Race is a difficult topic, especially when talking with people we don’t know as in canvassing and phone-banking. Cookies may make it easier. (More)

The Not-About Race, Part III: Talking Cookies (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature explores the influence of race in the 2012 elections. Thursday we examined how government is framed in race. Yesterday we looked at the racial politics of immigration. Today we consider how to discuss race and privilege with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

“Quiet Rooms”

There’s been quite a buzz, justifiably, about Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney saying “I think it’s fine to talk about [income inequality] in quiet rooms.” Esquire‘s Charles Pierce argues the words “quiet rooms” should spell the end Romney’s candidacy. New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait discusses them in light of the Republican “class warfare” meme. Desert Beacon writes that those words illustrate Romney’s aristocratic distance from working Americans. Talking Points Memo‘s Brian Beutler offers charts of what not to discuss outside those “quiet rooms.”

Race is another topic Republicans would rather the rest of us not discuss outside “quiet rooms,” if ever. Republicans talk about race, as Charles Blow detailed in the New York Times, and Charles Pierce in Esquire, and Gary Younge in The Nation, and even Bush-speechwriter-cum-conservative-outcast David Frum at CNN. All of whom were, in Conservaspeak, “playing the race card.”

“Playing the race card” is to race as “class warfare” is to income inequality. Conservatives can whisper, dog-whistle, even shout about the faults of minorities and the poor, and often do both in the same sentence. The rest of us should politely hush, except perhaps in “quiet rooms” where no one else will hear.

Sadly, too many progressives agree. And that’s a problem because, as we discussed last week, our archetypal median voter Fred gets most of his news from conversations. If progressives don’t talk with Fred about race and privilege, he hears only the conservative side of those issues.

Yet race and privilege are highly-charged topics, where conversations can easily turn into shouting matches. Most grassroots Democratic activists prefer to avoid those shouting matches while canvassing, phone-banking, and Fred Whispering. And rightly so. Once the discussion becomes an angry argument, listening and communication tend to shut down. So how do we talk about race and privilege?

A story about cookies….

I first heard a version of this story during the Wisconsin union protests last spring:

A rich white man and a working class white man are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies on a plate. The rich man takes eleven of the cookies, nods toward the black man at the next table, and tells the working class white man:

“Watch out. The government wants to give him your cookie.”

I’ve changed the story in two ways. First, the original version I heard had a union worker at the next table. In fact, you can tell this story about any group that conservatives designate as Other: people of color, women, non-Christians, LGBTs, union workers, etc. The second change is more subtle. In the original story, the rich man says “He wants your cookie.” I changed it to “The government wants to give him your cookie.”

That second change is important, as it addresses the anti-government rhetoric that has dominated Republican dialogue for the past four decades. As we saw Thursday and yesterday, conservatives and libertarians have painted government with two racial faces: a Colored Government that taxes white people to give handouts to people of color, who have babies and immigrate and threaten to overtake the white majority; and a White Government that arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons people of color to keep white people safe.

Choosing an Identity

The key to the cookie story is that conservative narratives about race are about choosing an identity. Our archetypal wealthy Charles asks white Fred to choose an identity based on their shared race. By creating a White Us, Charles hopes white Fred will resent having to share his cookie with a person of color … and ignore the fact that Charles took most of the cookies for himself.

And that is a fact. A fact that Mitt Romney says we should only discuss in “quiet rooms,” because wealthy Charles is already taxed too much:

All told, the rich still pay far more than their “fair share” of the gargantuan U.S. welfare state and the top 10% pay seven times their income share in federal income taxes, while the bottom 90% pay a mere one-third. This doesn’t even include state tax burdens, which brings the total “take” from the wealthiest to above 50%.

This is an obscene injustice – which the current “tax deal” (and the so-called “tea party” movement) does nothing to alter or remedy. The rich in America should not be treated as second-class citizens (or non-citizens), at least not if this country is still free and ruled by fair play and the Constitution.

You read that right. If we discuss whether Charles should take almost all of the cookies for himself while telling white Fred the government wants to take his cookie and give it to a person of color – or a woman, a non-Christian, an LGBT, a union worker, etc. – we’re “playing the race card,” engaging in “class warfare,” and stirring up “envy.” We’re treating people like Charles as “second-class citizens (or non-citizens).”

Only in that privilege-centered worldview can asking Mitt Romney to release his tax returns – as every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has done – be “a lot like asking ‘where’s the birth certificate!’

To talk about the ugly truth of conservative race-baiting, tell Fred the cookie story. Remind him who took most of the cookies.

Then ask him why Charles wants him to watch out for government and persons of color.

Here’s a hint: the answer has nothing to do with Fred’s cookie.

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Happy Saturday!