The Racism Reflex
Getting Past a Favorite Conversation Roadblock
It’s a fact of life. If you are going to discuss politics with a progressive, at some point, you are going to be accused of racism. We know that racism is a huge issue for the left and a lens through which they see most other issues.
Now, sometimes, racism IS the subject of the conversation. That is not what I am talking about here. What I am referring to here is discussions of socialism, welfare, border security, etc. unrelated to racism, but in which your opponent has just claimed that you or your political stand is racist.
So how best to respond?
For starters, whatever useful conversation you were having, has just ended. It may never have been a useful conversation at all. Your opponent has departed from the trail of logical thought and is not likely to return to it. Whatever principle was guiding your argument, it has just been dismissed in favor of the racism claim. You think a country has a right to protect itself by defending its borders. Nope. You just don’t like brown people. Police should concentrate their work on high-crime areas. Nope. You don’t like black people. You want to protect the country from terrorists. Nope. You just don’t like Muslims.
That is frustrating and exasperating and it has probably taken you by surprise. Well, now you are going to be prepared.
You are going to have to address the racism claim. Don’t try to skate by it by simply denying the racism and forging ahead with your original argument.
Don’t bother protesting your or anyone else’s innocence.
“No I am not a racist, some of my best friends are [insert victim group here] I just think [insert principle here]”.
That simply won’t fly. It will only convince your opponent that you are 1. Lying, 2. In denial, or 3. Simply don’t recognize racism when you see it.
At the same time, you don’t have to abandon your argument while you challenge the racism claim. Instead, force your opponent to defend his claim.
Snickering, suggesting your opponent is brainwashed, or caught up in identity politics are not good strategies. Neither is bringing up counterclaims of racism. They are demeaning and not conducive to a good conversation. If you didn’t like your opponent dismissing your principled argument, dismissing his concerns about racism isn’t going to be any better.
Let’s acknowledge for a moment, that there is such a thing as racism. You can’t just dismiss the claim. You are best to give it a hearing regardless of your suspicions about your opponent’s motivations, intelligence, or state of mind. It is theoretically possible that the racism claim has merit but practically, you know it’s way off base.
I am always tempted to believe that anyone making a racist claim is simply playing games with me; that he doesn’t believe what he is saying but resorting to a useful ploy. That is probably true of many public figures. It is probably rarely true of a friend who is arguing with you.
After all, your friend is getting an unhealthy dose of racism claims from the people he trusts in the politics and the media. These are backed up with anecdotes and statistics. You, like me, are aware of the racist incidents that have turned out to be hoaxes and the statistics that don’t stand up to scrutiny as evidence of racism. You also know your own thoughts and experiences. Your friend, of course, sees it differently.
By the way, conceding to your opponent that “yes, there are some people who are racist” or “there are bad people on both sides” also seems to be pointless. It plays into your opponent’s need to direct the argument away from the principle you are discussing to the racism claim. There is going to be a fringe group (in this racists) on any issue and, being a fringe, it is irrelevant.
I have often tried conceding a minor point in an attempt to build a rapport or in the expectation that by me “being reasonable”, the other party will reciprocate by being reasonable but I don’t think that has ever worked. Think of how much success Trump had in saying “There were good people on both sides” in response to the Charlottesville incident.
A useful response might be to stick with your principled argument and tie it to your opponent’s claim:
“So are you contending that I am disagreeing with Mr. X because he is black and not because he is preaching socialism where I, as you know, believe strongly in the free market?”
“So you contend that I, a proponent of free markets, would embrace socialized medicine if Mr. X were white?”
“So you contend that I would be okay with thousands of unskilled people who willingly break the law to enter our country streaming over our border just as long as they were white?”
“Are you contending that, if Mr. X were white instead of black that I would be okay with his plan to take money from rich people to give it to poor people?”
[Okay, these reflect a discussion I had back during the Obama administration when a friend of mine suggested I didn’t like Obama’s policies because he was black.]
These address the racism claim while staying on the subject.
Press your opponent for an answer on this. “That wasn’t a rhetorical question. Is that what you believe?”
The racism claim comes up in many contexts. Whichever, don’t let it go unchallenged. Answer with a question that gets to the heart of the matter. Press for a response.
“Hmm. Why do you bring up race? I haven’t. How does it enter in our conversation about the government taking money from some people and giving it to others?”
“So you believe that it is racist to insist that we are all treated the same regardless of our race?”
“Joe, you know me. Look me in the face and tell me that you think I am a racist.” (When he says yes, press for examples.)
Racism claims are bizarre in that, to a conservative, refuting them should be like shooting fish in a barrel, and yet, our reasoning and evidence don’t faze liberals. You and your opponent are probably not going to change each other’s minds.
So, if you aren’t going to change your friend’s mind, why continue in the conversation? What is your objective at this point? Well, it’s not impossible that you will change their mind or that you might learn something. At the very least, you would like to demonstrate that playing the racism card is not a winning strategy. After a few go-rounds with the responses above, your friend will know what’s coming with a racist claim and may be less likely to derail a conversation in the future.
Possibly, tying your original argument to the racist claim may help you to communicate with your friend. Once he makes the racist claim, he is now in a position where he must defend it. If you play it right, defending that claim will require that he address the original argument.
Also, you are keeping the conversation civil. An accusation of racism is a nasty charge indeed. That could be grounds for you to give him a piece of your mind. Instead, you are responding with active listening. You are giving your friend a forum to explain himself while keeping in the context of the original discussion.
What will change your opponent’s mind about conservatives being racist? There may be no logic on earth that will displace this deeply held belief. What I have heard in the media several times is liberals being amidst conservatives and observing for themselves, much to their surprise, that these conservatives are not racist. They have to experience it for themselves. While we have reason to be suspicious of any testimonies in the media being true and not clever deceptions, I suspect these testimonies are true.
Perhaps the most effective way to be a conservative, in this case, is to be a good friend and to involve your friend in your social circle as much as possible.
If he, in turn, invites you to experience the racist world he sees, perhaps you should accept.