Flip open your average conservative magazine or website this week and you’ll read the a slew of articles arguing that the Democratic party is today the real party of race politics. The GOP is clean on the issue, the argument goes, with the notable and now dealt-with exception of Trent Lott. (Call this the conservative commentariat’s mopping-up operation after Lott’s defenestration.)
We’ll be saying more about the particular fooleries, dishonesties and tendentiousness involved in these arguments. But for the moment, let’s note a broader assumption that underlies almost all of them. That is the premise that there is a basic equality between appeals to racism and charges of racism. It’s a equation which is as morally vacant as it is logically flawed.
Of course, when Republicans play race politics conservatives seldom even concede that that’s what’s being done. But for the sake of argument let’s assume more conservatives were candid enough to admit that George Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University was a play to race politics. That would be playing the race card. And Democrats calling him on it would also be playing the race card.
This doesn’t mean that Democrats can do no wrong on race or that they can’t on sometimes egregiously step over the line. (Stephen F. Hayes has an example of Jesse Jackson doing this, in a new article in the Weekly Standard which, I’m sorry to say, wholly buys into the equation above.) They can. And false or overstated charges of racism are wrong and damaging. But calling people on their bias, their playing to racist sentiment, or their indifference to the consequences of racism isn’t ‘playing the race card.’ If it is, then the phrase is meaningless.
For conservatives who have a hard time grasping the difference, try the HRASST, the Honest Republican’s Anti-Semitism Substitution Test. If a certain politician makes an anti-semitic statement or appeals to an anti-semitic constituency and then the ADL calls them on it, are both sides playing the anti-semitism card? Of course, not. Only the foolish and the immoral would say so.
Or as long as we’re taking the HRASST topic out for a spin, if a given politician gives an interview to a magazine known to espouse anti-semitic views, is that okay? Is it a sufficient answer to say that you don’t happen to agree with their anti-semitism but you give interviews to a lot of magazines? I doubt that would cut it.
Try the HRASST out. It’s great at cutting through a lot of malarkey.