Race: October 2008 Archives

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.

Avery Tooley has posted a response to an argument that the high incidence of low birth weight among black Americans is a sign that slavery's legacy still has a biological impact. There are places the argument isn't careful enough. Avery points out one. It would be more helpful to figure out what's different between cases of blacks with low birth weight and blacks with more normal birth weight than simply to notice a difference on average between blacks and whites. The details of the particular cases might make all the difference.

But there are other problems with the argument also. [What follows comes from a comment I left on Avery's post.] They notice that blacks in the U.S. have lower birth weight than blacks born in Africa living in the U.S. But that's the same comparison used in the IQ debate, and it's still a debated comparison. Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, and others cite it to show that black kids in the U.S. don't have as high a cultural expectation to develop their natural potential in certain kinds of intelligence. But those on the other side of the issue point out that the immigrants to the U.S. are self-selecting. They're more inclined to be smarter and harder-working to begin with. Perhaps they're more inclined to be healthier too, since healthier people are more likely to be positive and looking to improve their lot in life. Perhaps.

Where that response fails with IQ is that second-generation studies show that the drive to do well falls rapidly among immigrants' children and especially grandchildren if the children weren't themselves born here). That means it's cultural in some way, but that cultural impact could be because racism gets them down, from cultural opposition to acting white, or some combination of those and maybe other things too. But it's clearly not entirely a biological thing, even one resulting from the effects of slavery. So the question is whether birth weight falls rapidly in the second generation of black immigrants. Then we'd have some sense of whether it's a biological effect that continues to the next generation or a cultural effect, which could again have several explanations, perhaps many of which contribute to a larger story. I'd have to say that I'm skeptical of this proposed biological effect myself.

Ayers on White Supremacy

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Conservatives need to understand the language of the left if they're going to criticize what people on the left say. William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn have a new book coming out. Here is the publisher's blurb about the book:

Race Course Against White Supremacy By: William C. Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn

White supremacy and its troubling endurance in American life is debated in these personal essays by two veteran political activists. Arguing that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days--and that it is still very much with us--the discussion points to unexamined bigotry in the criminal justice system, election processes, war policy, and education. The book draws upon the authors' own confrontations with authorities during the Vietnam era, reasserts their belief that racism and war are interwoven issues, and offers personal stories about their lives today as parents, teachers, and reformers.

Tommy Oliver summarizes Ayers as saying, "we are a nation of white supremacists". He then quotes an LGF post that says Ayers claims, "the dominant political system in the United States is white supremacism". Both of these claims are gross misunderstandings of what that blurb says, and it takes only the little familiarity I have with Marxian-style racial critiques to see this.

White supremacy, according to the Marx-style critique, consists of two things. First, the social structure of race relations is such that white people do in fact dominate much of the time. Second, there are structures in place that serve to perpetuate that dominance. Such a view can range from the most radical end to a much more minimal version. The radical extreme claims that white people have set up such a system deliberately and intentionally perpetuate it to serve their own interests. A much more minimal version, in my view, is very close to the truth, and that claims only that there are factors in place that, often unintentionally or at least for motivations other than race, have the effect of continuing the influence that white people disproportionally still have most of the time.

White supremacism is an ideology. It holds that white people ought to be in power because white people are better than those of other races. It claims that any structures in place that might be called white supremacy are good and worth extending to make white control even stronger. It's not hard to see, then, that white supremacy is not the same thing as white supremacism. One is a set of social structures. The other is an ideology.

What the blurb for the Ayers/Dohrn book actually says is "that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days--and that it is still very much with us". That simply is not a claim that white supremacism is dominant in any respect, as the LGF post says. It is not a statement about the prevalence of white supremacism among Americans, as Tommy Oliver's post asserts. It is a statement that white supremacy, the fact of white predominance and structures that continue it, has been more influential in American history than any other political structure. I think it's a highly questionable claim, and I'm sure there's a great deal in this book that I'd disagree with, but it doesn't do to pretend the claim is something much crazier than it really is. There's enough to criticize about the book that there's no need to make it out to be making an accusation that's much more serious than what the blurb actually attributes to the book.

Call a Spade a Niggard?

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There are some interesting moral issues related to the use of expressions that are perfectly ordinary and inoffensive in most situations but are used offensively within a small subset of the population, particularly when there are some among those on the receiving end of such expressions who don't know of the ordinary, inoffensive use of the term in question. It's usually good to show moral deference to the ignorant, if we haven't been in their position of ignorance, giving them the benefit of the doubt. But the ignorant in these cases include both (a) those who use the expression without knowing or the offensive connotation that it has in certain contexts and (b) those offended but its ordinary usage because they don't know about anything other than its offensive use. At the same time, there's always the questions of (c) whether those in (a) ought to have been more aware of what offends people and (d) whether those in (b) ought to have be willing to throw out such serious moral charges based on an ignorance that many might not easily excuse.

I've defended the use of such expressions in many contexts, emphasizing (a) and (d) above while perhaps too easily dismissing (b) and (c), or at least not explicitly laying out the reasoning for why I tend to favor (a) and (d) as more decisive in these kinds of cases. One example that came up in my post was the old expression "call a spade a spade". This one actually goes back to Plutarch in the second century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although he used a different metaphor that was later mistranslated by Erasmus in 1542. (It's not generally accessible online except with a password to get through a university firewall, or I'd link to it.)

When I was talking about these cases with my friend and colleague Chuck, who occasionally comments here, he decided to go check the OED to get the history of the expression. He noticed a particularly funny quote that the OED used to exemplify "call a spade a spade".

1647 TRAPP Marrow Gd. Authors in Comm. Ep. 641 Gods people shall not spare to call a spade a spade, a niggard a niggard.

Those who have followed the recent history of offense over normally-inoffensive terms will remember that the black mayor of the District of Columbia fired one of his white aides for using the term 'niggardly', a word that only sounds like a racial epithet if you aren't listening very carefully. Even the NAACP chair, Julian Bond, thought it was crazy to criticize someone for using that word. But I suppose we've now got solid proof that 'niggard' does refer to black people, since Trapp in 1647 used it in parallel with "call a spade a spade". Or does this show that "call a spade a spade" is tied to offensive language because its connection with niggards goes back at least to 1647?


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