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A New York Times Op-Ed That Would Have Appalled Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Day is supposed to get us thinking about how black people have come a long way but still have a long way to go. Okay, but what MLK Day has me as a black person thinking about is Lee Siegel. 

Specifically, what’s on my mind is Siegel’s idea, broadcast in the paper of record on Sunday, that Mitt Romney’s appeal is based on his being the “whitest” Presidential candidate in a long time. It’s a hit-generating proposition, to be sure. But it’s also a sign of how very far we've come on race. Apparently, racism has so diminished in salience that it no longer demands treatment as an empirical phenomenon, but can merely serve as speculative fodder for smart writers at serious publications to gesture at in order to demonstrate their own goodly enlightenment. Siegel’s article serves as an unfortunate object lesson.

Let’s take Siegel’s basic proposition, that Romney has signaled that he is an alternative to Obama’s blackness. We are to made to believe that this charge—and it is an accusation, that Romney has performed this signaling—is based on empirical evidence of some kind.

But if asked at gunpoint to identify a single way that Romney has signaled that he is an alternative to Obama’s blackness, we would have to submit to being shot. Romney himself would be baffled by the charge that he has done any such thing, one suspects. But Siegel insists that Romney is “telegraphing” this notion of himself as anti-black, and then later hedges that Romney is doing this “whether he means to or not.”

In the end, apparently Romney “knows that he offers to these people the white solution to the problem of a black president.” But how do we know he “knows”? Just because it might be fun to think he does? How is this different from a schoolyard taunt?

Siegel’s implication that voters will be especially open to Romney’s purported maximal whiteitude is equally weak. For one, there’s the little problem that even Republicans have never liked the man much, white or not. Never mind the squeak-by victory in Iowa; even in New Hampshire he couldn’t keep Ron Paul from cracking the 20 percent ceiling.

It also doesn’t work to pretend that Obama's victory was merely a fluke—that the economic meltdown in late 2008 caused Americans to temporarily disregard their misgivings about his race. One hears this theory occasionally, but this kind of glibly pessimistic take on modern American social history is distorted by melodrama and sentimentality. Siegel has it that “the Republican ticket was ahead of Obama by several points in September 2008,” but it’s more like that out of 42 national polls in September of 2008, McCain was ahead, usually by a mere bit, in 9 of them. Obama had momentum long before October, and there’s a very good chance he'd be President even without the catastrophic economic meltdown of late-2008.

Siegel, moreover, clearly senses the infelicity in terming Romney the “whitest” in a field of decidedly un-ethnic Republican candidates. His attempts to cast the others as somehow less “white” than Romney don’t stick. Let's face it, Jon Huntsman could take Romney on in a white-off any day, and his speaking Mandarin hardly gives him an air of the subaltern—it’s cosmopolitan in a thoroughly Stuff White People Like way. And Ron Paul is also a rather utterly “white” individual. If we define “white” the way that White Studies academics would prefer us to—as, above all, a sense of superiority to those less melanin-challenged—Paul's dicey take on race would seem to render him the quintessence of whiteness.

And that's just it—it’s Siegel, one suspects, who finds Romney’s Wonder Bread quality off-putting. Siegel is hardly alone in that take on whiteness as backwards and devoid of flava, of course. That perspective is now deeply seated among Americans, and increases with education level. The phrase “That’s so white,” now leveled regularly by highly white people, would have made no sense to even the most sophisticated and enlightened young people of 1962. Culturally, America is a much browner place in all ways than it was even twenty years ago. It’s what would most forcefully strike a Mad Men character transported to 2012 after they got used to computers and cell phones.

If anything, Romney’s “whiteness” is part of what has kept him from lighting a real flame among Republicans. Aside from his perceived lack of conservative convictions, Romney inspires no love for being “stiff” in ways that are unmistakably “white.” The high-WASP fifties blandness that would have made him seem quintessentially “Presidential” 50 years ago comes off as juiceless and almost ridiculous today to a great many Americans, Republican or not.

But is Wonder-fully white Romney signaling that he is “not black”? There’s no case for that in any meaningful sense, other than to allow Siegel to flatter himself and his readers as sophisticated enough to be immune to the racism that is still “out there.” The only other justification for an editorial making such a baseless argument is the titillation of dumping on Romney for not being able to, so to speak, bust a move.

But the intellectual returns on that kind of exploitation are limited. Siegel’s piece is titled “What’s Race Got to Do With It?” But the answer to that question, when it comes to Romney, should already be clear: Nothing whatsoever. This may confound Siegel, but it would make Martin Luther King very proud indeed.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly suggested that Siegel used the word "signaling" when describing Mitt Romney. Also, the word "September" was left out of the quote referencing Barack Obama's poll numbers in late 2008.