Pulling Out the Racist Tag is a Lazy Way to Argue About Policy

There is little evidence to support racial motives behind criticism of Obama.

THE cry of “racism” has sounded, and the hounds are off and running. Since last week’s outburst by Joe Wilson during President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on health care – the congressman called the President a “liar” – the international commentariat has sought to divine the reasons for the remark, and Obama’s declining popularity in the polls.

Some are sure they know the answer. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said that, “… fair or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!” Adding fuel to the charge of racism was former president Jimmy Carter, who said that: “I think that an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity towards … Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man … the racism inclination … bubbled up … because of a belief among many white people … that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.”

What is wrong with this picture? In my view, the problem is clear. The whipping up of national and international hysteria about an important issue on the basis of no evidence at all. Motives are elusive, but facts speak for themselves. Joe Wilson called the President a liar, not boy or porch monkey or coon or jigaboo or any of the depressingly long list of race-based insults for black Americans.

While heckling a president is unusual (the US Congress is a sedate place compared with its British and Australian counterparts) neither the act of shouting nor the word Wilson used demonstrates racist sentiment. Sure, Wilson may have attacked the President because of the colour of Obama’s skin (as a South Carolina senator he voted to keep the Confederate flag flying above the state house), or he may have done so because he profoundly disagreed with what the President was saying. The evidence reveals nothing either way.

Former president Carter is operating in a similar fact-free zone. His charge of racism seeks to tar not just an individual, but the motives of many white Americans. “Most of the animosity white people feel towards the President is because he is black” and “many white people believe the President’s skin colour disqualifies him from leading the country” are statements of fact.

But while numerous survey techniques exist to accurately catalogue the depth and breadth of racist sentiment among Americans – to prove whether Carter’s assertions are correct – the former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner musters none. Just like columnist Dowd, he seems content to make such claims on the basis of nothing more solid than his thoughts or beliefs.

It’s not good enough. Average Joe and Josephine have little choice but to make decisions and seek to persuade based on intuition, anecdote and personal experience. They are not in a position to commission double-blind placebo-controlled trials on which washing powder works best, or statistically valid polling before they opine about what “everyone” thinks about this or that. Even if they did, they might struggle to interpret the results.

But opinion leaders, like others in positions of responsibility, are different. What they say can critically influence the views of others and the tone, tenor and direction of the political debate. They have a duty to get it right, not just mouth-off to get a rise. This is why evidence-based policy and medicine are all the rage. Surely evidence-based opinion should be next.

The saddest part of the current kerfuffle is the damage it could do to the President’s determination to eradicate racial inequality in the US.

As Obama noted in a recent speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, black Americans have a harder road than whites. Blacks have borne the brunt of job losses from the global financial crisis, are more likely to have poorer health than whites and are five times as likely to end up in jail.

Tackling such inequities requires a willingness by the mostly white “haves” to back structural change. Given the high levels of support Obama garnered from white Americans during the election, there was no reason to think such support would not be forthcoming. But Dowd and Carter’s baseless charges of racism may have squandered the goodwill required to achieve real change by putting whites on the defensive. Falsely accused and crying victim, they worry aloud about being accused of racism if they raise objections to the President’s policies.

Motives are elusive but facts speak for themselves. Racial inequity in the US is real and must be attacked at its root. While the affiliations and funding sources of those critiquing the President must be revealed, where the sentiment behind criticism is unknown, it must be taken at face value. Proof only that in a large country with a boisterous democracy, not everyone will agree.

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Pulling out the racist tag is a lazy way to argue about policy  The Age