Thursday, October 30, 2008

Racial Projection. (It's not just a river in Egypt.)

Ross addresses a series of posts to Obama's charge that McCain's attacks have been racist:

Consider, for a moment, that here we are, five days away from the election, and a Republican nominee for President has run a campaign against an African-American opponent that has barely touched any of the traditional racially-charged domestic-policy issues. Affirmative action has been off the table, of course. Obama's liberal record on crime has been raised, I believe, in a couple of Rudy Giuliani robocalls and that's about it. The "welfare" ad I just linked to is pretty much the first time the McCain campaign has mentioned the word all year: Obama opposed the mid-1990s welfare reform (albeit in a characteristically bets-hedging way), but you'd never know it from listening to his opponent's campaign. Nor have they touched immigration, where the Obama camp takes the prize for the most demagogic, racially-charged attack ad. And of course Obama's most politically-poisonous personal association has been more or less off the table throughout.

Now there are various reasons why none of these issues have played a role in the campaign: Attacking on some of these fronts would have required flip-flops on McCain's part; attacking on others (crime, especially) would have reaped vastly diminished returns compared to GOP campaigns of yore; etc. But it's also the case that the Obama campaign (and its surrogates and allies) have done a masterful job of boxing the GOP in on race-related fronts, playing off the media's biases, McCain's sense of honor, and the Republican Party's unpleasant history to create a climate of hair-trigger sensitivity around terrains and topic that usually hurt Democratic candidates. I'm not asking anyone to shed any tears for the McCain camp on this front: African-Americans have been on the losing end of hardball politics in this country since the first slave ship docked in Virginia, and there's more than a little rough justice in the fact that Barack Obama's campaign has found ways to turn his race to its advantage during this campaign.

Ross has most of this right. I would add that for the McCain campaign to raise the issues of crime and welfare would make it sound a little like Snowball:

Surely, comrades! Surely you do not want Jones back?

By which I mean that those were the winning issues of two decades past. For better or worse, those problems -- and they were, in fact, significant problems -- are regarded in the public mind as being solved, or at least contained. That Obama will attempt to abandon that containment is probable, and his efforts must and will be resisted when he makes them. But as Ross himself has pointed out many times, this line of attack doesn't address the wholly new set of problems that voters face or see themselves facing, and it therefore lacks the salience of appeals on these new issues.

But it is a shame to read Ross buying into the story of "the Republican Party's unpleasant history" with regard to race. Indeed, most of the problems about crime and welfare and quotas and intrusive government were to varying degrees problems that blacks caused for whites. So? Why should this paralyze America from addressing them?

Indeed, why should white Americans feels the least bit guilty for recognizing, say, welfare as "taking money from whites to give to shiftless blacks"? There is ample evidence that this is precisely how Barack Obama sees the matter: not as "helping the deserving at the expense of the undeserving", or even "helping the poor at the expense of the rich", but as "helping blacks at the expense of whites". That Obama wants to do this is not necessarily to his discredit. It gives the lie to his post-2004 image as an avatar of racial reconciliation, but it's understandable that Obama wants to help the people with whom he identifies.

However, it is also understandable that white Americans want to ask, "Why would I want to hurt my people for the benefit of those people?" It is understandable for us to ask in advance how far and at what cost this logic is going to take us. But the Democrats want to have it both ways. It kind of reminds me how the gay community adopted one of the Teletubbies as some kind of gay mascot, and then erupted with jeers when Jerry Falwell noticed that the gay community had adopted a Teletubby as a gay mascot. Similiarly, the Obama campaign want to make racialist appeals and plan racially redistributive programs and then denounce those who will be left holding the bill when we object that this is what they are doing. Indeed, as Ross points out, the Obama campaign has been phenomenally successful at exactly this strategy. But if there is justice and fairness in the world of politics, this isn't it.

UPDATE: Regarding my characterization of AFDC as transfer payments "from hardworking whites to shiftless blacks" above: seeing as how in 1994 there were as many white AFDC recipients as black recipients (H.T.: Trumwill's comment), this characterization is incomplete. However, the program STILL constitutes a net interracial transfer, and that, as such, it had a higher political bar to clear than it would otherwise. Perhaps because I believe that bar to have been set far to low on the merits, this observation doesn't bother me; on the contrary, I'm not sure on what grounds we should expect, or demand, anything different.


trumwill said...

Indeed, why should white Americans feels the least bit guilty for recognizing, say, welfare as "taking money from whites to give to shiftless blacks"?

Because that's only a part of what welfare does. As opposed to affirmative action, which strictly benefits some racial groups at the expense of others, welfare is targeted towards poor people. A white person on welfare simply isn't an exception. Sure, if you stack up welfare recipients as a percentage of the population and all that they're more likely to be on welfare, but when it comes to pure numbers whites make up a substantial portion of the welfare-recipient population.

It's certainly unlikely that they ever would, but if Democrats were to make an appeal against welfare on the basis that it helps out poor racist, backwards whites in the badlands, I would have similar objections.

Φ said...

Trumwill: you are certainly correct; obviously, I overstated my point. Poverty and sloth are not the exclusive preserve of any one race. It would be interesting to look up the racial composition of the recipients of AFDC at its high water mark.

But the political point remains: any people asked to fund what are, and are perceived to be, net interracial income transfers are never going to like them, nor should they, particularly when those transfers are open-ended, and particularly when the recipients and their spokesman express the belief that they "deserve" the transfers as redress for wrongs suffered by and perpetrated by nobody presently alive.

trumwill said...

I guess what I don't entirely like about that line of reasoning is the notion that "white people" giving to "black people". For one thing, it feeds into the notion that whites are wealthy and minorities are not.

One way to look at it actually harms poor whites because it is assumes that there must be something uniquely wrong with a poor white because he comes from the Race of Wealth and thus to the extent that they live in poverty it can't be because they had a tougher road to the Good Life than did a white guy born to a posh family in Rhode Island.

Broadly speaking, I think that looking at it in those terms does a disservice to the blacks that have joined the middle class as well as the whites that haven't made it there. Yes, I'm perfectly aware that black liberals like to frame it in those terms, too. They do it at the political peril of their stated goals and I'm similarly uncomfortable with it. Poverty is definitely a much, much greater problem in black communities than in white ones, but it's not a "black problem" and I don't like it when it's portrayed as such.

The commentary here is biased and the statistics likely selective, but here are some numbers about welfare recipients in 1994 (before Welfare Reform) with the a source. Even though the majority of recipients were non-white and whites are under-represented as a proportion of the population, whites nonetheless were the plurality in the age of the "Welfare Queen" in raw numbers and I consider that to be significant.