November 21, 2009

Is "The White House Butler" an outrageously racist headline?

There's been some discussion here in Madison, Wisconsin, where former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler is a visiting professor at the law school, about whether that headline, on a Wall Street Journal editorial, is racist. The editors begin:
As consolation prizes go, Louis Butler can't complain. After being twice rejected by Wisconsin voters for a place on the state Supreme Court, the former judge has instead been nominated by President Obama to a lifetime seat on the federal district court. If he is confirmed, Wisconsin voters will have years to contend with the decisions of a judge they made clear they would rather live without.

Judge Butler served on the state Supreme Court for four years, enough time to have his judicial temperament grow in infamy. Having first run unsuccessfully in 2000, he was appointed by Democratic Governor Jim Doyle to the seat vacated by Justice Diane Sykes in 2004. But after serving four years, voters had seen enough of his brand of judicial philosophy, making him the first sitting justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in four decades to lose a retention election last year.
The editorial proceeds with a few paragraphs about how liberal Butler supposedly is and concludes: "Mr. Butler's nomination shows the dominance of liberal ideology in Mr. Obama's judicial selections, and especially a contempt for Wisconsin voters."

Now, my position is that the President of the United States, under the U.S. Constitution, has the power to appoint federal judges, and therefore he can choose liberal or conservative judges as he sees fit. If they are well enough qualified — which includes the requirement that they have a judicial temperament and are committed to legitimate legal methodology — the Senate should confirm them. This is why I supported George Bush's nomination of Samuel Alito:
Those Democrats who are already insisting that Judge Alito's record on the bench makes him unacceptable should keep in mind that someday they, too, will have a president with a Supreme Court seat to fill, and it would serve the country well if that president wasn't forced to choose only among candidates with no paper trail. To oppose Judge Alito because his record is conservative is to condemn us to a succession of bland nominees and to deprive future presidents of the opportunity to choose from the men and women who have dedicated long years to judicial work.
So Louis Butler has a liberal record as a judge. Obama is the President. I don't see the problem with confirmation.

But are the Wall Street Journal editors to be condemned as racist? I guess I need to nail down the point that Butler is African American. That's never mentioned in the editorial. Some of the people I have heard from are absolutely committed to the conclusion that the headline "The White House Butler" is undeniably and outrageously racist.

Now, it occurs to me that the person who came up with that headline may not even have known that Butler is black. It's not in the editorial, and I think headline writers tend to work with what's in the article. Here, the headline writer might have simply tried to come up with some play on the last name and didn't have to go very far to come up with the idea of a butler serving in the White House to insinuate that the judge would be doing Obama's bidding — carrying political ideology into the court.

The conventional image of a butler is quite white:

Those who see racism in the headline — because of the juxtaposition of "Butler" and "House"? — may perhaps be thinking of the idea of the "house negro and the field negro," as famously explained here by Malcolm X:

(Written text here.)

But there is nothing about Louis Butler's position in relation to Barack Obama that is at all like the "house negro" that Malcolm X opposed. And you'd have to stretch to say that the editorial insinuates that he is. You'd have to portray Obama as "the master" and the people of Wisconsin as the "field negroes." It's just too much to read into the editorial. You sound silly even saying it.

But that's not to say that the Wall Street Journal didn't lay a trap for Madison liberals. Maybe they knew they were putting in just enough resonance with racism to bait university types into crying racism. And if they do, as noted, those professors will sound silly, because there is nothing racial in the entire text of the editorial. And what will the people of Wisconsin think — those voters who twice rejected Louis Butler as a state judge — if they learn that Madison professors find outrageous racism in that headline?

What will the Wisconsin voters think?

Thank you for opening my eyes about racism.

One more reason to see Madison as a lefty enclave. free polls


TMink said...

Of course it is not.

That is a really silly and self-evident question.


Paco Wové said...

When I think "butler", I think Hudson (Upstairs, Downstairs) or Jeeves.

Yet another attempt to shout down the opposition. "Raaaacist!!", he explained.

Bissage said...

I thought "butler" was the top executive/management position in a great house.

I had no idea it was something to be ashamed of.

Looks like I just went down a few more pegs.


Anonymous said...

What's racist is all of the black people employed as low servants in the White House (and Air Force One).

