You know that feeling when you wake up after a late night watching the dumbass Democratic debates, defined by the moderators’ absurd commitment to centrist ideology and repeating Republican attacks as if those are good-faith questions about public policy, and an editor from the New York Times has done a thread about how black people from cities aren’t really from the places they’re from? Yeah. That very good feeling.
Last night, spokesperson for Justice Democrats Waleed Shahid responded on Twitter to Claire McCaskill, a former Senator who lost her race in the Midwest, who said that “free stuff from the government does not play well in the Midwest.” Shahid pointed out that Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are also from the Midwest—an important point, since referring blithely to “the Midwest” as a place defined by its more conservative rural residents is inaccurate and reinforces the notion that only conservative whites matter.
This morning, the Times’ deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman responded to Shahid in this deeply fucked up fashion.
Hoo boy! Another gem from the guy that brought you, “A black...Muslim....from Minneapolis....to lead the Democratic Party????”
Weisman later deleted the tweets and said he didn’t “adequately” make his point.
The most charitable interpretation of his argument here is that you cannot define a region by the cities where a lot of the people live. (A majority of people in Minnesota live in the Twin Cities.) You cannot say someone is from Texas if they’re from Austin, which is apparently some sort of non-American colony of a more liberal country, and you can’t say someone is from the Deep South if they’re from Atlanta. From ATLANTA.
The troubling thinking behind this is that people who live in cities aren’t really from the state they are geographically located in because they’re more liberal than the rest of the state. This goes hand-in-hand a line of argument often used by racists, like the President of the United States, that minorities in cities aren’t really from here—they’re some other, alien nation within ours, and can’t be included when referring to the region or state that they literally live in. The Midwest must refer to its conservative white residents; the Deep South must only refer to the guys who look like Bull Connor, not the guys who look like MLK. (Three of the four members of Congress he picked are minorities, and the one white guy represents a majority-Latinx district.)
It’s truly unbelievable to insist that a civil rights icon like John Lewis isn’t really from the Deep South because he represents Atlanta. Not only would it be ridiculous if he were born in Atlanta, but Lewis was born to sharecroppers in Alabama, for fuck’s sake.
The Deep South does not belong to rural white people; in fact, the Deep South was built on the backs of slaves. In 1860, 44 percent of Georgia was enslaved. The most important factor in the making of the Deep South is that those states were the most reliant on slavery. Asserting that the black Congressman who represents Atlanta is therefore not representative of the Deep South, because the Deep South can only refer to the non-city bits that are white, is simply racist.
Weisman followed up these thoughts:
An interesting attempt to shift the goalposts happens here: Weisman says it’s not fair to say that Atlanta is synonymous with Georgia, which I don’t think anyone ever said. It is not synonymous with Georgia in the way that Marietta, a majority white city, is not synonymous with Georgia either. This is how language works. I also don’t know why we’re supposed to care what this guy’s in-laws think, either, but his relatives in Plymouth (84 percent white) and Shoreview (87 percent white) who don’t like Omar are not more important than the people who do.
What Shahid was doing last night in responding to McCaskill was pointing out how simplistic and inaccurate it is to refer to regions like the Midwest as defined only by the more conservative residents—who just happen to be white—as if they’re the only ones whose opinions really count.
That’s not to say that “winning the Midwest” can only be done through cities—though in a lot of cases it probably could, if you drive turnout in major population centers high enough—but it’s important to note, because none of these people would ever imply that the white rural representatives don’t really represent the states they’re from. At best, you’re serving the conservative agenda by acting this way; at worst, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer pointed out, you’re imitating the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump that says people from cities aren’t really American. Cities like Atlanta. Which happen to be minority black.
All of this matters because Weisman is the deputy Washington editor for the paper of record. He has a significant role in shaping the Times’ political coverage. If his assumptions reflect the paper’s institutional bias, or indeed if his assumptions are worked into the Times’ reporting, that might mean the Times is just not that good at understanding politics or racism in the age of Trump. Imagine that.