How Not to Use Race in Politics

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I received an email this week from someone who criticized some conservative responses to a Democratic talking point about the health insurance debate. Politicians often like to draw attention to real examples of people struggling with some issue in order to pull on the heart strings of their constituents, which can (a) serve to illustrate that there really is a problem, a problem their own proposal is supposed to address and (b) provide an emotionally-moving draw to get people to care about it more and perhaps mobilize them to help get it done.

I found an insightful analysis of this sort of thing in Aristotle's treatment of emotions in the Rhetoric. Aristotle points out at one point that this is perfectly fine, in the cases where (a) is basically true. Adding the emotional component is a good thing when you can draw the person in to something they already ought to be doing. On the other hand, when (a) involves some kind of false analogy, misleading facts about the case, or a proposal that wouldn't help or would cause other problems that the case obscures by distracting people away from them, then the emotional element is manipulation rather than illustration, deception toward the wrong result rather than motivation toward moral action.

Where you stand on such a question depends ultimately on whether you agree with President Obama's agenda and the health insurance proposals that Democrats have been putting forward. It's understandable that those who disagree are going to see such emotional appeals as mere emotional appeals that don't have any basis in the facts, and they'll try to find ways that the use of such cases by Democrats involve some kind of error or false statement. So should it be surprising if people like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Michelle Malkin dismiss an example of someone President Obama uses in this way? It shouldn't be, and you shouldn't attribute their motivations to anything other than their opposition to his proposal, because that's the simplest explanation, and it makes perfect sense given their views. This should be so even if you find their views loathsome, as many do.

[I should say, for the record, that I think it's crazy to put Michelle Malkin in the same category as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. She's purely a pundit. They're as much entertainers as political influencers, and they're both offensive in a much greater way than she could ever hope to be. She's much more inclined to focus on arguments than they are, and they're much more inclined to make fun of people.]

The email I received made a very different sort of claim. The author pointed out that the family in this particular case was black. That was the basis of his conclusion that they would not have made the same arguments if the family in question had been white. Actually, what he said is that they wouldn't have criticized a white southern family's situation in the same way. I'm not sure where the evidence for that is, and whether it's true is actually irrelevant. I'm pretty sure all three of them have criticized things this president has said about white people's cases, and there's no reason to think they wouldn't have in this case if it had been a different sort of family.

In any case, it was President Obama who chose this case, not them, and they were responding to it in exactly the way you'd expect given how I described the issue above, when I hadn't yet said anything about race. I have no idea about the details of this case, and I have no idea whether what any of them said is true. But I think it's terribly unreasonable to assume that this is purely because of race when those three have consistently criticized the President's statements about this issue in ways that make it utterly clear and public what their motivation is for such criticism. It has nothing to do with race. It's an ideological disagreement.

People who are white don't always notice a lot of racial problems, because they don't affect them in daily life. Academics who deal with race call this white privilege. Most white people I know are skeptical about the thesis, but it seems pretty obvious to me that there are things that affect race relations today that non-whites pick up on much more quickly than whites do. This is compatible with there also being times when non-white people see things that aren't there, assuming that some event involves racism when it doesn't. Both kinds of things do occur, in fact. Non-whites sometimes infer racism when it's not present, and whites sometimes miss genuine racial disparities that are obvious to non-whites. Too often people will highlight one of those facts and use it to try to claim that the other is false, but that simply doesn't follow.

This problem with whites' sometimes-inability to recognize racial problems is as true of white liberals as it is of white conservatives, and the misleading colorblindness/post-racial narrative of the Obama success story has perpetuated this. People on the left and the right have their problems with racial issues. But to pretend that ideological resistance to Obama's views is racism is both nuts and very dangerous to racial progress. There surely are some people who oppose him merely because he's black, but the vast majority of those who disagree with him do so because they have a different political preference. They disagree either with his view of what justice amounts to (because they're more libertarian, say, and think the government ought to observe negative rights but has no positive obligations to equalize things and only violates negative rights by attempting to do so) or with his proposed means of getting there (because they disapprove of spending so much when we can't afford it, for instance, or they disagree with certain models of achieving affects both sides agree on). Some of his detractors back it up with arguments, and some adopt it merely because of their cultural assimilation of conservative values. The same is true of those who are more inclined to accept President Obama's views. Some do because they're convinced by arguments, and others absorb it unconsciously from those around them who think that way. Some of these people (in both camps) have racist elements to their thinking, sometimes knowingly and deliberately and sometimes unconsciously and in ways that they would resist if their awareness were to be drawn to it.

