Racism and Opposing a Black President

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The following two claims are clearly and obviously compatible:

(1) There are people who oppose President Obama and everything he does, in part because they can't stand the idea of a black president.
(2) The vast majority of opposition to President Obama's policies is because people simply oppose his policies.

I'm not entirely sure why so many people, including a former President of the United States and the current Speaker of the House, should think the first fact implies the denial of the second.

I've long argued that it's counter-productive for those who oppose racism to throw racism charges around when there's no good evidence of racism, especially when there's plenty of reason against it. If a particular racism charge is incorrect, it does no good to make it and causes much harm. People who regularly get accused of racism when they know full well that it's not remotely true are right to get upset and to think those who are making the charge have no good reasons to make it. They will tend to assume, then, that whenever there's a racism charge it must be manufactured. They'll be likely to think genuine charges of racism are similarly invented. They'll think we've moved beyond racism and that we no longer need to worry about racial problems.

This is in fact what many conservatives have wrongly concluded from the election of President Obama. If Democratic leaders insist on making obviously false charges of racism against a very large group of people (those who oppose the president's policies, when something like 46% of voters voted against him), it won't be surprising if it just feeds into the false picture many are trying to present that there's no more racism to fight against except the racism of the left accusing so many white people of being racists merely because they happen to be white but oppose someone who happens to be black. In other words, it feeds into the false narrative that the only racism that remains is anti-white racism.

People who voted for President Obama who have since decided that they did not get what they thought they were going to get (as is true of many of the protesters) are not the sort of racist who will oppose him for his being black, no matter what he does. Yet that's exactly what's being claimed by President Carter and Speaker Pelosi.

There are plenty of people who would oppose anyone who would expand the federal government at such massive levels and at a cost that will be impossible to pay for who then attempts to transform the health insurance industry in significant ways that will have unpredictable effects while denying that the effects reasonable people might worry about are at all possible. Yet President Carter and Speaker Pelosi are again insistent that there cannot be such people, because the only motivation anyone could possibly have for resisting such a reworking of the private enterprise of health insurance is because of racist opposition to the person proposing it, who happens to be black.

President Carter and Speaker Pelosi have attacked a group that includes conservatives, libertarians, moderates, and even mainstream liberals who have long opposed quite a number of things this president has done, and were doing so long before they even expected that it would be a black president who would attempt them. They opposed some of them during President Clinton's presidency, and it wasn't because Toni Morrison jokingly referred to him as the first black president.

Pure socialists and democratic socialists frequently get upset when people attribute to them the motive of wanting to turn the United States into the totalitarian state that the Soviet Union was. Those who have a socialist theory of justice, as I think the current president does, but who resist violent or sudden changes to achieve that sort of justice, like to distance themselves from more pure socialists. They resist being portrayed as being motivated by socialism. Such comparisons may well be unfair and based on improper distinctions between different political strategies or even ultimate goals.

But the error of mistaking libertarian or conservative objections to a policy for racism seems to me to be a much worse mistake, because it involves a much deeper moral failure, a failure to recognize that someone could possibly be motivated by something well-meaning. Merely getting someone's political methods or goal wrong is certainly bad, especially if you have all the reason in front of you not to make that mistake. But accusing someone of deep moral failure merely because you have a different preference for how government works is deeply evil.

3 Comments

In my experience, the ad hominem attack is usually a sign that the attacker is out of actual arguments.

I have to say, Jeremy, this seems way off base to me. There's nothing here substantiating the rather strong claim that "a former President of the United States and the current Speaker of the House, should think the first fact implies the denial of the second." This claim looks to me to be obviously false; certainly, it's not so obviously true as to justify such assumption without comment. Falsely and unwarrantedly attributing the view you rightly malign to Carter and Pelosi seems to me exactly as bad as attributing racism to all opponents of Obama's policies.

Just as it is possible to engage with the policies of our black President without being racist, so too is it possible to engage with racism without reducing all opposition to racism.

Carter's exact words were "I think that an overwhelming proportion of the intensely-demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, he’s African-American." It's hard for me to take that as meaning something significantly less than the denial of my (2) above.

Pelosi was asked if she thought there was any legitimate grassroots opposition to Obama, and her only response was to say that people are carrying swastikas to meetings about health care. The implication is that the only response that's out there to his policies on health care is something tantamount to Nazism. That's pretty much equivalent to tarring all opposition with racism. Otherwise she'd have to admit that there's some legitimate opposition, and she refused to do that.

Senator Durbin has asserted that opposition to Obama on health care and spending stems from the same movement as the ridiculous fringe Birther movement, which is like saying opposition to Bush on Iraq stems from the 9-11 Truther movement. Paul Krugman chimed in with full agreement, adding "it’s a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites".

If these people weren't really saying this, why would Obama and Biden have to keep saying that they don't really believe that the majority of opposition stems from racism the way so many others in their party and in the media are claiming?

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