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.


  1. lou

    This is a clear indication of white racial framing and the desire to leave discussions of race and class out of these important talks. We can only ponder the meaning of ‘real issues.’

  2. Yes, excellent point about Chris Matthews. He was selected as the graduation speaker this year for Hunter College (my institution), and some of the faculty – led by Women’s Studies – boycotted him for the deep strain of misogyny that runs through his commentary. Matthews’ strategy of appealing to “American-ness” while minimizing or dismissing race and ethnicity as “not real issues” is a very common strategy among the white elites. I met Mickey Cantor, an advisor to the Clintons, once at a friend-of-a-friend’s house in Connecticut. It was the Fourth of July and over a picnic table Cantor used this strategy as he told me that “race didn’t matter” really anymore but “connections” do. To illustrate his point, he referenced all the “smart, capable blacks” that Ron Brown (African American and Secretary of Commerce under Clinton) had brought into the Clinton administration. He said that Clinton wasn’t “discriminating against” those people by not hiring them, he “just didn’t know them.” He went on to make a vigorous case for the fact that “among his circle,” by which he meant his social class, “race is simply not an issue.” And, this is very similar to what Matthews is asserting. Yet, incidents like this one with Mickey Cantor get caught in the backstage.

  3. it’s interesting how he attempts to create a particular national space – the American space, where there are no class or racial divisions or issues. it looks to me his rejection of such divisions stems from a belief in the nature of the American nation as better, homogeneous, united, equal and well, problem-free.

  4. Joe Author

    All well said, indeed. Most whites like Matthews seem constitutionally unable to see the world from any viewpoint but that of the white racial frame and/or the male gender frame. The other 80 percent of the population is just out there somewhere. Reminds me of Robert Burns poem, To a Louise:
    “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
    To see oursel’s as others see us!
    It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
    And foolish notion.”

  5. Aaron P.

    I am so glad race, class, ethnicity are no longer issues worthy of discussion or debate. It will make my preliminary exams SOO much easier. My answer to every race/ethnicity question will be “We’ve known that ethnic and racial issues always get in the way of arguing over issues–real issues” (Matthews 2008) and that will be the end of it! Thanks Chris, boy did you just save me some serious time.
    Not that y’all needed any more evidence of the role race obviously is playing in this election cycle check out This is NOT Obama’s site, but rather a parody of it, full of hateful and racially charged sentiments. I didn’t click on all the links so I can’t attest to their safety. I especially like the disclaimer at the top that says that the page is a parody and if we are offended by it we shouldn’t be voting in the first place (Read if you are non-white you shouldn’t vote)…
    But, obivoulsy this page exists, not as an attack on Obama because of his race, but rather because of his stance on real issues (See Matthews 2008)

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