Touchy White Folks

So at an Obama fundraiser headlined by the First Lady, Robert DeNiro tossed out a moderately funny joke:

“Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?” De Niro asked to cheers from the crowd. “Too soon, right?”

Yes, it was a joke, you see, because in 2008, a lot of people asked if America was ready for a black president. We’ve had 43 white presidents, and 42 white first ladies, you see, and we don’t tend to think of them as belonging to any race. It’s a reminder of selective race-consciousness. I’m typing this v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y because some people don’t seem to get it.

Among the non-getters is Newt Gingrich, who has gone nuclear over the joke, and even tried to compare it to Rush Limbaugh’s sliming of Sandra Fluke:

“I do want to say one thing, both on behalf of my wife and on behalf of Karen Santorum and on behalf of Ann Romney — I think that Robert DeNiro’s wrong,” Gingrich said. “I think the country is ready for a new first lady, and he doesn’t have to describe it in racial terms.”

Gingrich went on to demand that President Obama apologize for the comments.

“What DeNiro said last night was inexcusable, and the president should apologize for him,” Gingrich said. “It was at an Obama fundraiser, it is exactly wrong, it divides the country. If people on the left want to talk about talk show hosts, then everybody in the country should hold the president accountable when someone at his event says something that is as utterly and terribly unacceptable as what Robert DeNiro said.”

Inexusable? Utterly and terribly unacceptable? Really?

Look, I understand that Newt Gingrich is a politician running for president whose financial sugar daddy has cut him off and needs every imaginable excuse to get attention. I also understand that conservatives remain very focused on protecting (and sucking up to) Rush Limbaugh by pretending that every word that comes out of every “liberal’s” mouth is equally offensive.

But something else is going on here, too, that is akin to the shrieks of “racism!” every time someone notices the racial subtext of this or that aspect of conservative politics. A joke that very mildly alludes to the racist heritage that made Barack Obama’s election historic must itself be a terrible, unacceptable, inexcusable racist act that “divides the country.”

I suppose if we really could cut a deal whereby everybody foreswore any racial thoughts, words or deeds, and was held equally accountable for crossing the line, maybe it would be worth the injustice of pretending that the overwhelming majority of people in this country who belongs to the race with most of the economic and political power are somehow threatened by discrimination. But then Newt Gingrich would still make speeches about the “food stamp president” with his “Kenyan anti-colonial world view” and we’d be right back where we started.

As it is, Obama’s campaign released a statement calling DeNiro’s joke “inappropriate.” That clearly won’t be enough for Newt, who may figure there are few more votes to squeeze from touchy white folks–or worse yet, from bigots who want to defend their attitudes by pointing fingers elsewhere–to let up now. And that’s not very funny.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.