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.


Anonymous said...

I think Carter is trying only to use the most powerful and plausible (to the naked, uninformed eye of the 'average American' or 'average democratic-base American') explanation as a melodramatic (i.e.: demagogic) means of countering the melodramatics of Republicans who are trying to work up a genuine mass anti-fair healthcare movement out of a dramaturgical one (the ol' repeat something enough until people believe it--ala advertising--and then glom onto it). HMOs, pharmaceuticals, etc. and their Capitol Hill shills sponge so much money off the current system that theatric--anything necessary for its perpetuation or extension--have come into play, a tactic most easily (but perhaps not most wisely) countered in kind. But yeah, I agree that the Reps and Libertarians would likely respond in very much the same manner no matter how much melanin the president's skin contained in this type of situation. This isn't to say that Reps haven't used racism as a common go-to in the past (from Willy Horton to McCain's 'secret black baby' and the entire 'immigration debate'), as a means of wedging in whatever the business shill legislature du jour is, that's painfully obvious, but I simply don't see it here./2cents

Palmer said...

Nothing I've read that charges Wilson with racism contains any definitive proof.

However, Joe Wilson voted to allow federal tax dollars to be used to treat illegal immigrants in 2003.

So until we get more, I don't think racism can be completed ruled out as at least one amongst many motivating factors.

Lester Hunt said...


If you think that justifies what Carter is doing, I disagree. The worst thing anti-HR3200 people are doing is hyperbole ("death panels" as a way of characterizing government rationing under The Plan), while Carter is doing something that traditionally is known as "smearing." A smear is an attempt to ruin the reputation of a person, so no one will listen to what they say any more. It's a form of what I call disconnecting their microphone." That is ethically far more problematic, for reasons that seem obvious to me.

Anonymous said...

I do not think it's justified nor even justifiable. Two wrongs do not make a right but rather two wrongs altogether.

Lester Hunt said...


I'm not sure I'm getting what you are saying. It sounds like the idea is that Wilson is not against insuring illegals at all. So maybe his outburst was racist (to some extent) after all. The problem with that as an explanation is that it doesn't really explain. Why was his outburst about this particular issue then, rather than another one?

Actually, there is a similar sort of inconsistency in his record that does indicate prejudice, but of a different sort. I've read that he was for six years an ardent defender and excuser of Bush's lies. Now that the liar in chief is a Democrat, he is suddenly against that sort of thing. But the highest-probability explanation of that, at least in the context of my knowledge, rests on party prejudice and not racial.

Lester Hunt said...


On that we agree!

Palmer said...

Prof. Hunt - all I was saying is that since he voted to use federal money to treat illegal aliens in the past, I don't think the latest outburst was a clear case of him simply disagreeing with the president.

I don't know what prompted the outburst and I don't think Carter and Dowd know either. I think it's possible that racism had something to do with it, even if it was one of multiple factors. To my mind it can't be ruled out but it has surely not been conclusively shown to be the case.

As for why he had an outburst over this issue and not others, I have to admit ignorance. However, I don't see why emotional outbursts must necessarily have a logical pattern.

I think most politicians are guilty of the inconsistency you noted at one time or another. For instance, several Republicans voted to reimburse for end of life counseling (i.e. - "death panels") in 2003 when it was part of a Bush bill and now they accuse Obama of wanting the government to fund euthanasia.

Mark M said...

IMO, if Wilson had to interrupt the President's speech, I'd prefer it had been during a more objectionable part of the speech. If you look at this legislation from a conceptual level, coverage for immigrants should be the least of your concerns.

In fact, immigration is a particularly poor choice. The best way to argue against the healthcare proposals is identifying their general inconsistency w/ life in a free society. Republican positions on immigration policy (sans a few exceptions) in recent years has been anything but laissez-faire / free society.

The likelihood of a Republician pissed off about immigrants actually understanding what's wrong with this healthcare bill is like expecting a union boss to understand comparative advantage and gains from trade.

Lester Hunt said...


I agree. Apparently, concern about immigrants, like concern about abortion, does highlight flaws in the bills, but they are apparently flaws that can easily be repaired. (Explicitly prohibit any of this money going for abortions and require insurance companies to check IDs.) The plan would still be a crushing burden on the economy. I think the individual mandate -- forcing everyone to buy insurance -- would be the greatest invasion of individual liberty by the federal government since the end of the draft in June 1973.