Race to Judgment

Race to Judgment

The other day a friend wrote me an email. The thread of politics had come up, and who we were voting for. I said I did not support (and did not plan on voting for) either major candidate, to which my friend replied,

The chances of me voting for McCain are slim to none, I have been a big fan of Obama for a couple years and went to a rally in January, I think he will be a great leader and hopefully do many positive things for all of us but the reality is the president doesn't change our lives we do...

If you are younger than say 40 and not very rich and you vote for McCain the only thing I can think of why someone would choose McCain over Obama is backed by racist beliefs.

I admit, I was dismayed. Not that he's voting for Obama, more power to him. However, the second paragraph reveals a very dangerous thought. I'm not trying to pick on my friend; it's a line of reasoning that many (on both sides of the aisle) use. It boils down to:

My beliefs are logically correct
My positions are morally superior.
Therefore, anyone who believes or takes positions opposite of mine can only be EVIL.

[Note: Evil is a catchall term. You can insert Racist, Communist, Anarchist, or Whatever you want in that slot, but it all amounts to the same thing.]

Put in stark contrast, maybe that seems silly. Or, maybe you find yourself nodding thoughtfully in agreement with the syllogism. That is dangerous.

Don't get me wrong. There are people who come down on the opposite side you do, and they do so for immoral, narcissistic or even Evil reasons. No one is denying that. However, many people who disagree with you have thought it through just as much as you have. Some of them have thought it through more than you have (if such a thing is possible). And their "logic" might be just as sound as yours.

I never wrote my friend back, because it's a difficult thing to just launch into, especially in an email. (Dude, if you're reading, I got nothing but love for you.) I was going to let the whole thing go, until I happened to catch the Front Page article this morning on Slate.com. The piece is entitled "If Obama Loses." It's written by Jacob Weisberg, whom I know nothing about coming into this.

It was the subtitle that caught my eye: "RACISM IS THE ONLY REASON MCCAIN MIGHT BEAT HIM."

Before I go further, I encourage you to read the article for yourself first.

Weisberg starts off with this thought:

What with the Bush legacy of reckless war and economic mismanagement, 2008 is a year that favors the generic Democratic candidate over the generic Republican one.

I am not addressing the truth or untruth of that statement, and like I said I know nothing of Weisberg, but from the opening salvo (and backed up throughout the piece), I think we can safely conclude that Weisberg is a Democrat, or at least liberal, or at the very least in favor of Obama. Further in the article Weisberg offers this seemingly (to him) strange juxtaposition:

Obama has built a crack political operation, raised record sums, and inspired millions with his eloquence and vision. McCain has struggled with a fractious campaign team, lacks clarity and discipline, and remains a stranger to charisma. Yet at the moment, the two of them appear to be tied. What gives?

Again, without addressing the truth of that statement, we are gaining a clear picture of Weisberg's point of view. The statement is not devoid of facts (Obama has raised a tremendous amount of money, for example), but it interprets the entire campaign through the prism of how good Obama is and how bad McCain is.

I know this is going to sound shocking, but many people who like McCain don't feel that way. Few knowledgeable observers would likely conclude McCain is a better public speaker, but many might point to his Town Hall presence, or find him more "real," and there would definitely be disagreement about which campaign has faltered more. I am not saying any of these things are true or any of Weisberg's assumptions are untrue, but certainly people have different opinions on this.

What I am getting at--and this is not a criticism, but an observation of most partisans--is that Weisberg likes Obama. He is more likely to view Obama's campaign and actions positively, and view McCain's negatively. This is not a new thought.

Where I have a tremendous problem is Weisberg's conclusion that because--in his view--Obama should be crushing McCain in the polls and is not--the "reason" is because of white racism.

Weisberg does provide evidence for his idea. A couple of the points are just sniping at Republicans he finds repugnant. (In truth, I agree with him on most of that, but the points are too minor to give much bulwark to his claims.) The bulk of the argument comes down to poll analysis.

I have written before about this; I am no fan of polls. The questions are too easily shaped one way or another. The data is certainly massaged for people to "find" what they're looking for, and unless you were listening in on every phone call, it is impossible to know the dozens of nuanced shading that could go on. (Not to mention: does anyone believe that everybody who bothers to answer, who happens to be home that night, actually answers forthrightly?)

That said, I am not going to dismiss his data. I have pored over the poll (pdf) Weisberg speaks of, and there seems to be some meat to it. That does not stop Weisberg from (in my view) flippantly dismissing answers that come in abstract data. Who knows what each self-described white person was answering or responding to that led to 26% of whites saying that they had been victims of discrimination. Mocking white America for a "curious sense of racial grievance" is a well-turned phrase, but horrible science. You cannot use induction (or deduction) on poll answers about the people who made them! The answers are not living things! They were from a limited set of (likely bad) choices. That may be how the SAT rolls, but life experience cannot be summed up so succinctly.

