MSNBC’S Chris Matthews & the Racial Frame: “Not a Sociologist?”

One thing that is obvious about this exciting electoral season is that white Americans often exhibit difficulties in talking openly about issues of white racism, indeed even about racial and ethnic issues in vague terms. (photo: afscme)

In a May analysis of important class and racial issues in the 2008 election primaries, prominent MSNBC news commentator, Chris Matthews, said that Hillary Clinton’s frequent comments on the importance of “white working class” voters in her primary victories were strange to him. He added three times in various comments that she seemed like the “Al Sharpton of white people.”


Matthews added, nonetheless, that he himself did not like to use class and racial labels:

We’ve known that ethnic and racial issues always get in the way of arguing over issues–real issues. But this conversation as it’s turned–I even hate saying things like ‘white working class voters.’ I was taught growing up don’t even say words like ‘blue collar’; don’t even get into that kind of elitist talk. We’re not sociologists, we’re Americans.”

Hmm, one cannot be a sociologist and be “American”? That American word is one of the most complex in the US vocabulary. Notice too his emphasis on the Reverend Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader who in Matthews’ white mindset has apparently become the stereotyped icon of the militant Black spokesperson. And he uses that to critique Hillary Clinton?

Matthews suggests too that even using labels like “white working class” or “blue collar” is inappropriate, even elitist. Most conspicuously, he wants to downplay racial and ethnic issues as not “real issues,” yet still is eager to talk about those issues in rather titillating and stereotyped ways. One reads in amazement this attempt to set aside racial issues as somehow not “real issues,” especially in this very racialized electoral season. For him and many other white Americans, I suppose, these issues do not seem really important enough to talk about publicly so much–unless they draw viewers.

Matthews’ commentary clearly suggests to me that the old white racial frame is still the normal “American” way of viewing the world, but that frame should not be overtly foregrounded and too often discussed in public.