A case of a solar eclipse metaphor gone terribly, terribly wrong has become a conservative talking point about the left and racism.
Last week, the Atlantic reprinted a Democracy: A Journal of Ideas article, which attempted to make a hard-to-parse point about race in America in the context of the solar eclipse. The thesis of the article was that the regions experiencing the total eclipse are mostly inhabited by white people — and also America has a history of racism.
It was quickly picked up by far-right pundits and conservative media as the left’s attempt to make everything about racism. Here’s Infowars’ Alex Jones tweeting about it:
And conservative columnists Matt Walsh and Charles Cooke:
The Daily Caller bashed the article with the headline “The Eclipse Is Racist Because It Fails to Affect Enough Black People, The Atlantic Suggests.”
The article comes on the heels of a terror attack at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one anti-racism demonstrator dead. President Donald Trump equivocated his condemnation of neo-Nazis after the incident, prompting backlash from both Republicans and Democrats. But Trump’s core supporters brushed it off as yet another mainstream knock against Trump. Last Wednesday, former presidential candidate Herman Cain went on Sean Hannity’s show to say, “They couldn’t make ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ stick. They couldn’t make ‘refugees, refugees, refugees’ stick. So now the desperate attempt is ‘racism, racism, racism.’”
These dynamics made the Atlantic article easy fodder for conservative pundits, who often complain that the left makes a connection to racism where none exists. The article itself is closer to free association — listing racial, political, cultural, and historical trivia related to the regions covered by the total eclipse. The author Alice Ristroph, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, writes:
Georgia will catch only a bit of the eclipse, but the state has already known well a different path of totality. Near the end of the Civil War, after Union forces captured the city of Atlanta, General William Tecumseh Sherman banished most of its citizens and burned its government buildings
In another section, she writes:
From Kansas, the eclipse goes to Missouri, still mostly bypassing black people, though now much more improbably. About a third of Kansas City, Missouri, is black, but most of the city lies just south of the path of totality. To get the full show, eclipse chasers should go north to St. Joseph, almost 90 percent white and about 6 percent black, the place where Jesse James died and where Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem, was born. The real Slim Shady, that is, who left St. Joe and took his angry and wry lyricism — “Y’all act like you never seen a white person before” — to the world of hip-hop, where Rolling Stone would declare him king. He was the top-selling American artist of 2000–2010 and the first rapper to win an Academy Award.
To be fair, this article is not the only story that has attempted to make some kind of political point about the regions covered in the eclipse. For example, the Boston Globe also wrote about the eclipse coming to “Trump country.”
But if anything, the article is a good reminder that a popular but unrelated news peg isn’t always the best way to make a connection to America’s deep and well-documented history with racism.
Sometimes a solar eclipse is just an eclipse.