(More troubling is the 27% of whites who say too much has been made of problems facing black America, although I was surprised it was that low.)

This brings me to another point. While using the poll to "prove" his case, Weisberg avows the numbers vastly understate the problem. Maybe he is right, but again: when we use something quasi-scientific to make our case, we are on dangerous ground. We either accept the science or we do not. If you accept none of it, the argument shifts from an appeal to authority (in this case the poll takers), to a different sort of thought process.

Though severely troubled by the assumptions that are often made (and the lack of proper or really any foundation for laying them), in this case I personally would be inclined to agree with Weisberg, at least partly. It seems reasonable to me that some white people might be using race as part of their reasoning, but would not want to proclaim that to a pollster or anyone else. How many? I do not know. America has not exactly outgrown the culture of prejudicial assumptions toward black Americans overnight. Then again, two years ago, how many people thought a Senator with three years experience, dark skin, and a name that sounds uncomfortably like a certain enemy would destroy Hillary Clinton? It still boggles the mind, and while every credit must be given to Obama the candidate, you have to at least give America a pat on the back for that much.

This brings us to the despicable part of Weisberg's arguments, although I'm sure he does not mean it that way. Weisberg writes:

Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.

If I were a McCain supporter, it would be difficult to take that lying down. Maybe some people in the world (and America) will look at it that way, but that is not the issue. The insult is in the blanket assumption. To not vote for Obama means black people can never achieve anything. Therefore, people who do not vote for Obama are not only racist against the candidate, but they want black America (all of America) to learn that only white people will make it in this country.

Are you kidding me?

What Weisberg has is what we call a fundamental conflict of interest. I am not attacking his honesty, but give me a break. He WANTS Obama to win. He is (I am assuming) liberal. Is it not possible that many (the vast majority even) of people who support McCain do so because they are Republican or conservative? That they do so because McCain is Republican and conservative? Because they agree with him on any of a myriad issues? They want his experience with the military, or they agree with his stance on taxes or abortion or what have you? Are not these the types of issues that Republicans and Conservatives have been believing in and voting on for years? How bizarre would it be for people who have always voted Republican to suddenly switch sides, so others would not think they were racist?

This is the level of debate that passes for informed opinion? Really? (Sadly: yes.)

Let us take it a step further. What if Hillary Clinton were to have won the nomination, and Condi Rice were to have run and won the Republican nomination. Would Democrats and Liberals (and Weisberg, if he was so inclined) have been forced to vote for Rice, lest they be racist? What if Obama ran against Rice? He is half white, you know. Would that make Obama voters half racist if they picked him over Rice?

How absurd is this notion? How insulting is it? How can people get away with saying it? In fact, if you carry the argument out one more step, you backdoor into racism more dangerous than what you are trying to fight.

Think about it. If someone votes for McCain because he's not black, they are (essentially) voting for McCain because he's white. That is racist, right?

How is it different the other way around? The idea is that people are compelled to vote for Obama because he is black is the same thing as voting for McCain because he is white, which is the same thing as not voting for Obama because he's black. Mathematically, they are equal!

Of course, it is never that simple. The idea Weisberg (and many others) espouse is that voting for Obama would help ease America's shameful history on race, and give hope to many people of color who grow up feeling left out of the political process. I am not completely cold-hearted. There is a thread of logic to that argument. Like I said before, you had to tip your cap to Obama for getting as far as he has gotten; something very few thought would happen any time soon. (And if there is any justice, President Palmer gets made an Ambassador as a Thank You, but I digress.)

Let us face it: it is kind of cool that a black guy, even a half black guy, has a chance to be president. I think most everyone can nod their heads and think, "Neat."

But to make that your primary, secondary or even tertiary reason for voting for someone? That is ludicrous. More, THAT IS RACIST. That is the proverbial token golf club member, staff position and the like; essentially saying that, "Obama, you are not worthy of being elected for your own ideas, your own contributions, your own passion and commitment, your own character. We need a black guy to help even things out."

You read the last sentence and you roll your eyes. You should. I would not accuse Weisberg, or my friend, or anyone of thinking that way. I believe (or at least hope) that thoughtful consideration has gone into people who support Obama. If they are party-liners, fine. If they hate what is been going on and want the opposite, fine. If they are swayed by Obama himself, and his ideas, so much the better. Whatever the reason, I give people the benefit of the doubt that their positions are come by honestly.

Why cannot the same be said the other way around? I know plenty of thoughtful people who care deeply about issues in a "conservative" way. I'm not saying they are right any more than the liberals are. But I give them the benefit of the doubt that their beliefs are honestly ideological, and not hiding a pervasive racism. Would that others might do the same.

