Last Friday, Andrew Sullivan published an essay in New York magazine entitled Why Do Democrats Feel Sorry for Hillary Clinton? The argument presented therein was not novel, nor was Sullivans essay particularly insightful. The article is highly useful in some ways, however. It is a reminder that while it may be fashionable to blame Donald Trumps white working class voters for electing a racist incompetent, the bigotry that propelled Trump to the presidency is endemic to the Republican Party and modern conservatism as a whole. That includes its reasonable, serious and supposedly principled voices like Sullivan as well.
After meandering from a blistering attack on Clinton to an observation about Dr. David Dao (the passenger assaulted by police on a United Airlines flight last week after he refused to surrender his seat), Sullivan arrives at his money shot.
Its easy to mock this reductionism, I know, but it reflects something a little deeper. Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the social-justice brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject tolynchingsand violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They werebannedfrom immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldnt possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldnt be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?
Andrew Sullivan is engaged in a classic example of attention-seeking behavior in which right-wing pundits make piss-poor, specious and under-theorized claims about race in America. As such, and quite unintentionally, he has provided a much-needed teachable moment.
Sullivans errors are many. For one thing, hisclaims provide a textbook example of the way modern racism no longer leverages claims of inherent biological differences regarding intelligence to elevate whites and demean nonwhites (especially black people). Instead, the discourse of modern racism uses arguments about bad culture to do the work of white supremacy.
As was common during the post-civil rights era in the United States, Asian-Americans are made into a foil and wedge group by white conservatives for the purpose of negating and ignoring the historical and present-day impact of white racism on black Americans, specifically, and people of color more generally. Political scientist Claire Jean Kim described the complexities of this political moment in a 2016 editorial in the Los Angeles Times:
The current dynamics of race in America, Kim wrote, challenged Asian-Americans to develop a political ethos that calls for confronting racial hierarchy and anti-black racism, even when the self-interest of Asian Americans dictates otherwise.
Sullivans arguments also rely on the discredited model minority myth where, as demonstrated by scholars such as Ronald Takaki, Frank Wu and others,the diverse experiences and identities of Asian-Americans as a group are collapsed into a political and social fiction that is used to sustain anti-black racism by blunting any claims that white supremacy remains a powerful social force in American life. The model minority myth is problematic in other ways as well. Primarily, it ignores how Asian-American immigrant groups such as the Hmong and Cambodians have struggledwith poverty, incarceration and other types of social stigmas and marginalization.
The model minority myth also overlooks how immigrants to the United States often possess social and economic capital that groups such as African-Americans do not possess because the latter have been denied such resources by centuries of institutional white supremacy from the founding through to the present. Kim addressed this point in the same Los Angeles Times essay:
Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a model minority whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites. They have also been immunized, relatively speaking, from the systemic, routine and often lethal violence exercised by the state against the black community not just episodes of individual killing, but the institutionalized violence of residential segregation, educational segregation, job discrimination, policing and mass incarceration. This advanced positioning of Asian Americans relative to black people in the U.S. racial order can be traced all the way back to the mid-19th century. Perhaps most importantly, social scientists have shown that it is not that Asian-Americans are a model minority but that racial animus towards them has diminishedover time. Even allowing for that dynamic, one should not overlookthatAsians still face racial discrimination in the American labor market. In his comments about the model minority myth, Sullivan paraphrases almost the exact language used by social scientists to measure modern racism. This would be funny if the implications of Sullivans claims were otherwise not so serious. He also is either ignorant of or intentionally ignores new research from Demos and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University that demonstrates that even when blacks and Latinos follow the rules to obtain the American dream by earning college degrees, working full-time, spending less money and maintaining solid two-parent family structures, they still do worse in terms of financial wealth compared to white Americans. Like other conservatives of his ilk, Sullivans observations about Asian-Americans and, by implication, African-Americans are colored by a foundational belief that blacks are aliens in America who are somehow not fit for full citizenship and equal membership in the polity. Moreover, in this narrative black Americans are victims of their own making. Apparently, centuries of white-on-black chattel slavery and then decades of Jim and Jane Crow violence did not exist. The consequences of that plunder and destruction are thus washed away by a fictional, flattened version of American history where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. magically cured all ills, combined with a belief in the inherent goodwill and benign nature of white America. This version of the white gaze and the white racial frame also ignores the centuries-long history of the black public sphere, black civil society organizations, black educational institutions and a long black freedom struggle that expanded liberty, freedom, and democracy for all marginalized groupsin America including gay white men such as Andrew Sullivan. This version of the white gaze and the white racial frame overlooks the role of the United States government in creating and perpetuating economic, social and political inequality along the color line, to the unearned advantage of white people and the undeserved disadvantage of nonwhites. Ultimately, Andrew Sullivans belief that Asians constitute a model minority while black Americans are comparatively inferior should not come as a surprise. In the past, Sullivan has declared his support for the modern-day eugenicist Charles Murray and the debunked claims made in his racist tome The Bell Curve.Sullivan also believes that human beings constitute separate races that by implication can be bred into distinct breeds like dogs. Donald Trumps racist and neofascist campaign was not entirely reliant on the so-called white working class for victory. He won every group of white voters except college-educated white women. Trump was able to do this by using white racism, bigotry, authoritarianism and nativism to mobilize his base. In all, Trump would not have been successful if conservatism and racism were not effectively the same thing in post-civil rights era America. Right-wingopinion leaders like Sullivan share and defend those values. Donald Trumps victory over Hillary Clinton is the civic, social, and political hellspawn of much more than white working class. It is the vile output of todays white conservatives as a group. To pretend otherwise is to ignore what really transpired during the 2016 American presidential election and its implications for the present and future health of American democracy.