If you ask ... they won't tell you how many there are. But they are far more than represented in the population as a whole.

Bissage said...

Jeeves might be more of a "valet."

Phil 314 said...

What's with all the voting buttons all of a sudden?

Paco Wové said...

You are correct, Bissage. I abase myself for my horrific faux pas.

Ron said...

So now we know that a judge named Lawnjockey will never get to the Federal level!

Tank said...

What's racist is 98% of blacks voting for Obama over Clinton in the primaries.

That there is some racism.

Anonymous said...

When I think of a butler, I think of Phipps, Lord Goring's Servant in Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband."

[Looking at himself in the glass.] Don't think I quite like this buttonhole, Phipps. Makes me look a little too old. Makes me almost in the prime of life, eh, Phipps?

I don't observe any alteration in your lordship's appearance.

You don't, Phipps?

No, my lord.

I am not quite sure. For the future a more trivial buttonhole, Phipps, on Thursday evenings.

I will speak to the florist, my lord. She has had a loss in her family lately, which perhaps accounts for the lack of triviality your lordship complains of in the buttonhole.

Extraordinary thing about the lower classes in England - they are always losing their relations.

Yes, my lord! They are extremely fortunate in that respect.

I also think about Lane, Angernon's butler in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Algernon. Certainly, Aunt Augusta. [Goes over to tea-table.]

Lady Bracknell. Won’t you come and sit here, Gwendolen?

Gwendolen. Thanks, mamma, I’m quite comfortable where I am.

Algernon. [Picking up empty plate in horror.] Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.

Lane. [Gravely.] There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.

Algernon. No cucumbers!

Lane. No, sir. Not even for ready money.

None of these butler's were black. I guess this generation of lefties, having long ago stopped reading western white, male, sexist, racist literature, is ignorant of the wealth of white butlers that exist in history and memory.

KCFleming said...

Apparently the very word "butler" is racist, since "White House" isn't.

Waitaminnit ....omigod ...that's racist too!

Everything's racist.

John said...

I read the editorial yesterday. Not being from Wisconsin I couldn't have picked Mr. Butler out of a lineup of one.

After reading the editorial, I figured Butler was just another pasty-faced white liberal from the Upper Midwest.

Steve M. Galbraith said...

It's racist because if Judge Butler was white the WSJ wouldn't have used his name in the head?

I think of "Arthur":

Arthur: [while taking a bath] God, isn't life wonderful, Hobson?
Hobson [his butler played by John Gielgud]: Yes, Arthur, it is. Do your armpits.
Arthur: A hot bath is wonderful... Girls are WONDERFUL!
Hobson: Yes, imagine how wonderful a girl who bathes would be. Get dressed.

Meade said...

rdkraus said...
What's racist is 98% of blacks voting for Obama over Clinton in the primaries.

How can you call those 2% "black"?

jayne_cobb said...

The image of Alfred from the DCAU is always what comes to mind upon hearing the word butler.

Fred4Pres said...

You bore me with this racist talk.

To borrow from Ace's site, he is a libtard. And President Obama can, unfortunately, appoint libtard judges.

Chip Ahoy said...

Bleh. Could have done without "the". At any rate, nothing racist about a white house butler, but there's something deeply wrong with the idea.

Tank said...

OK Meade, now you're confusing me.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I've been confused ever since discriminating in favor of blacks, women and hispanics /= discrimination.

Fred4Pres said...

By "You" I meant the collective "you" that gets outraged over any hint of racism (when in fact it was just plain old partisan sarcasm). Not our gracious host or her gentle reader/commentators.

When ever I think of a bulter I think of this.

miller said...

I am so racist I didn't even pay attention to the headline when I read the story.

My bad.

KCFleming said...

Your false consciousness about your permanent institutionalized racism is showing.

bearbee said...

Shout it

former law student said...

How soon they forget Robert Guillaume:

True, only the Governor's Mansion, but doesn't it remind you of the White House?

Wince said...

I thought Butlers were stereotypically gay (pronounced homosessual), or at least asexual (pronouced asessual).

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

wv-"hauct" = the genesis of a "loogie"

William said...

