Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Debating and Clarifying Racism

By Stephen Menendian, Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

During a conversation about the role of race in the Presidential election an acquaintance of mine asserted that although race may keep some Democrats from voting for Barack Obama in the fall, race was critical to his success in the primaries. He pointed to the levels of Black support Obama received after the Iowa caucuses. In his view, voting for Obama because of his race was just as racist as not voting for Barack because of his race.

That simply couldn’t be true. A Black person ultimately deciding to vote for Obama over Hillary Clinton because of Obama’s race is not the same thing as someone voting against Obama because of his race. Race prejudice, refusing to vote for a candidate because of his race, is morally anathema. Race pride, especially when you are a member of a race whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains and were told they were less than human, is a laudable reason to push a button for Obama, all other things equal. There have been 43 presidents, all white men. Obama’s accomplishment may instill a sense of pride when one considers that in less than 150 years Black Americans have shaken off the yoke of slavery to rise to the cusp of the Presidency. This in a nation founded on racial slavery and the racial suppositions that justified that institution. The first person to hold the office that Obama now seeks, George Washington, owned 316 black Americans when he died.

My acquaintance was quick to retort that whether voting for or against someone on account of race, it’s still racism because it is treating someone differently on account of their race.

The notion that differential treatment on the basis of race by itself is racist, is clearly wrong. According to that definition of racism, it's racist to apply a higher-SPF sunscreen to a white child than to a black child. You would be literally treating them differently based entirely on the color of their skin. But calling this action 'racist' is preposterous. And yet, it is a definition that is becoming increasingly common.

I tried to reason with my acquaintance by showing that applying his definition to sexism, holding a door for a woman is treating a woman differently on the basis of a sex, but it’s not sexist. Rather than revise his definition of racism, he fought the analogy.

My acquaintance was drawing from a well-worn script. It’s a script informed by the public debates over affirmative action. It’s a narrative of colorblindness that suggests that seeing race is the problem. But it’s a dangerous script because it hampers our ability to do anything about racism. Correcting racism becomes part of the problem, since, after all, it’s racist, right?

1 comment:

  1. I respectfully disagree. I am a proud black man and a student here at OSU. I'm glad and proud that Obama won and I did in fact vote for him. But his race or my race in no way impacted my decision. To say that it is unracist to vote for a person of my color creates a double standard. That is to then tell white people that for all of them to vote for John McCain bebause they are "proud" of their white heritage is equally ok. Just because we are a minority doesnt mean we chould hold ourselves to separate standards. Obama didn't win because he was black or in spite of. He won because America believes he is the right man for the job. For black people to have voted for him simply because he's black and they're black is racist. End of story