Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When Can You Say "That's Racist!"?

The air is thick with charges of racism. Yesterday, Jimmy Carter said that " an overwhelming portion" of the hostility to Obama that you see nowadays is due to racism. Columnist Maureen Dowd is sure that Rep. Joe Wilson's rude outburst, now the subject of a House vote of disapproval, was racist:
The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president. Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.
The charge that an act is racist is an explanation, and as such must pass the ultimate test that all explanations must pass: it has to be the best one available. There must be no available explanation that beats it on the grounds of greater plausibility or explanatory power.

A tea party protester is waving a sign criticizing Obama’s policies of massive deficit spending. The protester is white and the protestee is black. Obviously, the reason for thinking that the sign is racist is virtually nil. There are white racists, and so there is some finite probability (very small) that any single act in which a white person is criticizing a black person is actually a racist act. In this case it is vastly more probable that the reason for the protester’s objecting to these policies is – the policies themselves.

One of the interesting features of explanations is that typically the best one, at least if it is good enough, trumps the others. It doesn’t just come out ahead of the alternative explanations, it destroys them. Once the fire inspector determines that the best explanation of a fire is arson, we don’t keep wondering, in the absence of new evidence, whether it might really be due to lightning or a careless smoker. Given that there is an immediately forthcoming and highly plausible explanation for the tea party protester’s ire, a rational person does not keep wondering if it might be due to racism instead, and a fair and honest person will not pretend to wonder.

All this applies pretty clearly to Wilson’s rude outburst. There are obvious reasons why he would think BHO was lying. The reasons why this would make him angry are equally obvious. There is no need to rummage in his supposedly sinful past to find reasons why he said what he said.

What Dowd is trying to do is to enhance the probability of another explanation by placing the act in the context of a pattern of action that indicates the moral character of the agent. I’m rather partial to character arguments myself, but I think this one is weak.

First, an effective character-based explanation requires intimate knowledge of the agent’s actions, which (as Jack Hunter points out) Dowd obviously lacks in this case. What does she know about what is in Wilson’s soul? Next to nothing, most likely. This makes it virtually impossible for this explanation to trump the immediately obvious ones. Wilson’s alleged racism is like the lightning and the careless smoker.

Second, even aside from the probability that they are true, her premises are weak on explanatory power. Even if Wilson is a racist sort of guy, that does not mean that this particular act is racist. Even racists aren’t necessarily so obsessed that everything they do that is adverse to any black person is motivated by racial animosity. Joe-the-racist might well feel that, where the fate of one seventh of the entire US economy hangs in the balance, nothing else matters, including the color of some guy’s skin.

Character-based explanations are much better for ruling things out (“I’ve known Joe for umpteen years and he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,” etc.) than for ruling things in (“He’s a racist person, therefore this act must be racist”).

On the other hand, if you are directing a charge of racism against someone you don't really know, like the crowd that filled the capitol mall on Saturday, the allegedly racist act would have to be one for which there just isn't any other good reason. Carter is assuming that there just isn't anything, or at any rate not very much, in Obama's policies that would provoke hostility.
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