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On Ketanji Brown Jackson Hearings, “Culture War” Framing Obscures Degrading Racism on Display
Republican Senators are engaging in transparent race-baiting using barely disguised coded language. Lumping these attacks into the “culture war” bin trivializes what’s going on.
On Citations Needed last week, we detailed the increasing uselessness of the label “culture war” as a catch-all for “any topic that materially impacts non-white cis-men.” While it may speak to some trivialities around the margins, as a matter of course, it’s grown to encompass life-and-death issues such as immigration, the humanity of transgender people, police violence, and a host of identity-based oppression.
The core problem with the label is its glaring double standard in application. When used in the context of the left, it’s almost always evoked to trivialize or render boutique and eccentric issues important to certain vulnerable classes, typically with mocking shorthand like “transgender bathrooms” and “defund the police.” When used for the right, it’s done in an almost playful way: “There those Republicans go again, with their culture war stuff.” But the label is used to describe things that are not risible “distractions,” but flat-out racism, transphobia, and sexism. Specific and discrete vectors of hate mining that ought to be named as such. The media’s default reliance on this “culture war” framing serves as a euphemism for the true nastiness on display.
Take, for example, recent coverage of the degrading questioning of Biden Supreme Court-appointee Ketanji Brown Jackson. For days, Republican Senators have railed nonstop about Jackson’s alleged embrace of “Critical Race Theory,” which is means nothing anymore other than “uppity blacks with high status professional jobs.”
Many outlets, in turn, keep referring to this display of craven race-baiting as “culture war” fluff:
New Yorker, 3/21/22: “Voices from the G.O.P.’s far-right wing appeared determined to use Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearing for both their pursuits in the culture war and their own political ambitions.”
New York Magazine, 3/22/22: “Ted Cruz Brings Culture War to Ketanji Brown Jackson Hearings”
USA Today, 3/22/22: “Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson fought back against Republican criticism that she is soft on crime while parrying thorny questions about how she would rule in the culture war battles that frequently appear on the Supreme Court's docket”
The Guardian, 3/22/22: “After exchanging niceties, he immediately dove into a culture war question about the 1619 project, which she mentioned in a speech she was asked to give on Martin Luther King Day. Jackson explained the context for the reference and said the project and is not relevant to her work.”
ABC News, 3/22/22: “With a second full day of questions coming Wednesday at Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Republican senators have so far played to long-running culture wars in sometimes obscure but nonetheless intentional ways.”
Associated Press, 3/23/22: “Supreme Court Hearings a Venue for Culture Wars”
Those pesky rightwing “culture wars”!
The ABC News article vaguely hints at race-baiting, but never names it, with a somewhat disjointed headline that reads, “GOP uses Jackson hearing to inflame tensions over race, crime.” What they really mean is, “GOP uses Jackson hearing to be racist to Jackson.”
After two years of non-stop race-baiting and obviously cynical motives on display, treating “Critical Race Theory” as an earnest concern about some liberal overcorrection in public education is like taking “states’ rights” in the 1970s, or “welfare fraud” in the 1990s, seriously. This is wallet inspector shit. One of the reasons the right wing is so good at running circles around the so-called “liberal media” is it’s always a decade ahead with new coded language. And liberals and centrists, on the altar of “objectivity” and “fairness”, refuse to call out racist code for what it is and, instead, neatly categorize “Critical Race Theory” questions in the somewhat playful “culture war” bin, rather spelling out, in clear terms, the cruel, dehumanizing, race-baiting rhetorical regime it is. What we’re seeing on TV every afternoon is grandstanding from a racist party pandering to racist voters and donors trying to take a black woman down a peg despite the fact that almost everyone agrees her nomination is a fait accompli.
To the extent the racism was commented on by opinion commentators, it was couched in familiar proxy concepts like “racially tinged” “racial overtones”:
It’s strange, like adults tip-toeing around Santa Claus within earshot of small children, the things we avoid saying about the racist nature of these spectacles.
These Senators are not using Jackson’s nomination process to “engage in culture wars.” They’re using her nomination to degrade a black woman they perceive as too powerful, radical and—worst of all—cognizant that racism, as a social force, exists. All to shore up support from their like-minded constituents and donors. We should say that. Retire the term “culture war”: it’s vague, cheeky, and does little to spell out the dehumanizing, cruel, and cynical nature of what’s going on during these time-wasting Senate hearings.