an affirmative action system gone awry, favoring poor blacks and minorities over poor whites. But they’re not the same. Beck and Buchanan find their force in anger and emotion; Douthat’s assertions about the problems of modern affirmative action, if true, are based on facts. The latter is legitimate. The former is race-baiting, and can’t be so bootstrapped into respectability.
Further, Douthat’s claims about affirmative action are interesting for what they imply: not that affirmative action is wrong (as we used to hear), but that it’s not working equitably. To identify affirmative action’s problem, Douthat has to accept its central conceit: that experiential diversity, using race as a proxy, might be beneficial to academia. The remedy for Douthat’s wrong is not an end to affirmative action, but true evenhandedness in its implementation. That, and that alone, is something we should probably get behind.
So, what we’re left with is a column that makes some interesting points, but strains to leverage them into an ex ante rationalization of pure polemic from the movement’s lesser (but more popular) lights. In other words, classic Douthat. And a metonym for post-2008 conservatism as a whole: a clever, well-intentioned minority chained to a dying movement, struggling to lend its credibility to the frothing majority. And failing.