I watched the Malcolm X clip. I don't agree with him. The house Negro saw where the ladder was and climbed it. The field Negro was not in a more exalted or authentic state because he was more downtrodden. Compare the farm workers of Hardy to the governesses of the Brontes. Only a mad man would idealize the one and denigrate the other....... The unconditional love that African-Americans give their Big Men dwarves anything that was ever offered to the White Massa. White people produce their share of Sharpe James and Marion Berry's, but they don't often win re-election by widening margins.

David said...

Where is James Baldwin when we need him?

Adele Mundy said...

I thought he was the White House bathroom attendant.

I have to stop listening to Bob Grant.

traditionalguy said...

"Racist" is not used as an adjective burt is used as a verb commanding that all opponents of Black Political Power must stand down and start paying reparations in hopes of a partial forgiveness as the new Dhimmi class. Who would have imagined that Wisconsin was in need of a public thrashing by the masters of racist power

Anonymous said...

The juxtaposition of "Butler" and "House" doesn't make me think of anything but Hugh Laurie.

Richard Fagin said...

Without taking your poll, Prof., acccording to the Wall St. Journal article, Wisconsin voters have aldready said what they think: Justice Butler had to go because he thumbed his nose at the legislature and the voters.

Too bad it is beyond question that President Obama has the power to appoint people like Justice Butler to the federal bench, but as they say, elections matter.

Michael E. Lopez said...

If you rely on the juxtaposition of "house" and "butler" it still falls apart, because then it's the WHITE "house butler".

Which kinda undermines the whole point.

Der Hahn said...

Oh Rochester, oh Rochester?

ricpic said...

Rochester was Benny's cross to bear. Not exactly what you're looking for in a butler.

Unknown said...

I tend to think of this guy when I think of butlers but I guess that is also an indication of racism.

Alex said...

I notice no lefty trolls on this thread either!

Richard Dolan said...

Not so long ago, these ideological battles over judicial nominees never got down as low as the district court. I wouldn't call it progress that we are now seeing this more frequently.

My problem with Ann's view that professional qualifications should be the only touchstone is that judges, especially federal appellate judges, exercise substantial political power, limited only by their own understanding of constitutional norms. Since Brown v. Bd of Ed, federal judges have been making policy and imposing values in many areas of national life, and their decisions have only the loosest connection to the text of the constitution. If judges are going to exercise political power in that way, I don't see the argument for refusing to apply an overtly political or ideological test. That's the same test we apply in picking every other official who wields political power in our society.

To say that the president gets to make the pick isn't an answer, since whoever he picks is likely to be in office for decades (Stevens is well past 30 years on the bench, Scalia and Kennedy are past 20 and Thomas is right behind, for example). A judge is just different from an executive branch nominee, whose power derives from the president's and whose term will end when the president's does. And, when politicians make the mistake of straying too far from the middle (as team Obama is doing now) voters notice and start voting for the other team. Can't do that with a judge.

As Ann says, this may well mean that what we end up with is "bland nominees". But that's also what we (usually) end up with in terms of elected officials -- folks who work hard at not straying too far from the "middle." Americans seem to prefer politics as a sport played between the 45 yard lines, and frankly, that's worked out just fine for 200 years. And "bland" seems bad mostly to those who are looking for excitement or innovation. Neither strikes me as a desirable characteristic for a judge.

Ken Pidcock said...

(1) Outside of There's been some discussion here in Madison..., where's the story?

(2) What a silly poll for the Althouse commentariat. It's like asking the College of Cardinals if they agree with Hitchens.

Ann Althouse said...

There's this article.

Meade said...


Washington Post



blake said...

A bunch a lily-white commenters ignoring the greatest butler of all.

FLS had to set you straight.

vbspurs said...

The conventional image of a butler is quite white

Mr French from Family Affair was the quintessential butler, but I am reminded that Benson was black.

As was Jamaican Sidney Johnson, the faithful footman-cum-butler of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.


El Presidente said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Big Mike said...

Excuse me, Professor, but can you explain exactly what's wrong with "bland nominees"?

A.W. said...

mmm, welcome to the post-racial society.

No, it is not racism. They are just punning on his name as a butler. And being black doesn't immunize you from mockery for silly reasons.

wjl said...

At first blush, I did not see it as racist.