There are plenty of places when people ignore stories of black people in trouble but highlight similar stories when it's white people involved. Just look at who gets focused on with the cable news networks when children or college students go missing (and it's all of them: Fox does it, but so too do MSNBC and CNN). People like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Michelle Malkin disagree with President Obama because they think his health care proposals are bad for ideological reasons. Beck is an economic populist of a distinctly non-progressive sort, with some libertarian and some conservative elements, packaged together with a populist commitment to political expressions of social conservatism. Limbaugh and Malkin are more typical conservatives as the term has most recently been applied in the general areas people measure conservatism (economic libertarianism, foreign policy neo-conservatism, social conservatism, states' rights on most issues besides law enforcement and terrorism). You should expect of them to disapprove of President Obama's health insurance proposals simply because of their views. His proposal is not something conservatives should like, given their views of how government should be run and what it should have control over.

So when someone presents an example of a family who is claimed to have a need that could only be solved with something like President Obama's health insurance proposal, it's totally unsurprising that they might try to undermine such a claim. That could be done in a number of ways. They could say the case is being misrepresented and isn't as bad as it's being made out to be. They could say there's a real problem but that this plan wouldn't help. They could say the problem is genuine but that the attempted solution causes more problems than it creates. They might point to other solutions to would do better, perhaps even some that are available now to some extent. Malkin, Beck, and Limbaugh apparently did some of those. The explanation for doing so is fully available without concluding (against all evidence) that they would have done something different if it had been a white southern family.

I think there's a harmful element to this kind of accusation, and by harmful I mean harmful in particular to racial progress. (It also sours the political discussion and makes an already-partisan discussion become even more heated and less conducive to cooperation, but I want to focus on the racial effect.) There are clear racial problems in this country, and I don't disagree with the author of this email that white conservatives sometimes contribute toward those. I would insist that white liberals also do, and non-whites of various political perspectives also do. These may well be in very different amounts, with some committing a much greater proportion of the problematic behavior. How much blame goes to which people isn't the point. The point is that we all contribute, often in ways we don't recognize, and the not recognizing it is more common and with more deeply-seated behavior and response with white people. That being said, those who genuinely care about progress in terms of racial problems should not use that issue in order to win political points on some other issue when there isn't good evidence that the case at hand is a genuine example of a racial issue. This seems to me to be an obvious case where exactly that sort of thing has occurred. There's a racial narrative that I think can be harmful that I think the behavior of the author of this email will continue to perpetuate.

One common response from those who don't recognize the fact of white privilege to any racial claims made by those who do recognize that fact is to deny that any such thing exists. I've already pointed out that people will find instances where racism is claimed where it probably hasn't or at least hasn't obviously occurred and then use that to act as if racial problems are gone, since the fact that one person makes up racism when it's not there must somehow mean that every instance where someone observes racism is just as manufactured. This goes hand-in-hand with pointing to success stories like the fact that we now have a black/mixed-race president in this country, to use those as if it shows that there are no more barriers to racial progress. Showing that one racial barrier has been crossed by one person does not mean there are no more barriers. Could someone who talks like Chris Rock have been elected as easily? I doubt it, and Harry Reid was right to draw attention to that problem that still exists.

So those who have pretty low standards for when they'll point to something and call it racism, such as the author of this email, are actually perpetuating a harmful racial narrative by giving fuel to those who use it as an excuse not to recognize racial problems that are in fact real. It's a lot more difficult to see the genuinely problematic racial elements of what figures like Trent Lott, Hillary Clinton, Conrad BurnsJoe Biden, George Allen, or Chris Dodd (just to take some senators and former senators of both parties) might say when people are tuned out to any charge of racism from having seen too many examples when no racial issue is present at all (or at least no obvious one).

It's thus counterproductive to make racism charges unless the evidence for them is very strong. People on both sides have committed this blunder. (Harry Reid has been on both the giving and receiving ends, for example.) It's much better to focus on larger-scale racial problems that many people participate in without noticing or caring than it is to score political points by accusing your political opposition of being closet racists who like to pick on those who don't look like them.

We've come far enough since the time of Jim Crow that most people under 60 have little outright animosity toward those of other races, and most people under 40 are genuinely positive about greater racial interaction and perhaps even would like a world where race is completely not an issue. Whatever else is true of that hope and of their resistance to it in practice even while accepting it in theory, it's at least well-enough motivated that we shouldn't turn people off to our attempts to break down any further ignorance or difficulty recognizing racial problems by pretending their motives are contemptuous toward those of other races in why or how they go about disagreeing with a president whose views they're ideologically opposed to. When there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for the opposition, leave it at that. It furthers the aim of hiding racial problems to call attention to racial problems that may not be there.

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