Joho the Blog » Jeff Jacoby is not a racist, but he’s not my favorite columnist

Jeff Jacoby is not a racist, but he’s not my favorite columnist

Jeff Jacoby is a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, so I disagree with his conclusions quite frequently. But, over the years I’ve also disagreed with his reasoning almost as frequently. He seems to me to be one of those columnists who comes up with a provocative conclusion and then tries to figure out how he can support it…and doesn’t always succeed.

This morning he complains about people accusing their political opponents of “playing the race card.” That’s the new McCarthyism, he says. He points to the GOP ad that “pokes fun” at Harold Ford, a black candidate for Senate in Tennessee:

And a bare-shouldered bimbo squeals, “I met Harold at the Playboy party” — a reference to Playboy’s 2005 Super Bowl bash in Florida, which Ford attended. The ditzy blonde returns at the end to whisper, with a wink, “Harold: call me!”

It was a witty, entertaining ad — and it promptly had liberals and Democrats and even the odd Republican screeching about how “racist” it was.

Ford went to a Superbowl party sponsored by Playboy, which clearly means he’s on the prowl for white “bimbos.” Nothing offensive about that! And talk about witty! [Note to the sarcasm impaired: That was sarcasm.]

Jacoby then lays the smack down (or whatever that slang phrase is that the kids are using):

But the plain fact is, there is nothing remotely racial about the Tennessee ad. And I can prove it: The ad would be just as effective if Ford were white.

Jacoby furthers his case:

The same litmus test exonerates Kerry Healey’s much-maligned TV commercials against [the black Democratic candidate] Deval Patrick in the Massachusetts governor’s fight. In one ad, a woman of indeterminate race is shown walking to her car in a parking garage, while a voiceover reminds viewers that Patrick has “praised a convicted rapist.”

Jacoby’s point is that the “ad would be precisely as effective if he [Patrick] were white.”

And on what basis does Jacoby claim this? Has he done a study to test the ad’s effect if the candidate were white or black? No. The best I can figure is that Jacoby means that the explicit argument made by the ad would apply equally to a black or white candidate. But, as he acknowledges, the “McCarthyites” who claim that this is a covertly racist ad point to implications and code words that only make sense within the context within which the ad is actually heard. In this case, everyone who sees the ad knows that Patrick is black, and many — thanks to Healey’s manipulative and cynical raising of the issue — know that the rapist in question is black. In a world truly free of racism, there would be no residue of former cultural associations between rapists and black men. But this is not that world.

So, let’s apply Jacoby’s “proof” to a hypothetical ad attacking Deval Patrick. In this ad, a gang of male, black youths are following a pretty young white woman through the darkened streets. “They’re over-sexed, and they want our women,” says the voice over. Then the ad shows a photo of Deval Patrick. “He’d be fine shining your shoes, but do you really trust him as governor?” According to Jacoby, this ad would be equally effective if Patrick were white because we’re all against crime, and you don’t have to be black to be a good shiner of shoes. But you have to have a brick ear not to recognize that my hypothetical ad is wildly racist. Jacoby’s test fails the real-world test in which ads have meanings beyond the literal words intoned. In context — that is, in the real world — the anti-Ford and anti-Patrick ads are racist, and I believe deliberately so.

Jacoby simply misses the point, not because he’s racist but because (I believe) he’s too intent on being controversial. Conclusions should come last, not first.

Or maybe just as Bush’s speechwriters talk about the “soft racism of low expectations” (a great phrase, despite how it’s used), we should talk about the “soft racism of ignoring racism.”


The Globe today warmly endorsed Deval Patrick for governor, pointing to his ability to listen to those who disagree and his refusal to polarize the electorate for his own personal gain. I’m an enthusiastic supporter — I’ve worked the phone banks for him — and hope that his resounding victory will help rip the Willy Horton page out of the Republican playbook.

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I emailed Jeff Jacoby to tell him I blogged this. He wrote back and gave me permission to run his reply here:

Of course your ad would be wildly racist. But what does your hypothetical
ad have to do with the real ones I wrote about? Healey’s ads, unchanged in any way, would be equally effective against Deval Patrick if he were a white liberal. The Tennessee ad, unchanged, would be equally effective if Harold Ford were white. That tells me that the ads are not racist — or even racial. I appreciate your taking the time to comment on my column, but you seem to have completely missed the point I was making.

7 Responses to “Jeff Jacoby is not a racist, but he’s not my favorite columnist”

  1. I think the phrase the Bush people use is “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” although your version is also good.

  2. Theirs is better. Damn good speechwriters. In fact, they’re an axis of excellence.

  3. Jacoby simply misses the point, not because he’s racist but because (I believe) he’s too intent on being controversial.

    You are jumping to conclusions here. Have you spoken to Jacoby about his intentions? If not, you can only guess about what they are.

    And if you need to guess, Occam’s razor is a handy instrument to select the most likely option. You said Jacoby is a conservative. Wouldn’t the most likely explanation then be that Jacoby is a retard who should not be allowed near power tools such as printing presses?

  4. This touches on a question I call “Evolution” vs. “Intelligent Design”. The column plays off denying an implication from context. By definition, an implication is not explicitly stated. So the controversialist can always do a routine about “What implication? I don’t see any implication. (nastier) If you see an implication it’s because YOU’RE THE RACIST!!!”. These are oft-seen aspects of right-wing rhetoric.

    Now, does any particular columnist really not see the implication, and get the platform because his or her particular brand of obtuseness and density hits a sweet-spot of appeal (“evolution”), or is it a deliberate fabrication (“intelligent design”)? These don’t have to be completely mutually exclusive, but I think it’s a pretty strong divide.

    It’s fundamentally unprovable, but I wonder about particular people.

  5. Language is more than mere words with dictionary definitions.

    There are cultural meanings and idiomatic contexts.

    The question is: Who elects the US government? Those able to recognise sophisticated, but ultimately crude attempts at manipulation, or everyone else?

    Does this demagoguery presage totalitarianism?

    How soon will the sky fall?

  6. Exactly, Seth and Crosbie. The ads are implicitly racist because explicit racism is not acceptable. They thus achieve plausible deniability, but only if one sticks with the explicit, as Jacoby does. This is the only way to take his claim (which he reiterates in his reply) that the ads would be “equally effective” against a white liberal candidate. They’re equally effective only if one considers only the explicit words and ignores the connotations, resonances and existing context.

  7. Perhaps we should call it Himalayan Balsam scented political correctness?

    At first glance an attractive and colourful plant, with an initially sweet aroma. Too late you find it’s a vile and stinking alien wreaking desecration.

    It’s a ploy that rubs racism into the noses of those who can smell its stench, and yet exudes a highly attractive pheromone to those less attuned.

    To demonstrate that the speech is racist requires asserting that the audience is racist (or at least has been taught the corresponding idiomatic vocabulary).

    And of course, how politically incorrect to assert that the nation is racist. Shoot the messenger!

    Emperor’s new clothes: Only racists can find this speech racist. Or, this speech is only racist if the audience is racist, and let he who is without sin cast the first aspersion of racism against it.

    We are human. We did not evolve in the last hundred years. Our misdeeds define us, they do not define our forefathers. Tribalism, racism, xenophobia, are not congenital defects that modern medicine has now eradicated. It’s the folly of mankind to think history teaches him anything except his future.

    So, anyway, to those like you who can spot them, such speech is obviously a tactic of demagogues, but tell me, just how many people will listen to you when you tell them the emperor’s a crypto-racist and by definition they’ve been complicit?

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