Harry Reid and the Costs of Expanding the Definition of Racism

Various Republican politicians and some other conservatives are calling on Harry Reid to resign because, back in 2008, he said that Obama had a chance to win the presidency due in part to the fact that he is a “light-skinned” black who doesn’t speak in “Negro dialect.” For reasons outlined by senior Conspirator Eugene Volokh, I think these remarks were not racist, even if they did use outdated terminology such as “Negro.” In addition, I believe conservatives should think long and hard about whether they really want to promote such an expansive definition of racism.

Conservatives and to a lesser extent libertarians are often accused of being racist for things like opposing affirmative action, skepticism about broad antidiscrimination laws, claiming that intergroup differences in income are not necessarily due to discrimination, arguing that some cultures are better than others, and so on. If the GOP wins this particular fight and Reid is forced to resign, there will be a new norm in public discourse under which no prominent person can openly say the same kinds of things as Reid without being labeled a racist. This norm will ensnare some people of all persuasions. It will also have the unfortunate effect of making honest discussion of racial issues even more difficult than it often is already. But in many settings – especially the media and the intellectual world – it is likely to be used most aggressively against conservatives and libertarians. And if conservatives complain that such attacks are unfair, their credibility will be undermined by their own previous attacks on Reid. I realize, of course, that it’s tempting to score some political points against Reid, especially at a time when Republicans see the Democrats’ popularity plummeting and hope to make major gains in the November elections. However, even forcing Reid to resign probably will have only a minor, temporary impact on the overall political balance of power. By contrast, the effect on discourse norms will be much more permanent.

Perhaps that price would be worth paying if Reid really were a racist who believes that blacks are inferior to whites and should be relegated to second-class citizenship. But there simply isn’t any evidence to support that. Comparisons to Trent Lott’s statements in 2002 are misleading at best. Lott retrospectively endorsed Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign, which was explicitly based on segregationism (Thurmond and his “Dixiecrats” had temporarily broken with the Democratic Party because President Harry Truman had desegregated the military and taken a few other steps to combat anti-black discrimination). And, as conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby pointed out, Lott had made similar remarks before, and had a long history of association with the racist Council of Conservative Citizens. His remarks on Thurmond weren’t just a one-time aberration. Reid doesn’t have any remotely comparable history.

Despite all of the above, it’s certainly possible that if Reid were a Republican and had said the same thing, many liberals would denounce him and there would be more of a media outcry. But that doesn’t justify the right’s reaction to Reid. Imitating the bad behavior of one’s political opponents is rarely defensible. You can’t justify yourself with the lame excuse that the the other side is bad too. In this case, conservatives themselves are likely to be the biggest long-term losers if they persist in imitating liberal excesses.

UPDATE: Conservative commentator Melissa Clouthier responds to this post here:

We’ve been there for a long time — if you’re anything but a liberal Democrat. Republicans, conservatives … regular Americans can’t say what Harry Reid said without censure….

Ilya Somin is afraid that Republicans and conservatives will be more harmed by focusing on Reid? Really? What do we have to lose? It’s not like conservatives are ever, ever, ever given the benefit of the doubt about any matter pertaining to race. They are vilified and humiliated. Their political careers are ended at a hint of verbal stumble. That is unlikely to change, unless the left is held to the same impossible standard and forced to decide that maybe the whole racism charge doesn’t serve their purposes anymore….

When the left’s assumptions and standards no longer serve their political purpose — when their own side pays just as much as a conservatives or Republicans would — the standards will vanish. Suddenly, many things too scary to discuss will become part of the lexicon again.

I have three points in response. First, two wrongs don’t make a right. The bad behavior of various liberals on these issues should be criticized, not imitated. Second, Clouthier seems to ignore the fact that there is an ongoing debate over the justification of expansive PC definitions of “racism.” Conservatives and libertarians have made some progress in that debate over the last 15 years. Even the generally liberal media periodically covers and criticizes PC excesses. But our credibility in this discussion depends crucially on living up to our own standards. If we appeal to expansive definitions of racism any time it’s politically convenient to do so, we have no justification for criticizing liberals when they do the same thing. Finally, it’s highly unlikely that liberals will give up using these tactics merely because an occasional liberal politicians like Reid gets tripped up by them. On net, broad definitions of racism will hurt conservatives and libertarians more often than liberals because the former more often take positions that can be caricatured as racist under a very broad definition of that concept. If conservatives endorse these tactics by using them against Reid, that will only encourage liberals to continue to use them, since it will be harder for conservatives to resist such efforts in the future.

UPDATE #2: I have expanded my reply to Clouthier and turned it into a separate post here.