Jonathan Chait Claims 'You Didn't Build That' Is Racist

Jonathan Chait has a piece at New York magazine proposing a novel new insight on why Obama's "you didn't build that" gaffe is hurting the President. The "real reason" according to Chait is that Obama was speaking in "black dialect." In other words, the attacks work because they're some kind of racist dog whistle.

Chait opens his post with an American Crossroads ad which he then comments on. Here's the ad:

And here's Chait's take on it:

The key thing is that Obama is angry, and he’s talking not in his normal voice but in a “black dialect.” This strikes at the core of Obama’s entire political identity: a soft-spoken, reasonable African-American with a Kansas accent.

Chait then seeks back up from Kimberly Strassel at the Wall Street Journal. Strassel is a Here's Strassel offering what Chait calls the "crucial dynamic":

[Obama's words] raise the far more potent issue of national identity and feed the suspicion that Mr. Obama is actively hostile to American ideals and aspirations. Republicans are doing their own voter surveys, and they note that Mr. Obama's problem is that his words cause an emotional response, and that they disturb voters in nearly every demographic.

 Chait then presumes that the "emotional response" that disturbs voters is something akin to racism, i.e. a reaction to Obama's "black dialect." But if you read Strassel's piece, that's not at all what she says. She believes the problem is that Obama seems to be demeaning "the bedrock American beliefs in industriousness and exceptionalism."

But according to Chait, Obama's attack on hard work and creativity has nothing to do with it. It's all about race. In fact, Chait concludes by claiming "The entire key to the rise of the Republican Party from the mid-sixties through the nineties was that white Americans came to see the Democrats as taking money from the hard-working white middle class and giving it to a lazy black underclass." So it's not just this one political line of attack that is racist, it's everything Republicans have done since 1960.

The best way to sum this up is with a list of things Chait assumes but doesn't make any effort to prove:

  • Obama was speaking in "black dialect" in Roanoke.
  • Apart from "you didn't build that" there was nothing anyone could reasonably object to in Obama's text.
  • People who don't like his comments (like the ones in the Crossroads ad) are responding to his speech patterns not his content.
  • The emotional reaction Kimberly Strassel noted in the WSJ was really about Obama's race, not his attack on fundamental American values like hard work and entrepreneurial creativity.
  • The entire Republican Party has been built on racism since 1960.

In sum, this is a spectacularly shoddy bit of work based on nothing but Chait's own sense that Republicans are, first and foremost, racists. There's nothing else here but that presumption backed up with equally unsupported presumptions about Obama's tone and the meaning of Strassel's article. That said, Chait will likely be hailed a hero on the left for giving Dems a way out of this quagmire. Just claim it's racist. That always seems to work.

In reality, people (not all of them white or Republican) are responding negatively to Obama's comments because they seem to put him ideologically at odds with some fundamental American ideals about hard work and entrepreneurship. In this economy, that's more than enough reason to respond negatively and emotionally to Obama's comments.


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