The most frustrating aspect of watching NBC News pay out many millions of dollars to "Today" host Megyn Kelly in order to get her out the door after her comments suggesting it was fine for white people to don blackface makeup, is how utterly predictable this all was. The fact Kelly has remarkably racist attitudes, even by conservative pundit standards, wasn't some kind of great mystery. She made her way up the food chain at Fox News by engaging in blunt racial demagoguery, portraying anti-racist protesters as scary "thugs" and characterizing any victim of racist violence as somehow deserving of it — even when the victims were innocent children attending pool parties.
Kelly is such an unreconstructed racist that she famously flipped out in 2013, in reaction to a piece by Slate writer Aisha Harris about black Santa iconography, and insisted that not only was Santa white, but so was Jesus, and that in both cases this was "a verifiable fact." This claim was unbelievably dumb on multiple levels. Leaving aside the fraught question of whether there is a Santa Claus, his legend is apparently based is based on a man born in Turkey. Jesus, if he existed, was a Middle Eastern man who lived long before the concept of "whiteness" was invented. More importantly, both figures can safely be understood more as mythical than historical, and subsequently can be interpreted to look however people like.
It was just a matter of time before Kelly said something obnoxiously racist on the "Today" show, even if her ostensible role there was to be a chipper morning-show lark rather than the inflammatory demagogue that she was on Fox News. Yet somehow the executives at NBC were dumb enough not to see the inevitability of what happened.
Kelly benefited from the pernicious myth that racism is an ideology of the trailer park and the rural diner and that college-educated elite white people, especially those that live in coastal cities, are somehow immune. According to this theory, elite-group racism is a pandering act staged to bamboozle Cletus, and someone like Kelly, whose educational background and current lifestyle mirrors the cosmopolitan liberal whites she made a living bashing on Fox News, can't really be that hysterical and ignorant.
Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has dubbed this the "racism without racists" phenomenon, in which squeamishness about diagnosing what's in the heart of a white person — at least an elite, educated white person — leads people to fear applying the R-word even to people like Kelly, who constantly say and do overtly racist things. It's been an interesting feature of much of the journalist class' reaction to Tucker Carlson, who has turned the 8 p.m. slot on Fox News to the White Nationalist News Hour. This is almost invariably framed as a cynical stunt meant to exploit the network's troglodyte viewers, not a reflection of Carlson's sincerely held beliefs.
This refusal to admit that college-educated urban whites can be racist also explains the ongoing insistence of the New York Times on doing endless features about Donald Trump's supporters that always focus on white working-class people, while ignoring that more college-educated white people voted for Trump than for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
This hesitancy to gauge the racism levels of a college-educated white urbanite who displays racist behavior was evident even in Sam Biddle's otherwise blunt 2016 piece for Gawker denouncing all the soft focus profiles Kelly was getting in places like Vanity Fair. He describes Kelly as "a racist, or at least a woman who plays a racist on TV" and argues that her "blunt, unsophisticated perspective" on Fox News was not a sincere posture but an act put on to appeal to "the spooked whites who watch her." The possibility that Kelly might herself be an ignorant racist was too hard to accept, even as Biddle admitted that her anger at outspoken black people like Erykah Badu got Kelly so hyped up that she was reduced to sputtering — not the normal behavior of a canny operator who's just playing a character on TV.
When I made a shorter version of this point on Twitter, I got a lot of responses from folks arguing, understandably, that it doesn't matter whether the racism is just in the mouth or also in the heart. Their point, which I fully agree with, is that we should judge people by their actions, rather than trying to figure out what's percolating inside their heads.
But while we all should be judging deeds and not thoughts, the debacle at NBC demonstrates that such noble ideas aren't really playing out in the real world. On the contrary, the widespread notion that college-educated white conservatives are just pretending to be a pack of white supremacists in order to appeal to the plebes is almost certainly why NBC stepped in it so badly. They likely believed that Kelly's racism was just an act, and that she could shrug it off like a flimsy shawl as she stepped into a new role that demanded very different behavior.
It's a symptom of our times, in which there's a constant, and social media-driven striving for people to prove they're cannier than their neighbor, that all behavior performed in the political realm is immediately dismissed as an act crafted to appeal to an audience, instead of an expression of how a person feels about the world.
This assumption, while it makes the person who displays it feel superior to the naive fools out there, is a poison that's rotting our society. No matter how you slice and dice it, this notion only benefits reactionary forces. Hillary Clinton's expressions of interest in social and economic justice during the 2016 campaign, for instance, were all too readily dismissed as just an act because of this attitude.
By the same token, Trump's racism, misogyny and general slithering evil was also dismissed as a performance by members of the media class who assumed he couldn't really be that odious, and would "pivot" to something approximating a normal president. Clinton was treated as a worse person than she is, and Trump as a far better person than he is — all because everyone has taken to assuming the person they're seeing must somehow be drastically different than the person that lurks inside.
So yes, what's in the heart matters. And we should feel OK about judging what's in the heart by what's acted out in public. Because the other way of doing things is not working out for us. Just ask the brass at NBC.