Jonah Goldberg
"That's racist."

It's a comedic catchphrase these days, popularized by an online clip from a 2005 TV show "Wonder Showzen" on MTV2. It's not as iconic as Gary Coleman's "What 'chu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" or Fonzie's "Ayyyyyy" or even Bart Simpson's "Don't have a cow, man." But what it lacks in pedigree, it makes up for in ubiquity and social relevance.

Across the country, it's a staple of schoolyards, Internet discussion groups, Twitter and sitcoms.

For instance, when a character on NBC's "Parks and Recreation" explains to a co-worker how to do laundry, he says, "OK, so you always separate your lights from your darks."

She responds, "That's racist."

Perhaps the greatest sign that the punch line has gone mainstream came last week when NPR's "All Things Considered" reported on "that's racist." Correspondent Neda Ulaby explored how a phrase once considered one of the most serious accusations possible has become a gag line. The only problem? It's not clear she actually gets the joke.

Ulaby relied heavily on Regina Bradley, who teaches African-American literature at Florida State University. Bradley admits her students say "that's racist" all the time: "They were simply using it to lump discussions of race and race discourse all together. Because they were just saying because we brought up issues of race that was considered to be racist."

OK, so apparently the reason these kids say "that's racist" is that they're not too bright. But, wait, there's more. According to Ulaby, Bradley also believes that the students are using the joke to establish up front that they themselves aren't racist. Good for them!

Hold on, another explanation is that kids simply mimic the stuff they see on TV shows like "30 Rock" and "South Park."

I don't want to overanalyze, but it seems as if everyone's bending over backward to come up with the least obvious explanations for a pretty obvious joke.

For instance, here's Ulaby again, talking about Hannibal Buress, a comedian and writer for NBC's "30 Rock," who uses the phrase: "'That's racist' works in comedy, Buress says, because it pushes buttons." OK. How does it push buttons? Why does it push buttons?

We're never told. Instead, we get a NPR tutorial on the persistence of racism. "Scholar Regina Bradley says it also works because racism's often expressed differently than from a generation or two ago," Ulaby explains. "The segregated neighborhoods and swimming pools of Bradley's grandparents have yielded to more subtle forms of discrimination. That's reflected in how 'that's racist' is being used -- to shut down conversations or as a joke."


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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