January 5, 2012

Republicans Have Become Incapable of Discussing Race (UPDATED)

The day before the Iowa Caucus, Rick Santorum uses blacks to illustrate a point about government creating dependency in order to win votes.  The statement is on video and its pretty clear at least to me that its what he said. Here is the "cleaned up" version of the CBS video posted at HotAir.com which Ed Morrissey reviews and declares Santorum didn't say black peoples lives:

Santorum has now also said that he didn't actually say that. I think he's lying to the public and I think he's lying to himself.

When people like me reacted to Santorum's statement, conservatives rushed to his defense with the wildest of arguments: He didn't say it.  Its right there on the tape, but no, you didn't hear what you thought.  Its become the Rodney King video of presidential campaign politics. The denial is unreal. Here's how a commenter at NPR on the story explained it all away:

I worked on developing speech synthesis and speech recognition technology for a number of years and learned a lot about speech articulation and human perception. I am a Romney supporter but it is clear to me that Senator Santorum stumbled when attempting to say the phrase "peoples lives" so he paused after the first attempt and repeated the phrase "peoples lives". If you read his lips you can see that he mangled the first attempt to say the word 'people; and only the second half of the word people came out with part of the word 'lives' which is why he corrected himself. Since both the b sound and the p sound are made on the lips (the only difference is that the vocal cords "hum" with a b sound) the 'pl' sound when mangled sounded like a 'bl' sound. However if you listen to the recording and watch his lips he was not attempting to make an 'ack' sound but lots of listeners heard "black" because mentally they associate "black people" with public assistance. It was not Senator Santorum that was prejudicial, it was the listeners.

 Got that?  Its basically just in our minds.  Our brains, all of our brains, are just playing mental auditory tricks on us, making us hear our own prejudiced thoughts. Look at the extraordinary mental gymnastics going on in the above statement to negate what you clearly see and hear in the video.

As an aside, and a tip for others who need to defend themselves against a charge of prejudicial speech,  using as a defense all the great things you've done for black people is the wrong response.  If you have to tell all the great things you've done, you've already lost.  If Santorum were smart AND he truly had done some things in the black community that were beneficial, there would be a black person willing to say so.  You let them say all the good stuff you've done.  Just a little PR tip for free.

That Santorum would make a statement that suggests that blacks are largely on welfare and that welfare comes to us via money taken out of the pockets of white voters by government is not surprising, shocking or unusual.  That is a persistent meme on the right.  If I sat down with a Tea Party member or your average poster at Hot Air, they would would largely agree with that supposition.

What this episode really illustrates is how completely incapable of a principled discussion about race the GOP has become. Where does this denial come from? This refusal to face the issue and discuss it? Part of it is black folks fault. For years, we cried racism for so many things, sometimes deserved, sometimes not and we won the war.  White people think being a racist is evil and they are horrified to even have it suggested about them. Herein lies the problem now.  If you even suggest a critique of a policy or statement which alludes to a racial element, you are assumed to be making a charge of racism.  But because the terminology has been used so indiscriminately, we no longer have any shared understanding of what that means.  So now if you call someone a racist, or something milder such as suggesting that their behavior, words or opinion is motivated by race in some way, it is interpreted as an accusation that they are essentially akin to a Klansman and bear an irrational hatred to blacks.  Its like calling someone an evil caricature or cartoon.  And since most people are NOT Klansman, the accusation or critique is dismissed as though that's what you suggested.

Take Santorum.  He's obviously NOT a racist. But what he said in Iowa is clearly influenced by racially stereotypical ideas that are not grounded in the facts.  That is something that should be called out and discussed.  The issue isn't whether Santorum is a racist.  The issue is that his thinking has been shaped by faulty racial stereotypes and we should talk about that so that its surfaced and he can correct his thinking.

Conservatives however can never reach a discussion of the merits, because they are too busy defending themselves and saying that they are not evil Klansman.  They simply deny the charge, whatever it is, rather than engage the issue.  Now, it is simply become routine to adopt a posture that says any charge that suggests I'm influenced by racial stereotypes is defacto an accusation that I'm an evil racist and since that's obviously not true, I don't even have to make a principled response to your charge, I can just dismiss it. Its become an easy way to avoid having a real discussion about the memes regarding black people that are commonplace in the minds of conservatives.  That avoidance has rendered the GOP incapable of discussing the issue in any self critical way, to its detriment.