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The Scott Walker Racial Rorschach Test


Is it “racially polarizing” to publicly applaud people who achieve the American Dream? If you’re a liberal critic of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recent Iowa Freedom Summit speech, the answer might be yes.

On Wednesday, Slate writer Jamelle Bouie published “Divide and Conquer,” a guide to “Scott Walker’s divisive message for winning the White House.” If any candidate could “run a rigid campaign of polarization—aimed at winning as many white voters as possible,” Bouie writes, “it’s Walker. His language is already there. In his Iowa speech, he touted voter-identification laws and portrayed disadvantage as a pure product of personal failure.”

This supposed “personal failure” passage of Walker’s speech—Bouie trims it, somewhat tellingly, in his column—goes like this: “In America, it is one of the few places left in the world where it doesn’t matter what class you were born in to. It doesn’t matter what your parents do for a living. In America the opportunity is equal for each and every one of us but in America the ultimate outcome is up to each and every one of us individually.”

So Now Celebrating Hard Work Is Racist

Sounds rather egalitarian, doesn’t it? Aside from Walker’s mention of voter-identification laws—which was a blip in the overall speech, somewhat overshadowed, to be honest, by the section in which the governor described labor protestors threatening to “gut” his wife “like a deer”—you might be somewhat baffled as to how this speech, praising equal opportunity, could be racially charged. The subtext, as Bouie explained to me in a rather interesting Twitter exchange, is this: “The suggestion that there are people who celebrate dependence and refuse to work hard is racially polarizing.”

For Bouie, skin color—and black skin color, to be explicit—immediately pops to mind.

Really? Is it? I guess it depends on where you’re coming from. When I hear that suggestion, I don’t reflexively view it in racial terms. There are plenty of white people on welfare or government assistance, after all, who are not living the most responsible lives. There are also many poor people, of all shades of the rainbow, who are disadvantaged out of misfortune or hard luck. To say that we have individual opportunity doesn’t negate that. But for Bouie, skin color—and black skin color, to be explicit—immediately pops to mind.

He’s not alone, either. His Slate article links, quotes, and praises a rather sensational hit piece that ran on Walker last year, accusing him of “toxic racial politics.” Written by Alec MacGillis in The New Republic, it was called, somewhat amazingly, “The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker.”

“Wait,” you might be thinking. “That’s kind of a racially polarizing headline to be approvingly citing in a piece bemoaning racial polarization!” Yes, my friend, it is.

Will the Real Race-Obsessed Person Please Stand Up?

Since the definition of “racially polarizing” seems to be widening every day, I’ll offer a quick guide to discerning when something actually fits that definition: It explicitly uses someone’s race (this would be Walker, and his apparently annoying, former-mullet “whiteness”) to condemn him or her in some way, shape, or form. If you were a humorless, pedantic sort, and if Walker were not so unbearably white, you could quite reasonably upgrade this otherwise silly headline to Racism Level DefCon 4.

Something that is racially polarizing explicitly uses someone’s race to condemn him or her in some way, shape, or form.

MacGillis’s article, which promises “a journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star,” has been debunked elsewhere—columnist Christian Schneider dismantled it in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Ann Althouse broke it down on her blog—but the long and short of it seems to be that Walker comes from an incredibly polarized state, facing serious racial segregation in Milwaukee and a few insensitive talk radio hosts along the way.

The worst offense in the entire New Republic article, as far as I can tell, were some racially offensive e-mails sent by Walker staffers—not Walker, mind you, but staffers—that were made public last year. As an aside, the second-worst offense in the article was probably the time Walker fell for a fake phone call from a “Koch brother” and chatted it up for 20 minutes or so, which is both hilarious and mortifying and seriously makes me pause as to whether I could ever support Walker for president.

Places Democrats Run Aren’t Great for Black People

Walker, Bouie argues, “was born in” and “molded” by a “world of racially polarized politics. As MacGillis notes, Walker’s home turf of metropolitan Milwaukee is home to ‘profound racial inequality, extreme political segregation, [and] a parallel-universe news media,’ trends that predate Walker, ‘but have enabled his ascent.’”

Milwaukee has been run by Democrats for more than 100 years, with an occasional Socialist thrown in for good measure.

Um. Okay. Seriously, guys? Milwaukee has been run by Democrats for more than 100 years, with an occasional Socialist thrown in for good measure. But Walker, by merit of being a white GOP rising star, is “toxic” because of that town’s racial and political mire? When I brought this point up to Bouie, he called it a “non-sequitur.” This is disappointing, because it’s an important connection to understand if you’re serious about racial and social justice.

Is it not relevant that the “toxic” racial environment you’re accusing Walker of manipulating has been overwhelmingly managed and overseen by the left-leaning political party that you support? Does it not cause some cognitive dissonance that Walker is attempting to enact policies that directly rebuke the ones that have coincided with and perhaps exacerbated this terrible state of affairs? Could it be that failing schools, segregation, and lower social mobility might have something to do with the long-standing, long-powerful, and corrupt machine that Walker is attempting to dismantle?

Scott Walker Versus Joe Biden

Here’s the thing. Maybe Walker is a terrible racist who thinks racist things in his terribly boring and accountant-like head from atop his throne of skulls. I don’t know. It’s certainly possible. It would be bad if true, and he would immediately, and rightfully, lose his support. But until he actually blurts out that terrible racist thing—like, you know, Joe Biden, the guy who actually said the following about his running mate, future President Barack Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man”—shouldn’t we give him at least a little non-racist benefit of the doubt?

In the end, Bouie’s piece says a lot more about political polarization than it does about racial polarization.

At the very least, we should hope for a little more evidence for a grand strategy of “racial polarization” than a half-baked New Republic article and a sweeping assumption that Walker’s “American Dream” references are a racist dog whistle. There’s a chance that, moments after I write this article, some dreadful internal memo will be leaked from Walker’s nascent presidential campaign. This might actually be a net positive, as then our debate, at the very least, would be based on facts, not projections of various ideological anxieties.

In the end, Bouie’s piece says a lot more about political polarization than it does about racial polarization. Contrary to what Obama insisted in 2008, maybe there are two Americas: One that sees everything interwoven with racism, sexism, and oppression, and the other that misses those proverbial cues. The real irony, it turns out, is that the first group might be inspiring a far greater racial polarization than the second.

It looks like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is going to run for president. Do you think he's ready?
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