Racism and Ron Paul's newsletters

Whatever those newsletters tell us, it isn't that Ron Paul is racist, nor even that the people who wrote them were. Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., December 28, 2011 — “We are constantly told that it is evil to be afraid of black men, it is hardly irrational.”

This comment from one of Ron Paul’s newsletters is one that’s been labeled “utterly racist” and indefensible. Another, referring to Representative Barbara Jordan, called her “Barbara Morondon,” the “archetypical half-educated victimologist.”

The evidence is that Ron Paul didn’t write either comment. In 2008 he did, however, claim moral responsibility for the content of his newsletters, and given the amount of money they earned, he’d have been careless to be entirely unaware of their contents.

So are those comments utterly, indefensibly racist? With regard to the Barbara Jordan comment, certainly not. One needn’t be a racist to have found Barbara Jordan moronic, and she was a master of the rhetoric of racial victimization. The comment itself is childish, but not in principle more racist than “Newt Grinch,” another childish-epithet bit of name-play, is against white men or green Christmas haters.

The “fear of black men” comment is more interesting. Whoever wrote that one almost certainly took a course in Econ 101 at some point, because it uses an example that’s often employed in that course to illustrate the difference between “racism” and “prejudice,” between rational biases and irrational ones.

You’re walking down a dark street in the middle of a large city in the middle of the night. You hear someone walking behind you, and your heart beats faster. You turn to glance behind, and you see four elderly women carrying knitting bags and walking with canes. Do you feel relief, or do you frantically look around for a police officer?

You’re walking down a dark street in the middle of a large city in the middle of the night. You hear someone walking behind you, and your heart beats faster. You turn to glance behind, and you see four black men wearing sagging pants and do rags. Do you feel relief, or do you frantically look around for a police officer?

Of course it’s rational for you, if you’re at all like me, to feel more relief when you see the four elderly women (unless you’ve been watching too much Monty Python), more trepidation when you see the black men. You’ve just rationally calculated the relative odds of danger, and you respond accordingly.

If we stop the example there, we think we’ve shown that it’s rational to be afraid of black men. But let’s not stop there.

You’re walking down a dark street in the middle of a large city in the middle of the night. You hear someone walking behind you, and your heart beats faster. You turn to glance behind, and you see four young black men wearing suits and carrying Bibles. Do you feel relief, or do you frantically look around for a police officer?

You’re walking down a dark street in the middle of a large city in the middle of the night. You hear someone walking behind you, and your heart beats faster. You turn to glance behind, and you see four white men with shaved heads, beards, and wearing biker leathers. Do you feel relief, or do you frantically look around for a police officer?

You’re walking down a dark street in the middle of a large city in the middle of the night. You hear someone walking behind you, and your heart beats faster. You turn to glance behind, and you see four police officers. Do you feel relief, or do you anticipate broken bones?

Does it matter whether you are male or female, black or white?

The comment in Paul’s newsletter was laden with assumptions. Whether you should be afraid of black men depends on much more than their race. Race isn’t irrelevant, but a lot more goes into “rational fear” than race, and the role of race isn’t straightforward. Whoever wrote the comment had only the crudest understanding of the principles behind it.

The comments that have been most widely used to display the “utter and indefensible racism” of Paul’s newsletters don’t illustrate that at all (though I’ll admit here to having read only a dozen or so). What they illustrate is sophomore-level thinking by writers exposed to just a little logic and just a little economics (clearly not Ron Paul), writers with not much subtlety and even less skill. They’re half-baked, they’re crude, and some may be motivated by racism.

What they aren’t is evidence that Ron Paul is a racist, nor even that he tolerates racists in his organization. It’s been noted by some of my colleagues that Paul attracts a more diverse range of thought than most, including people who skate very close to the edge of American opinion, and libertarian that he is, he seems disinclined to censor them, even when they work for him.

None of this would be an issue if Paul weren’t mounting a credible threat to the GOP in Iowa and beyond, and it would make less of a splash if those newsletters had belonged to another candidate. Most people would take another candidate at his word that he’s not racist, we’d attribute the problematic statements to badly vetted and barely edited writers, and that would be that. But like Icarus, Paul is flying high and into a lot of heat, much more heat than Eric Holder’s boss has taken for his pathetic underlings.

Those newsletters can hurt Paul, either because his opponents will succeed at painting his movement as a marginal movement of angry white people, or because they call into question his ability to manage his movement if he gets into the White House. If we get President Paul, just who and what might tag along to Washington with him?

The question is fair, but one doubts that the questioners are. Regardless, Ron Paul’s libertarian-inspired movement would be better served by a ruthlessly controlled, non-libertarian campaign.

____________

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James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. As a young Mormon missionary, he probably struck more fear into the hearts of people who passed him on the street than any black man in a do rag could ever cause. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.

 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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