The Intellectual Dilemma over “Intellectually Lazy”

An unidentified Bush administration official said Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama exhibited “intellectual laziness.” It’s kind of a ridiculous charge, given Obama’s background (and given the source). But a few liberal bloggers also complained that the charge itself was reminiscent of racist stereotyping in which Black people were seen as academically weak and, to be blunt, stupid and lazy. Brendan Nyhal inquired, can we please “talk about Obama without language that echoes racist stereotypes?”

And in all seriousness, I don’t know, can we?. Nyhal’s question is asked by both the left and the right, but by neither seriously. The left asks it, as Nyhal did, as a rhetorical device to chide conservatives on a perceived racist attack. The right asks it as a segue into their victimization kick about how “it’s impossible to criticize Black people without being called a racist.” Both are, to some extent, right. In a society suffused with a White supremacist history, virtually every negative descriptor in the political lexicon has been employed as part of a general effort by Whites to subordinate and subjugate Blacks. Nyhal certainly isn’t wrong that the “lazy and stupid” stereotype has a long and “distinguished” racist pedigree. Accepting that, then, it becomes a genuinely vexing question of how to disentangle racist usages from legitimate ones — all the more so because, given our past and present, the Black community has no reason to trust White protestations of good faith. We’ve done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt here. But still, politics demand that criticism be acceptable. So, in all seriousness, how to negotiate both goals?