Saturday, August 23, 2008

Attribution of malice

I read this opinion piece in Slate today which bothers the heck out of me. The article really is summed up by its headline: "Racism is the only reason Obama might lose"

Now, don't get me wrong: I do recognize that racism is problem Obama will have to deal with. There will undoubtedly be people who will note vote for him based simply on the color of his skin. There will also be people who will vote for him simply based on the color of his skin, but I think, on the whole, it will be more of a harm to him than a bonus. After all, the majority of black people are registered as Democrats anyway, so there are probably more anti-black racist Democrats and Independents not voting for him than there are racist Independents and Republicans voting for him, even if you assume different percentages of each type within their respective categories.

My problem with the sentiment about this stems mainly from the elevation of one piece of information about the candidate above everything else. Take the paragraph:

"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."

That is an argument that voters should vote for Obama specifically because he is black, and electing a black President would be good for reasons historical, international, and inspirational. It leaves aside everything else about the candidate: economic policy, Supreme Court legacy, foreign policy, education policy, health policy, everything. There is a word for making a decision solely on the basis of race. It's not a word you want applied to you.

This sort of thinking pervades much of the rest of the piece as well. For instance, the line: "Or he is an 'elitist' who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn't one of them.". No. He is considered an elitist because he's an intellectual who went to very good schools and has essentially only held jobs in public service. Charges of elitism are incredibly common in American politics, and have the ability to stick to basically anyone who isn't either a populist or has had substantial military experience. This is why so many politicians attempt to get folksy during the primary season; the meme of George W. Bush being the candidate you'd want to have a beer with, and who you could talk with (despite him being at least as much of a blue blood as Kerry was) was part of why he got elected. I highly doubt the majority of people who think Obama is an elitist mean that he doesn't understand white people; I think most of them think he doesn't understand what it's like to worry about whether his home is going to be foreclosed, or whether he'd be able to scrape together enough money to send his children to a public in-state college. I'm not saying they're right, but it's an entirely different concern.

This is actually very similar to how I felt about Lieberman when he was a vice presidential candidate and stated that the only reason people would vote against him would be anti-semitism. Actually, I was much more annoyed at Lieberman, as he himself stated this, and Obama's not the one making this argument, so Lieberman takes much more of the blame. Conceptually, though, the bigger of a deal someone makes about a characteristic that isn't directly relevant to job performance, the less likely I become to support that person. It's a problem of priorities.

For this election, I haven't decided between Obama and McCain. Neither of them have the executive experience (governor, business executive, president of a non-profit, etc) that I would like to see of a President. Obama's a very charismatic man who has the ability to change a lot of things, but I worry that the vague meme of "change" might be applied to things which don't need to and shouldn't be changed. I oppose a number of the policies both candidates are proposing (both of them on the war and on gay marriage, Obama on health care and affirmative action, McCain on abortion and energy policy [actually, both on energy, but McCain's worse]). Most likely, I'll end up figuring out which of these I think will have the longest-running implications on the Supreme Court and make my decisions on that. But I hate the implication that if I choose McCain, it's because I'm a racist. And, further, I think it's this pervading attitude that is a large part of why the polls are inaccurate about Obama. Yes, some people will say they're voting for him when they secretly won't because they're racist. I think it's likely that there are more people who will say they're voting for him when they're not, simply because they fear that they'll be labeled as racist if they say they're supporting McCain.


Anonymous said...

what's your choice on the war then? they seem pretty opposite on that.

Anonymous said...

what do you want someone to do about the war then? seems they have pretty opposite opinions.

Anonymous said...

stamp out and eliminate redundancy. damn.