When Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., remarked last week that some of the opposition to President Obama's Affordable Care Act is "maybe he's of the wrong color," he was just saying out loud what many people believe. And no, he wasn't calling Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a "racist."
Believing that some of the Republican and tea party opposition to Obama has to do with his race is not, I repeat not, the same as saying that anyone who disagrees with the nation's first black president is racist.
Speaking Wednesday at a sparsely attended Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Rockefeller said this subject is "not something you're meant to talk about in public." He's retiring from the Senate at the end of the year and, well, he's a Rockefeller, so I imagine he feels free to talk about anything he likes.
Johnson was the only Republican senator in the room when Rockefeller made the remark. He took umbrage, telling Rockefeller, "I found it very offensive that you would basically imply that I'm a racist because I oppose this health care law." He later added, "I was called a racist. I think most people would lose their temper, Mr. Chairman."
But Rockefeller didn't call him a racist. Nor did he "play the race card," as Johnson accused him of doing.
My purpose here is not to convince everyone that Rockefeller is right about the massive GOP resistance to Obama — although I certainly agree with him — but to consider the things we say when we want to avoid talking about race. "You called me a racist" and "You played the race card" have become all-purpose conversation stoppers.
Whenever I write about race, some readers react with one or the other of these end-of-discussion criticisms. Some people believe, or pretend to believe, that mentioning race in almost any context is "playing the race card." Nearly 400 years of history — since the first Africans landed at Jamestown in 1619 — amply demonstrate that this view is either Pollyannaish or deeply cynical. We will never get to the point where race is irrelevant if we do not talk about the ways in which it still matters.
As for the "called-me-a-racist" charge, I go out of my way not to do that. All right, I did make an exception for Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling — I wrote that they were not "the last two racists in America" — but I think most people would agree that I was on solid ground. Their own words and actions proved the point.
In general, I try to focus on what a person does or says rather than speculate on what he or she "is." How can I really know what's in another person's heart?
Is it true, as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban opined, that everyone is a little bit racist? Beats me. I know that psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have written sheaves of peer-reviewed papers about implicit or unconscious bias, and I have no reason to doubt this research. But no generalized finding says anything definitive about a given individual.
In the end, all we can do is look at what the individual does, listen to what he or she says, and then draw conclusions about those words and deeds.
I'm reminded of a tea party rally at the Capitol four years ago when Congress was about to pass the Affordable Care Act. I can't say that the demonstrators who hissed and spat at members of the Congressional Black Caucus were racists — but I saw them committing racist acts. I can't say that the people holding "Take Back Our Country" signs were racists — but I know this rallying cry arose after the first African-American family moved into the White House.
I believe Rockefeller was justified in looking at the vehemence and implacability of Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act and asking whether the president's race is a factor. I believe there are enough words and deeds on the record to justify Rockefeller's subsequent comment that race "is a part of American life ... and it's a part — just a part — of why they oppose absolutely everything that this president does."
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in Congress, said it was "ridiculous" to think GOP opposition to the health reforms had anything to do with race.
Referring to Rockefeller, Scott added: "I can't judge another man's heart." On this, at least, we agree.
Eugene Robinson’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org