Skepticism About Charges of Racism

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Latoya Peterson at Racialicious is, to my mind, one of the more insightful and fair-minded of commentators on race from a left-of-center perspective. I often find myself disagreeing with her on politics, and I don't think she always represents conservative views or Republican politicians as charitably as I'd like, but I usually find her discussions of race to be more nuanced than most left, center, or right commentators can achieve. I even recognize elements in her analysis that strike me as the sort of thing I'd expect out of moderate conservatives on race, which I regard as outstanding intellectual honesty on her part, because a lot of the people she associates with on such matters would be very resistant to such conclusions (and certainly would be if I were the one presenting them).

But sometimes I see something from her that I just can't accept, and I've just found one. She speaks favorably of Adriel Luis' diatribe on McCain's use of "that one" to refer to Obama as racist in what it "really means". I watcher the video of Luis, and I just don't see any argument there for why McCain must have meant it in a racist way, none at all. The "that one" comment reminded me more of John Kerry's continued use of "this president" when speaking directly at George W. Bush in their debates. It's insulting, but it's quite a reach to claim (without argument) that it's even racial, never mind racist. It may well be that McCain is a
racist. Some people have seen his use of 'gook' for his Vietnamese captors as a sign of racism, but see Katie Hong's better explanation of what's going on there (and her critique of why it's still bad to use the term in that way but isn't necessarily racist). But even if he's at least racially insensitive in some troubling ways, it's just crazy even to suggest that "that one" is racist without giving a shred of evidence that other interpretations are impossible or unlikely, including my own thought that it was just like Kerry's indirect way of referring to Bush as an intended slight without racial connotations.

Now I said Luis gave no argument for why McCain must have meant this in a racist way. I didn't say he gave no argument for making such a claim. He does give a very interesting argument for why it's perfectly ok to throw around charges of racism with no shred of evidence. He says that as long as we brush off each potentially racist claim as not being clearly racist then people won't see any racism as being there. I suppose that might be true if we did that with absolutely every case, even ones where there's evidence (and there are plenty, including some that can't be interpreted charitably, such as Michael Richards' big fiasco with the N-word). But remember that we're talking about particular cases that we don't really know about. There's a reason we don't (at least we're not supposed to) find someone guilty unless guilt can be established beyond a reasonable doubt. We could use the argument that such a policy would mean that we'd never catch killers and that people would deny the reality of murders, thinking deaths were all accidental. But it doesn't have that effect, and the policy of giving the people of the benefit of the doubt with accusations of racism need not have such an effect.

For the same reason that we don't assume guilt with crimes, we should also not assume guilt with moral accusations that aren't crimes. It's basic human decency, and I find it sorely lacking among people who throw racism charges around without strong evidence. Being hesitant in particular cases when you don't know for sure is not the same thing as denying that racism is real. No, it's just being unsure about particular cases when you don't know for sure. I can't count how many times I've been accused of justifying racism when I've pointed out that a racism charge is unwarranted. Only if you don't know the distinction between being true and being proved to be true can you make such a charge. You don't need to deny that racism is real or even that it's widespread and so deep-seated that it's hard to spot in order to point out that a particular case is not clearly racist and thus unfair to call racist, and this will be true no matter how many such particular cases you find.

I've given a moral argument for my policy of giving people the benefit of the doubt in cases of potential but unestablished racism. I don't think it should have to bring any negative racial effects as long as those who question racist accusations in particular cases are willing to acknowledge it when it's clear and insist that there are probably plenty of cases of real racism where we unfortunately can't be sure and thus be able to call them on it. My sense is that conservatives on race are sorely lacking in that sort of thing, and that's why every attempt to follow a policy like mine gets seen as an attempt to justify actual racism. But I don't see how that mistake on the part of people who follow a policy like mine can justify the accusation of trying to justify racism, as has been said about me many times in the comments at Racialicious whenever I've said that a charge of racism is going beyond what we can be sure of. But people prone to leap to racism charges without enough evidence are also prone to leap to racism-justifying charges without reason.

I maintain that we do need to give particular people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to racism charges. Leaping to accusations of racism fuels the sense that every charge of racism is just a political ploy to get more power for a black hegemony that has taken great joy in gaining power by making racism charges. There's no way conservatives on race are going to back down from that narrative as long as a significant number of people follow a policy like Luis'. His strategy is therefore counterproductive, because he's just adding fuel to the fire among those who think racism charges are all or mostly false. Consistently repeating such charges without evidence isn't going to undermine such a narrative. It will further it. A more widespread recognition of the fact that racism is more widespread and deeply-seated among everyday white experiences will only come if those who seek to find racism under every rock and tree are a little more willing to express skepticism in particular cases when racism isn't all that well established.

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