Look: let us not be naive. Surely there are bigots in this country, on both sides of the aisle, in all shapes and sizes. And surely America is not past its preconceptions on race. One election will not change that, no matter what the outcome.

Debate is important, as there are deep divides on many subjects. But we should approach debate with respect, with the idea that everyone is searching for the truth, and that we ourselves may not have it all figured out yet. We should not just assume we are right and asperse the motives of those who disagree with us. We should engage them, attempt to use logic and passion to convince them, all while keeping an open mind that maybe they convince us.

Maybe it does not work that way, but it should, and you have no excuse for not being part of that movement. No matter whether you're conservative or liberal (or miscellaneous), surely you see how complicated the world is, surely you see the need for more civility, not less. We are a complex race, we humans, and there are very few things that are simply black and white.

August 25, 2008

Disclaimer: As I have not written substantively about politics in four years, and since I plan on more than a few columns regarding the Body Politic in the near future, I feel the need to clarify. I am not a Republican or Democrat. I did not vote for either major presidential candidate in '96, '00, or '04, and do not plan to in November. The only "Ideology" I am interested in at the moment is a commitment to find (and talk about) the truth, and attacking ill-formed ideas that end up poisoning us. If I have a baseline prejudice, it would be against the idea that any political party offers what is needed. -Hyperion


Anonymous said...

Excellent thoughts! This will help voters to be better informed rather than just voting their feelings.

rennratt said...

I couldn't agree more.

Add me to the list of 'voting for a third party candidate'.

I have been verbally attacked by a Certain Co-Worker based on my political leanings. In fact, my favorite comment was that "I was supporting the oppressors by NOT voting for Candidate X."

Me?! An Oppressor?

[My college nickname was Pinko Leftist Faggot. Seems that age has nothing to do with maturity...]

Anonymous said...

I just happen to be that friend that wrote that comment about Obama and you must be a racist if you dont vote for him. That was not exactly the point I was trying to make by typing out a quick sentence. Obviously everyone is not a racist who votes for Mccain. The problem that seems to be prevalent is that it seems that a vote for Mccain this year is much more a vote against Obama. This really is not a new phenomenon see swift vote '04. That being said to me Obama should have a much better chance than Kerry ever did at making it to the whitehouse. The last four years have been a constant knock on our president throughout america and the world. The perpetual ripping on our commander and chief is good for nobody. I dont care what your political persuasion is, it really sucks that our president has a 25% approval rating that just doesn't cut it.

Voting for Mccain because he is white is clearly as ignorant as voting for Obama because he is black. Its actually quite rediculous that 98% of black americans will vote Obama and the other 2% will be deemed uncle toms and much of that 2% will probably do so in secrecy. Its unfortunate that pigment of skin is the reason for a vote one way or the other but it seems to be reality in many cases.

I dont want the first black president, I want who I think would be best for the country and that just happens to be Obama in this "white guys" opinion. I could honestly care less his color, the sad thing is alot of people will vote based on his pigment. I care about the persons policies and leadership ability and to me in this election Obama has the lead over that old white guy..

Anonymous said...

I was not familiar with slate.com before reading the Weisberg article. I was not at all impressed with it.

First of all, the author makes many assertions and statements without support. For example, McCain has no charisma. What is this based on? Also, some of the statements are just plain false. For example, Obama strenuously avoided accusing his opponents of racism. Did he miss the Missouri dollar bill comment or other simliar ones? He also grossly miscontrues opposition stances to support his ideas. For example, he claims that when people say Obama is "elitist" and doesn't understand ordinary people, he interprets "ordinary" to mean "white". That's quite a reach.

The only real support Weisberg offers for any of his statements is the CBS/New York Times poll. Is he kidding me? Surely he can come up with better than that. No single study is going to give us the right picture, but he should at least look at peer-reviewed studies that try to isolate variables in a more scientific manner, and try and corroborate different conclusions from more than one source. There are plenty of studies out there to look at. Basically, he did not bother to do any investigation to support the thesis of the article.

Furthermore, there are gaping holes in his argument. One is the logical extensions of what he is saying, which Hyperion pointed out: voting for Obama simply because he's black is the same thing as not voting for McCain because he's white. Another hole was pointed out by anonymous @ 12:08, which is the fact that a many black will vote for Obama simply because he's black. How can Weisberg be sure that a lot of whites aren't doing the same thing? How can he be sure that Obama's skin color isn't actually helping him out? Finally, Weisberg conveniently leaves out the whole Reverend Wright debacle, which like it or not, is directly related to race because of Obama's long-time relationship with the church and its race-centric philosophy.

More to the bigger picture, thanks for pointing out the ridiculousness of his logic, Hype. Just because you disagree with someone's views doesn't mean they didn't think about them even more than you did, and doesn't necessarily make them evil. To make that argument is indeed despicable.