George Allen, James Webb, and Race

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Senator George Allen (R, VA) has come under a lot of fire recently for being unwilling to say that he had Jewish ancestry. He he may have been just respecting his mother's wishes, considering his obligation to her saying this in confidence to outweigh the interest of the public in knowing his ancestry (and I can see how people might disagree over which moral issues are more decisive there). He also used the word 'macaca' to describe an Indian American. He called it a term of endearment that had no meaning, but it's known in some places as a racial epithet, including in French North Africa, where Allen's mother is from, although she claims never to have heard it. Allen has been slipping in the polls for his reelection to the Senate, and I think this is might end his chances at a potential presidential run for 2008.

But the latest news is that anyone switching their vote from Allen to his opponent, James Webb, had better not be doing it out of an expectation that Webb is more racially sensitive. Webb has been unwilling to say whether he has ever used the N-word. [hat tip: Racialicious] People who knew him in his youth have said that he did use it in those days, and his unwillingness to own up to it is ruffling some feathers. He says he knows he's never used it as a racial epithet but can't recall if he's used it in another way. I had first thought that he might just be confusing use and mention, and he wasn't willing to say that he'd never used it, thinking that just mentioning the word to talk about the word counts as using it (which it doesn't), but the allegations do not involve simply mentioning the word. They involve using it as a racial epithet (which is what he says he knows he never did).

Whatever you think about the tactics of those who have been trying to draw out these politicians on such things, I think one moral of the story is quite clear. You shouldn't get mad at a politician for stuff like this and then decide to vote for the other person unless you have good reason to believe the other person is any better on the relevant issue. In this case, he doesn't seem to be.

But two facts are worth keeping in mind:

(1) This is the state that was willing to take their insistence on banning interracial marriage as far as the Supreme Court, so it's not surprising that successful politicians from the state have remnants of the unpleasant history of racial and ethnic issues. In Allen's case, there might be an insensitivity and ignorance about certain racial issues, and perhaps he's inherited a lack of concern for how offensive certain kinds of things might sound to those with a very different social and cultural background. Clearly it's not surpising to find white Virginians of Webb's age who used the N-word in their youth who now are embarassed about it.

(2) Racism has one of the few politically unforgivable sins, even though recent work in race has shown the complexity of racialization and how racism has affected even well-intentioned people. In one sense, everyone is a racist. We all exhibit unintentional responses to people we've been conditioned to see as "them" when compared with those considered "us". Some of us don't like those elements of how we've been conditioned, and we seek to avoid them and overcome them. Others care less about it or are simply ignorant. But anything in the area is treated on the political level as if the person is a card-carrying member of the KKK, and that means hardly anyone is going to be encouraged to own up to being so affected, even with distantly past events that one is embarassed about. Are these hesitatations and denials all that surprising, then?

10 Comments

"Macaca" = Old World monkeys of the subfamily Cercopithecinae.

Indians are considered "Caucasian", so what is racist about it ?

Black people call themselves "n*gger" all the time, big deal.

The question is, why does Jim Webb fantasize about kids having sex in his books ?

There were several meanings of that word listed in the article. He says he didn't know them, and so does his mother.

It doesn't matter if Indians are considered Caucasian. They're not considered white by most Americans, and lumping them in the same category as black people would be racist if it involved a sense that both were inferior, morally bad, or bad in some other sense. That's clearly how the guy who was called macaca took the comment, regardless of what Allen intended.

Some people think it's immoral for black people to use the N-word for themselves. Others don't. I don't know of very many people who think it's ok for a white person to use it in any context. Webb is white.

I don't know anything about Webb's books. I didn't know he even had any. Or is this a reference to some other Jim Webb? I don't really know much about the guy except that I think Allen's political views are closer to mine.

Here’s a simple rule: Anything that the Republicans do is ok. Everyone else is usually in the wrong, especially a Democrat.

I don't know if you're sarcastically treating me as if I've been following such a rule or if you're just changing the subject and introducing an irrelevant attitude some partisan Republicans have, but it strikes me as strange to leave such a comment on this of all posts.

Hi, Jeremy. It's been a while.

This --

"You shouldn't get mad at a politician for stuff like this and then decide to vote for the other person unless you have good reason to believe the other person is any better on the relevant issue. In this case, he doesn't seem to be."

-- doesn't seem to apply to the case at hand, since you're comparing a confirmed (indeed, we've all seen the tape!) recent (so recent as to have taken place during this very campaign) incident involving one candidate with a very old ("in his youth") possibility in the case of the other. In fact, there are old "n-word" allegations against both candidates; but only one has a very recent "macaca" mess-up.

I'd rather the voters (and the media) focus more on their stands on issues, but for those who do stress such considerations as this, I don't think it's right to suggest they're just a wash wrt these two candidates.

With Webb, the issue isn't that he might have used the word in the past. It's that he won't acknowledge whether he did and acts as if he doesn't know if he ever did. If the reports are true, he did so regularly and in a way that's contrary to what he now admits. The easy way to deal with that is to say that he did some things in his youth that he now recognizes as immoral, but that's not what he's saying. But even if they allegations are not true, he surely ought to know whether he used the word. The only way he wouldn't know if he used it is if he at one point didn't think there was much significance to whether he used it, and that raises the same issues.

