If you were watching MSNBC on Dec. 29, and you stayed through the close of Melissa Harris-Perry's eponymous show, you saw 90 seconds of odd, tasteless commentary about the hilarity of the Romney family photo. In it, Mitt Romney held his adopted grandson Kieran—adopted a couple of months ago by Ben, the blond Romney brother—on his knee. The video has not aged well.
Its timing was suboptimal for Harris-Perry and for MSNBC (which pays me as a contributor, full disclosure). The year's slowest news week had begun. The Duck Dynasty affair had spun itself out, leaving conservatives ready for some scalpin' of their own. It was probably inevitable that MHP be pilloried for a week, and give several apologies, culminating with a tearful mea culpa at the top of her Jan. 4 show. And it was inevitable that Sarah Palin would weigh in with words bearing a superficial resemblance to English. "Holy unbelievable," she wrote. "The LSM's pursuit of 'shock ratings' is unreal."
There's nothing in the clip to indicate a "ratings" stunt; MSNBC's weekend ratings are about one-thirty-fifth the size of a good Duck Dynasty night. Yes, Palin appears to have written an entire book about First Amendment freedoms without approaching the topic with any sort of consistency. Hilarious! But let's move on, because Mitt Romney said so.
I was on one of my short book leaves* during most of the Duck Dynasty controversy, so it's not that story that brings me to MHP as much as Ta-Nehisi Coates' Slatepitchy defense of what was actually happening on set that day.
There is a sense that Romney's grandchild should be off-limits to mockery. That strikes me as fair.
Yeah, it's fair. Not a hard call.
It also doesn't strike me that mocking was what Harris-Perry was doing. The problem was making any kind of light of a fraught subject—a black child being reared by a family whose essential beliefs were directly shaped by white supremacy, whose patriarch sought to lead a movement which derives most its energy from white supremacy. That's a weighty subtext.
Was that what it was? MHP's joke, that the Romney kid should grow up to marry Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's son, was fairly harmless. The DNA of the joke seemed to be: Mitt Romney's family is really dorky, and the West-Kardashians are not. The other jokes were making light of how a black kid in the midst of a white family reunion was sort of a statement on how white the GOP was. Coates explains where this agita came from:
Romney's familiarity with white supremacy was not passive and distant but direct and tangible. As a child he lived in a neighborhood which, by the employment of compacts, red-lining, and terrorism, was an exclusive white preserve. As an adult, Romney worships in a church that as late as 1978 took racism not simply as policy but as the word of God.
That's all true, and yet in 2013 Romney's son Ben adopted a kid from Ethiopia. Ben Romney was born in 1978, the year that, in the words of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, "God changed his mind about black people." What's the half-life on how long Ben Romney should have to apologize for white supremacy? Ten more years? Twenty? Until there's something like statistical parity in black/white employment and salary levels?
If Coates is right, and the MHP panelists were making light of "white supremacy" when it mocked the family photo, does that mean they were automatically just in doing so? That feels like the implication here. Republicans generally believe in policies (and endorse cultural signifiers) that cut back on economic redistribution to nonwhites, so everything they say or do can be disqualified on those grounds. That feels awfully nihilistic.
So, sure. Sometimes, there's going to be tokenism in defense of illiberal or discriminatory policy—ask the black activists who were paid to lobby against South African sanctions in the 1980s. (Really, they existed!) Sometimes, there's going to be an honest disagreement about a policy shift that looks harmful to nonwhites but doesn't come from that place—ask some of the school choice campaigners.
Obviously, MHP quickly realized that making fun of the way a white Republican family looked as it celebrated a new, nonwhite arrival wasn't the best way to approach any of this. She apologized. She had to. Telling white conservatives that everything they do is rooted in privilege is telling them to put on blinders whenever any policy they want to try is dubbed "racist." There's a reason we've come to appreciate the political skill of John Lewis and totally forgotten about Kwame Ture.
*I'm approaching the whole process as a series of sprints, one to three weeks at a time off the clock. No six-month beard-growing leave for me!