Young: Neverending cycle of racial vitriol

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in Washington, DC. (April 15, 2010) (Credit: Getty Images)

Cathy Young

Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason and Real Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and

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Is it acceptable to label an African-American Supreme Court justice an Uncle Tom for holding opinions one deems harmful to minorities?

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) last week defended using such language toward Justice Clarence Thomas. Coming shortly after appalling comments by Cliven Bundy, the government-defying Nevada rancher hailed as a hero by some conservatives until he decided to pontificate on "the Negro," the much smaller controversy over Rep. Thompson's attack on Thomas is a reminder that not all racially polarizing rhetoric comes from the right.

Bundy's reflections on how blacks may have been better off "picking cotton" and raising families under slavery than lazing about and aborting their babies under the welfare state were justifiably seen as an embarrassment for his right-wing fans. While pundits who had praised him had no way of knowing he held such repulsive views, critics such as The New Republic's Brian Beutler have a point when they say many conservatives have blinders about the existence of racism among their base. Openly racist signs have popped up at some tea party rallies. While claims that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya ostensibly have to do with his qualifications for the presidency, they often have a racial subtext.

But liberals have their own racial blind spots -- including a tendency to paint the right with a broad brush, labeling white conservatives as racists and black conservatives as dupes or sell-outs. Thomas has been a frequent target of such attacks, some of them from white liberal pundits. In 2003, after Thomas penned a dissent criticizing racial preferences in higher education, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd mocked him as a man driven "barking mad" by an inferiority complex based on his race-based preferential treatment.

Indeed, even the Bundy debacle has prompted attacks on black conservatives from liberal quarters. Jamelle Bouie, a columnist for Slate.com, charged that Bundy-like views are routinely voiced by African-American pundits who "have built careers" on regaling white audiences with slavery apologies. His first example is conservative economist Walter Williams, a professor at George Mason University, who has told The Wall Street Journal that "the welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn't do . . . that is to destroy the black family."

But whether one agrees with Williams, equating his remark with Bundy's rant is quite a stretch, and a very insulting one at that. Williams never voiced anything like the vile notion that blacks were generally better off as chattel slaves, or that slavery was beneficial in teaching them work habits.

Broad generalizations about white conservatives abound as well. A few years ago, the media jumped on a University of Washington study purporting to prove that white Americans with tea party sympathies were much less likely to characterize black Americans as intelligent, hardworking or trustworthy. But a look at the full data from the study showed that this conclusion was based on out-of-context numbers. When respondents were asked to rate the positive qualities of various racial groups, tea party supporters gave lower ratings to all groups including whites.

Regardless of which camp's racial stereotypes are morally worse, the truth is they feed off each other. When conservatives believe they will be branded racists no matter what, they're more likely to circle the wagons to defend their own even against valid charges of racism. This boosts liberal perceptions of right-wing bigotry. The only way out of the vicious cycle is for each side to challenge hateful rhetoric in its own ranks.