The scene is a cable news television program. Matt Lewis turns angry when Michael Eric Dyson explains political resistance to President Obama’s health law as a product of racial animus. Martin Bashir, the host of the program, seems genuinely taken aback by the strength of Lewis’s response. However, if you take a few moments to examine the nature of the charge and the utter uselessness of it, then the reaction is an easy thing to understand. The debate had seemed to be one about the state’s role in providing and/or regulating healthcare, but turned into a judgment of America’s lack of racial enlightenment.
Throughout Mr. Obama’s presidency, his supporters have claimed that his opponents are motivated by their hatred of African-Americans. Candidate Obama made the charge during his first campaign. He characterized some of his opponents as not liking the fact that he “doesn’t look like those other guys on the dollar bills.” His defenders have taken up the same theme with some regularity during his five years in office, especially when public resistance has grown to his policies. They seem to believe that by calling the president’s opponents racist, they can blunt the force of any critique.
In terms of raw politics, the stratagem of attributing ill motives to critics admittedly has some brute power to it. An electoral coalition in danger of flying apart might be reeled back in to some degree based on the appearance of a racial or ethnic attack. At the same time, it may be possible to dismiss a critic who is scoring blows by distracting the audience with a charge of racism. We would always like to have the privilege of characterizing our opponent’s views for them. “Who is my opponent? Well, he is a racist who cannot tolerate the fact that we have a black president. What else would you like to know?”
This way of thinking is obviously no good, however, if we have any interest in making wise decisions as citizens. If you want to have a productive conversation, the two sides should both learn to state each other’s position in a way that is actually recognizable to the person who inhabits the opposing perspective. In other words, I should be able to say why you support Obamacare and offer the reasons you would give for doing so. And you should be able to say why I strongly disagree with Obamacare and faithfully reproduce my stated reasons for doing so. With such a foundation in place, it becomes possible for two opponents to engage the substance of argument without trying to psychoanalyze (or worse, slander and libel) one another. And note that this way of discussing an issue has the virtue of requiring both parties to elucidate actual reasons. If the reasons offered are of no account (Hey, he’s BLACK.), then they may be safely ignored as non-substantive.
Another danger of attributing ill motives to opponents is that it can be a way of defending decision makers from the need to reconsider. Obamacare has kicked up enough disruption and resistance to raise the possibility that it needs to be revised and the constructive criticisms should perhaps be engaged so as to make fixes. Policy-makers will fail to do anything so sober-minded and wise as that if they take the easy road and listen to the consoling voice of those who say, “Your opponents don’t really have any valid objections to your new law. They are simply racists and may safely be discounted.” Let not the head who wears the crown be troubled by such trifles. A few years of that and you end up with a great website and a kick-butt rollout of your signature policy achievement. Or maybe you don’t.
Regardless of the matters of wisdom and virtue which I have raised, there is also the problem of logic. Let us imagine that an opponent of Obamacare really is a racist. This conjured person freely admits that she embraces the superiority of one race over the others. Let us also imagine, however, that she has a genius IQ, fully understands the legislation, and is able to list out a series of objections to Obamacare that any cold analyst would acknowledge as substantive, including a few no one had thought of before. Does the sheer fact of this person’s acknowledged racism undermine the substantive case she makes against the law? It does not. The person who dismisses the racist’s substantive argument on this basis would be guilty of committing the ad hominem logical fallacy. One cannot truly undermine the strength of an argument by attacking the character of the person who makes it. The point is easy to illustrate. If your racist co-worker expresses the opinion that puppies are adorable, you are unlikely to evict your precious new golden retriever as the fetish of retrograde cranks. Puppies are adorable independent of the appraisal of the racist. The truth of puppy cuteness stands on its own. The fact that the person who has that opinion is a racist is essentially irrelevant. And yet, MSNBC has been rolling in ad hominem based on not real, but purported racism for years now.
To sum up, it is unvirtuous and unwise to dismiss a person’s case against one’s program by conjuring up an ill motive for them and refusing to engage their stated objections. In addition, it is illogical to refuse to engage on substance even if the person offering substantive objections is, in fact, a real racist. In other words, the racism gambit doesn’t get us anywhere — not even with the real racists — as long as they offer an actual case and not some emotive claptrap.
It may be useful to nail shut the fence gate leading down this unprofitable path with a bit more explication. Some might say that all this hard-headed logic and careful rules about productive conversation is fine as far as it goes, but that it all fails to deal with the fundamentally racist nature of our culture. Thus, even that which appears to be righteous might actually be infused with underhanded ugliness. I would deal with that by offering an example. Let us imagine that instead of electing Barack Obama to become our president, we had elected Thomas Sowell (who also happens to be African-American) of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Dr. Sowell is well known as a small government conservative. Were he to be elected, we may safely assume that he would attempt to implement a program of budget cuts and tax cuts. He might be as ambitious in downsizing the government as President Obama has been in extending its reach.
It is fair to say that if President Sowell were to pursue his agenda, he would engender tremendous resistance from a large body of white liberals (as well as liberals of other hues). Would white liberals at a place like MSNBC tolerate for one minute the accusation that their resistance to President Sowell’s list of reforms had nothing really to do with the policy substance, but was actually the poisoned fruit of racism? To ask the question is to answer it. They would not. And conservatives should not.
A race-based policy discourse cannot help us get anywhere we should want to go. Its primary operation today is to shield liberals from the discomfiting substance of attacks on policy by critics and dissenters. In different days, it can be equally ugly in a different direction. Very early in the George W. Bush administration Condoleezza Rice and General Colin Powell served at the highest levels of the American foreign policy apparatus. In a discussion with a very enlightened and properly left-wing white woman I had occasion to point out that fact. Her reply to me was as acid in tone as it is in effect. “You don’t really think THEY were allowed to do anything, do you?” she demanded. With a single statement an intelligent white person supposedly on the correct side of the racial issue dismissed the distinguished careers and reputations of two African-Americans.
This president was supposed to be our first post-racial president. He and his strongest supporters should be taking the lead in insisting on substance over racialism and demonization of opponents. Whenever the poll numbers drop, it is tempting to blame the bad taste and maybe even the barbarism of the voters. But the better course for the statesman is to lean in, listen carefully, and to seek out the path to constructive action.