Are those who strongly oppose President Obama racists? President Carter and Maureen Dowd think so. But President Clinton and even Mr. Obama himself don’t seem to agree. Who is correct?
Two questions should guide us in finding our answer. First, how do we tell who is and who is not a racist? Second, what is the causal connection between racism and Strong Opposition To President Obama’s Policies (SOTPOP)?
1. Who is a racist?
The biggest hindrance to identifying racists in America is the nearly universal suppression of racism in public. Since openly expressing racism immediately entails being ostracized, very few people are willing to do it, which means that racists quickly learn to talk like non-racists. Thus, evidence of racism is hard to acquire and often fairly thin, sometimes so thin that no amount of squinting will reveal it.
For example, Maureen Dowd recently became convinced Rep. Joe Wilson was a racist because he rudely shouted, “You lie!” during the president’s health care address to Congress. Such words do not normally indicate racism. Tens of millions of people have called President Bush a liar, and few, if any, of them are racists. But Obama is black, Wilson is white, and racism is heavily closeted in America. So perhaps Dowd is just a better detective than others. Let’s look further.
Consider language Mr. Wilson might have used to more clearly identify his views. If he were openly racist, for instance, he might have said, “You lie, you dirty Negro!” But if he were a true egalitarian who yet believed himself to have been lied to, the most likely thing he would have said was, “You lie!” By contrast with the open racist, Mr. Wilson clearly doesn’t sound racist at all. And in contrast with the non-racist …well, there isn’t any contrast, is there? In other words, the evidentiary difference between what Rep. Wilson actually said and what a non-racist who felt lied to would have said is zero. Nevertheless, this non-evidence is offered as indicating his racism.