Friday, January 18, 2008

Racist vs. Panderer: Distinction Without A Difference?

Brendan Nyhan has the following post about the distinctions between racists and those who pander to racists:

Kevin Drum quotes from the Reason article delving further into Ron Paul's ugly past:

Ron Paul may not be a racist, but he became complicit in a strategy of pandering to racists — and taking "moral responsibility" for that now means more than just uttering the phrase. It means openly grappling with his own past — acknowledging who said what, and why. Otherwise he risks damaging not only his own reputation, but that of the philosophy to which he has committed his life.

Question: what's the difference between a "racist" and someone who was "complicit in a strategy of pandering to racists"? Nothing, as far as I can tell, except that at least the former is bit more honest about things.

I'm no fan of Paul or people who pander to racists generally, but I have to object to Drum's claim that there is no difference between racism and pandering to it. While both are abhorrent, I'll go on record as saying that actual racism is worse.

More importantly, however, equating the two furthers the political strategy that's used to defend politicians like Ronald Reagan and John Ashcroft who are accused of exploiting racial fears. As I've written (here and here), that kind of criticism is usually answered with the charge that Reagan and Ashcroft are being accused of racism, which is a loathsome smear of good men who are not racists (blah blah blah). Since no one can prove that Reagan and Ashcroft are racists, the issue frequently dies at that point. Similarly, as the authors of the Reason article note, Ron Paul may not be a racist. We'll never know and it's pointless to debate the issue. Simply put, we can't read the minds of public officials. What we can do, however, is judge them by their public records -- and Paul's is loathsome.

Brendan misses the point that politicians make choices about pandering and that these choices reflect their underlying beliefs. Deciding to pander to white racists means that you think it is OK to validate and even exacerbate resentment against blacks and, thus, to hinder black political and social inequality. That, to my mind, reflects underlying anti-black attitudes on the part of the pandering politicians. For example, Ronald Reagan was willing to pander to white racists in ways that he probably never would have pandered to anti-Catholics or anti-Semites. My guess is that Reagan believed that it was just fundamentally unfair and wrong to something like that to Jews and Catholics, but that it was OK to do it to blacks.

I'll also add an anecdote given to me by none other than Robert Novak, the conservative journalist. As part of my dissertation research, I examined the rise of the Republican party in the South during the early 1960s and the extent to which Republicans played to white racists in this effort. I interviewed Novak about this question since he authored an excellent book on the topic (The Agony of the G.O.P.: 1964). He told me about a meeting he had with a Southern Republican politician, who told him that the Republican party had to fight against black voting rights because if blacks got the right to vote, it would hurt Republican electoral chances in the South. According to Novak, this politician made his case in purely political terms and without a single racist reference or reason, yet, as Novak told me, "What difference did it make?"


Anonymous said...

Deciding to pander to white racists means that you think it is OK to validate and even exacerbate resentment against blacks and, thus, to hinder black political and social inequality.

I think you may have got your intended meaning backward here.

jjv said...

Oh yeah,that is what the Republican Party in the South is famous for, denying blacks voting rights. Unbelievable.