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Romney, the Race Card, and the Danger of Vague Ideas

During a visit to Jerusalem during his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney made a remark that has drawn criticism by many on the left.

In the speech, Romney noted that Israel had a significantly higher per capita GDP than Palestine. He attributed this difference in income to the culture of each population. “Culture makes all the difference. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

Peter Goodman of the Huffington Post responded in his editorial by asking, “One wonders what those ‘few other things’ might include—skin color perhaps?” Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, decried this as a “racist statement,” saying that “Palestinians and Israelis are people, [and therefore] equal.”

Whatever one thinks of Romney as a Presidential candidate, this charge of racism is unjust, dishonest, and should be denounced by both sides. Culture is not the same thing as race; Goodman and Erkat should know that.

A culture is a set of ideas that is widely held by a certain group of people. Culture can include things that are a matter of taste like certain kinds of food, dialects, and folklore; but it also includes things that can be judged as beneficial or harmful, such as certain systems of morality and politics.

Racism is wrong because it assumes that a person’s race (something he can’t choose) determines his character (which is determined by ideas he does choose). Since culture consists of ideas that many people choose to hold, it is legitimate and necessary to judge how those choices affect the lives of the people in a culture.

In his article, Goodman says that Romney’s remarks are a kind of racism in camouflage, subtle hints made to bring white racists over to Romney’s side.

It seems more likely that Romney was making a plausible comparison of Israeli and Palestinian culture.  Between Israel and Palestine, which has the highest percentage of PhDs in the world? Which side had celebrations in the street on 9/11? Which raises its children to succeed in a global, industrialized civilization? Which raises some of its children to blow themselves up? It’s not a stretch to say that these factors could affect prosperity.

A person born into a culture with poor ideas does not have to accept them. Human beings have free will, and some of them have the courage and independence to reject false and destructive ideas they are taught. By implying that culture is equivalent to race, Romney’s critics further imply that race determines one’s ideas and behavior—which is racism. By twisting ideas to brand Romney as a racist, evading the difference between chosen and unchosen traits, his critics reveal an implicit racism of their own.

Romney’s opponents use a superficial similarity between racism and cultural judgment (they both involve judging certain groups of people) to obscure fundamental differences and package the two concepts together. Romney’s critics get away with this deception because many people have a vague understanding of the two concepts.

By failing to define racism precisely, we not only allow unjust accusations of racism, but also end up accepting its presuppositions ourselves. It is particularly important to understand the concept of racism, since it is used constantly in political attacks by certain pundits.

The danger of these vague ideas does not stop here. Think of the bloody consequences of holding the view that both suicide bombers and their victims “Are people [and therefore] equal.”

How many other fuzzy concepts do we rely on passively that makes these kinds of attacks effective? The only way to find out is to think carefully about our ideas and refuse to accept any argument uncritically, even those from our own side. If we want to have a civil political discourse that actually focuses on solutions to national problems, we need to demand conceptual clarity from ourselves and those we support.

Image courtesy of Flikr user Gage Skidmore.

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