Race: March 2010 Archives

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.

Consider a man named Jim in the 1960s who does what people sometimes call "passing for white". His family is black, but there's enough white ancestry for him to appear white. Someone looking at him without knowing his family would think he's white. He talks in a way that no one would know his family is black. His employers would never discriminate against him because of his being black, even if they normally did such a thing, because they wouldn't know that he is black.

Jim decides to apply for college late in life, after the civil rights era is long over. There's a checkbox to indicate if he is black, which will be used for affirmative action purposes. Some people think affirmative action is immoral, and some people think it's immoral to ask or report one's race. Ignore those issues for this example, since what I want to get at is a different issue, and I don't want those as distractions. Assuming people should normally report their race accurately on such forms, should he check the box indicating that he is black? If you think he is black-passing-as-white, but you think he shouldn't check the box, exactly why is that (because it seems as if such an action constitutes a lie)?

Now consider a man in our day named Tom who has three white grandparents. His fourth grandparent is Jim. So he has two great-grandparents who are indisputably black and a grandparent who many people would consider black-passing-as-white. But Tom grew up in a white suburb in a family considered by everyone around them to be white, and almost no one he comes into contact with ever learns of or suspects that he has pretty recent black ancestors.

Tom applies for college. Again, ignoring issues about the moral status of affirmative action and assuming people should normally report the race on such forms, should Tom check the box indicating that he is black, knowing that it will qualify him for affirmative action? If not, but Jim should, what is the difference between the two that justifies a different moral result? If you think they both should not check it, is it for the same reason in both cases?

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