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Steele Cage

Republicans find their inner Al Sharpton.

Last weekend began with Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, clinging to his job primarily via implicit racial blackmail. Steele’s tenure has consisted of a string of gaffes and managerial blunders, but Republicans had concluded that his color made him un-fireable. “You’re not going to dump the first African American chairman,” an influential party strategist told Politico, “That’s the only reason.”

By the end of the weekend, the attention of the political world turned to a 2008 comment by Harry Reid that Barack Obama, unlike other black candidates, could win the presidency due to his light skin and lack of “Negro dialect.” Steele was immediately thrust back into the role for which his party chose him. He denounced Reid’s comments as “racist” and demanded that the Senate majority leader step down.

Steele perfectly embodies modern Republican racialism. Democratic racialism represents a perversion of the civil rights ideal--an opposition to racism taken to excesses of hypersensitivity, occasionally devolving into a mere political tactic. Republican racialism is an attempt to mimic Democratic racialism without first having any grasp of the original sentiment underlying it--a parodic replica of the original thing, like a person who decides to convert to Judaism by studying Madonna.

Republican racialism is not an expression of racism but, rather, a failure to understand racism. Obama’s appearance on the scene has made this misapprehension painfully apparent. On the right, there lies an enduring suspicion that Obama’s race has been his greatest, and possibly only, political asset. As Glenn Beck complained in 2008, “a lot of white people will say, ‘Look, I’m not racist. I voted for Barack Obama.’ ” Only white racial guilt could explain the inexplicable rise of this inexperienced, ultra-radical, teleprompter-dependent figure.

The reality is that Obama’s race is far from an unalloyed political boon. In 22 percent of the counties in the United States, Obama garnered a lower percentage of the vote than John Kerry did in 2004, despite running in a dramatically more favorable environment. Those counties are clustered in a stretch running from Louisiana, north through Arkansas and Oklahoma, and then east through the Appalachians. Republicans, though, have treated Obama’s race as a trump card.

Thus the immediate Republican response to Obama has been to find their own black guy. In 2004, the Illinois GOP imported lunatic Alan Keyes from Maryland to run for Senate, on the apparent assumption that another African American could neutralize Obama’s strength. In 2009, they elevated the buffoonish Steele to party chairman, where he has proven a regular source of embarrassment. (Incidentally, why are such a high proportion of black Republicans in elected life crazy? Is it because the party’s demand for ideologically qualified African Americans so outstrips the supply? I’m open to alternative explanations.) The post-election Bobby Jindal wave and the current Marco Rubio wave--Mike Huckabee: “He is our Barack Obama but with substance”--represent ethnic variants of the we-need-our-own-black-guy strategy.

The campaign to whip up faux racial outrage at Reid likewise shows a party clumsily attempting to mimic what it considers a devastatingly effective tactic. Republican efforts to explain why Reid’s comments amounted to racism have proven comical. “Some Americans,” huffed The Wall Street Journal, “white and black, might be more insulted by Mr. Reid’s implication that most Americans--45 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964--are still so residually racist that they would only vote for a black candidate who isn’t really . . . black.” But, while it may be insulting to white Americans to suggest that they respond more favorably to a politician who looks and sounds more like they do, it’s hardly racist, let alone false.

Meanwhile, when pressed on “This Week” to explain her accusation of racism against Reid, Liz Cheney sputtered, “Give me a break. I mean, talking about the color of the president’s skin . . . and the candidate’s,” and, “It’s--these are clearly racist comments, George.” This is her argument in its entirety. I have omitted nothing.

By far the most common Republican indictment of Reid rests upon a simple comparison: Since Trent Lott lost his Senate majority leader post over a racial gaffe, Reid should also. “If you didn’t accept Lott’s apology,” argues Karl Rove, “to be consistent, wouldn’t [you] have to reject Reid’s, as well?” Or, as Abigail Thernstrom put it, “A racial boor is a racial boor--whether on Left or Right.” (Thernstrom actually maintains that Reid was far worse than Lott.)

The comparison says a lot about the GOP’s odd misapprehensions about race. Lott, of course, got into trouble for boasting that his state had voted for Strom Thurmond’s single-issue segregationist campaign for president in 1948 and that, “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”

The Lott affair captures the most blinkered quality of Republican thinking on race: the failure to acknowledge the link between segregation and conservative ideology. Modern Republicans have convinced themselves that no link exists between their party and the ideology of the Old South. “Yes, some racists joined the GOP,” concedes National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, “but with a few exceptions, they had to jettison their support for Jim Crow.”

It feels ridiculous to have to point out that white Southern conservatives defected to the GOP precisely because the Democratic Party turned against Jim Crow. Strom Thurmond joined the party in 1964, and never renounced his openly racist past. Lott continued into the 1990s to build open alliances with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor to the White Citizens’ Councils that fought integration. National Review opposed the Civil Rights Act and endorsed white supremacy.

These facts don’t make conservatism racist or wrong. Indeed, it’s a tribute of sorts to modern conservatism that it has moved so far beyond justifying white supremacy that it no longer remembers it ever did. Moreover, the GOP has admirably abandoned overt and--with very few exceptions--even covert racist appeals. It would be nice if the party hadn’t proceeded from there straight into its own version of Sharptonism. But we should be grateful for small favors.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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