The Carson Rationalization

November 14, 2016

Voting for Donald Trump was a racist act. Assuming the Trump voter was well-informed, it’s a simple case analysis:

  1. Either they directly supported his racist rhetoric. It follows that their support for him was a racist act.
  2. Or they decided that Trump’s racist rhetoric didn’t matter. That decision is also a racist act as it validates his rhetoric as acceptable.

John Scalzi lays out the argument in more detail in his excellent piece, “The Cinemax Theory of Racism”.

I’ve raised this point with several of my Trump-supporting family members. The response has been, “I supported Ben Carson in the caucuses1, so I can’t be racist.”

Without re-litigating Carson’s fitness for the Presidency, I want to point out three flaws in this rationalization.

First, racist is both a noun and an adjective. I have no qualms about applying the noun to the President-elect. He has a long history of acting on his racial prejudices. However, here I’m applying the adjective. Nearly all of us harbor prejudices against others. It’s a natural consequence of growing up in our society. Failing to recognize and counteract our own implicit biases leads us to engage in aversive racism. Pearson, et al write:

Aversive racists, in contrast, sympathize with victims of past injustice, support principles of racial equality, and genuinely regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but at the same time possess conflicting, often non-conscious, negative feelings and beliefs about Blacks that are rooted in basic psychological processes that promote racial bias … The negative feelings that aversive racists have toward Blacks typically do not reflect open antipathy, but rather consist of more avoidant reactions of discomfort, anxiety, or fear. That is, they find Blacks ‘aversive’, while at the same time find any suggestion that they might be prejudiced ‘aversive’ as well.

We need to recognize our capacity for aversive racism and actively counteract it.

Second, using support for Carson to argue that support for Trump wasn’t racist is a straightforward application of the one black friend argument.

The underlying fallacy is that one single point of data, this one “friend,” completely overrides any other bits of evidence we have to assess someone’s views. This is simply not valid reasoning.

Prejudiced views exhibit as a priori judgments against a group. Having come to support Carson after learning about his history and beliefs has nothing to say about whether or not ones initial perceptions reflected a racist bias. Having a racist bias may make it harder to come to support Carson, but having come to support him does not imply the absence of racist bias. (Neither does it imply presence of racist bias. Having a racist bias and supporting Carson are simply unrelated.)

Overcoming a racist bias to support Carson puts us at risk of the third flaw in the Carson rationalization, Carson as magical Negro. Jamil Smith, writing in the New Republic, calls this out far better than I could:

Carson fits the bill because his is a blackness of poor circumstances and personal responsibility, minus the racial grievances. He doesn’t complain about the structural inequality that his drive and skills enabled him to escape, at least financially. … Given his political performance and his career legacy, he’s an ideal conservative magical Negro for the Fox News era: A man … who performs the conservative ideal of racial progress, denigrating himself while remaining content to enable continued injustices.

Supporting Ben Carson does not relieve one of responsibility for supporting Trump. Support for Trump was a racist act. That does not make all of his supporters racist. It does mean that their behavior was racist. That’s a vital difference. We all make mistakes. The important part is to recognize our mistakes, own them, and do better.

Post-script: Enlightened readers will certainly find things I’ve gotten wrong here. Writing on race, especially from my position of privilege, is probably ill-advised, but I write to understand and sharpen my own thinking. If I’ve screwed up, I ask for your forgiveness, and hope you’ll help educate me.

1 All of my immediate family apart from my wife and me are still in Iowa.