I'm not saying it's a wash. I'm saying it's more complicated than just voting for Webb because of Allen's recent comments when you would originally have preferred Allen. Someone might end up thinking through these cases and conclude that Webb is, on balance, still preferable. But I don't think these other issues with Webb should give pause over whether it should be the immediate judgment that the polls make me think was going on.

Jeremy,

I was just making a general statement on the political situation in this country; it was not aimed at you. We have the most un-American political party in charge now and any true Republican should be ashamed and should be standing up to them. The Democrats must be in on the whole thing because they can’t be as clueless and/or spineless as they appear. Our founding fathers would not recognize this country if they were here today.
And since you have recently visited my blog and left a few comments I was just returning the favor.

With Webb, the issue isn't that he might have used the word in the past. It's that he won't acknowledge whether he did and acts as if he doesn't know if he ever did.

If that's the kind of thing you're worried about in Webb's case, you should be more worried about Allen, who's given any number of stories about what was going on in the "mecaca" debacle. Neither acknowledges past events that others claim happened.* That seems a wash -- or, to honest, Allen seems to have more problems here, but let that pass. In any case, there seems to plenty of room to be especially worried about very recent incidents, as opposed to long-ago incidents and even the seemingly ubiquitous current failure to face up to long-ago incidents.

*Interesting to compare this situation with then-candidate George W. Bush, who, as I recall, claimed not to have used illegal drugs for the past n years, for some fairly high number n, but refused to acknowledge that he did use them n+m years ago (for some small number m), and wouldn't clear the matter up. However worrying one might have found that (that likely past use together with current refusals to acknowledge or at least clear up), there would have been plenty of room to worry a lot more if it also turned out he had been using illegal drugs at the time of the campaign.

Jeremy - With Webb, the issue isn't that he might have used the word in the past. It's that he won't acknowledge whether he did and acts as if he doesn't know if he ever did.

Reading the article you linked to, it seems he is entirely willing to state whether or not he used the word in the past. He flatly denies using it. That doesn't sound like an unwillingness to acknowledge. In your post you even say "They involve using it as a racial epithet (which is what he says he knows he never did)." (emphasis added) So I'm not sure what you are getting at.

If the reports are true, he did so regularly and in a way that's contrary to what he now admits.

OK. Maybe you think he is flat out lying, but that's a whole nother issue, isn't it?

Atheologist, I challeged your interpretation of what I was doing in a post where you had referred to something I had written in an uncharitable and unfair way. I then challenged your general point in the post by pointing out that the person you were talking about did not say what you said she said. I did not leave off-topic comments about my pet peeves even though it had nothing to do with the post.

Keith, I didn't say I wasn't worried about Allen on these things, just that some of the same issues are coming up with his opponent as well. I can see how someone would be disgusted with both of them. Those who want to reserve it just for Allen seem to me to have to do a little work to get to that point if it's not going to be from mere partisan favoritism. You have indicated some things that could be said in that direction.

I would want to urge a little more caution with criticizing either of them than some people have done, for reasons I gave in the post that I won't repeat now, but I was more concerned with them not being treated even-handedly than I was with them being treated too critically (at least when I wrote this post I was). Once it's clear that they're being treated even-handedly (as you seem to want to do), then the other issues I raised might be relevant (and you raised one of your own in that the issues may be more important anyway).

Wink, the article starts off this way:

Democratic Senate candidate James Webb on Wednesday sought to explain remarks he had made a day earlier, in which he refused to say whether he had used the "N-word," but he insisted he has never used it as a racial epithet aimed at anyone.

The next thing they give is his flat-out assertion that pretty much anyone who grew up in the South during that period has let the word come out of their lips, but that of course is consistent with never having used the word but only having mentioned it, as I suspect the novel did. That's why I initially thought he was simply not sure if he had mentioned it but was sure he hadn't used it. But I think there's reason to take this more as hedging and less as simply saying that.

His spokeswoman's statement falls short of saying that he never used it (rather than mentioning it). All she says is that he never used it directed against another person. That doesn't mean he didn't use it, just that he didn't direct it against a particular person. One of the reports claimed that he had used it of himself in a derogatory manner, which isn't an innocent use, because it perpetuates the content of the term, which is immoral content, even if it isn't directed at a particular person. It's directed at all black people in a sense. His language was carefully crafted so as not to indicate whether he had done something like that, and given that one of the reports is that he did do that, I think that's significant.

I'm not saying I think he's lying. What I'm saying is that if what people are saying is true then he is either lying or he's got a very bad memory for things like this, which I think indicates an insensitivity to the offensiveness of the word (something very common among otherwise moral people in Virginia at the time, but it's nevertheless not something he has admitted to being true of himself). It may be that the report of him regularly calling out epithets to people while driving through their neighborhood is false. I'm not saying it is or isn't. He has denied that he did that. But that's the same "he said/he said" issue as some issues with Allen where people were willing to assume he was lying (e.g. whether he knew of the racist word 'macaca', when he knew of his Jewish ancestry, and so on). If we extend to him the benefit of the doubt, we should do so with Allen unless there's reason not to (and it's come out that with the timing issue on the Jewish ancestry question there may be reason not to, but there's also the extenuating factor of his mother saying it to him in confidence).

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