Monday, July 10, 2006

The Big Divide (It Ain't Black/White or Blue/Red)

Mark Hyman’s opinions often mirror the deepest nether regions of the rightwing blogosphere, and he’s done it again in a recent editorial in which he insinuates that Democrats are racists.

He comes to this conclusion by misreading
a study done by a Stanford researcher who tested whether race (among a number of factors) determined how much federal money people thought victims of Hurricane Katrina should receive. His hypothesis is that the media coverage of the aftermath, which often portrayed blacks as looters and whites simply as victims, might unconsciously affect people’s generosity.

The study’s results seemed to back this up. But the numbers that have caught the eyes of Hyman and others looking to score rhetorical points had to do with the difference between self-described Republicans and Democrats. According to the study, Republicans in the study were likely to support less aid for Katrina victims, but to support a roughly equal amounts of aid for whites and blacks. Democrats, on the other hand, supported giving more money to all victims of Katrina, but were likely to give slightly more money to whites than blacks.

“Aha!” says Hyman (and plenty of rightwing self-styled pundits), “It’s Democrats who are racists, not Republicans!” While Hyman coyly says only that “race mattered” more to Democrats, many of his rightwing brethren have loudly said that this proves Democrats are not only bigoted, but are full of hate.

If suggesting that half the population are racists based on a single statistical study sounds a bit intellectually dishonest to you, that’s only because you have a functioning brain.

To begin with, the study wasn’t measuring racist attitudes; it was specifically attempting to measure the affect of slanted media reports on audiences.

Second, the study is flawed in any number of ways, not least of which are the facts that 1) the people studied were self selecting, not a random sample, and 2) as a result, 85% of the sample were self-described Democrats/liberals. A very clearly written and insightful explanation of the methodological problems with the study written by a guy who knows his stats can be
found here.

Third, even if one were to assume the findings were right on the money, they wouldn’t actually say what Hyman claims they do. Heck, even the right-wing editorial page of the
Wall Street Journal, while acknowledging that they are sympathetic with the idea of lurking Democrat racism, noted that there are many other explanations for the findings.

And lastly, if right wingers are so anxious to praise the gospel of the scientific study when it suits their purposes (no matter how inherently flawed it might be, or how creatively interpreted the results), what are we to say about studies that say the exact opposite?

In fact,
a study that was designed to measure racial bias by different political groups came up with findings that say people who support George W. Bush are more likely to have biases against blacks.

When that study came out, the same extremists who are trumpeting the Stanford study as proving widespread racism among Democrats were just as loudly criticizing the idea that a study could somehow show that people of a certain political persuasion were prejudiced.

On this last point, I agree with the RedStaters and Freepers. I don’t think either study “proves” a thing about the comparative racism of Republicans vs. Democrats. Racism is a complex and often subtle thing, and I doubt it could be accurately measured by a single statistical survey. And even if it could, it’s a far different thing to say that people with racial prejudices tend to affiliate with one party or the other than it is to say that people of a certain political party are (or even tend to be) prejudiced. Both parties are far too big and cover too many demographic areas for such simpleminded assumptions to be made.

When it comes to racism, the battle lines aren’t between Republicans and Democrats, but between those who tolerate it and those who don’t. Both parties have plenty of people in each category. That doesn’t meant there aren’t real and important differences in the policies and philosophies of the two parties with respect to issues touching on race, but to say one party is colorblind and the other is bigoted is just stupid.

And it’s true that there are real and important differences between the policies and philosophies of the Democratic and Republican parties when it comes to any number of political and social issues. But I’m increasingly coming to the conviction that as significant as many of these differences are, the supposed red/blue split isn’t the biggest political gulf in the country.

No, the most significant battle lines are between those who think that nothing is too irrational, too ugly, or too unethical to say or do to support a particular political ideology, and those of us who live in the “reality-based community” and think that reasonable, substantive (and, yes, passionate) dialog is the way to carry out public debates, not name calling and bomb throwing.

Again, both Democrats and Republicans are well represented on both sides of this more fundamental divide.

And I think we know which side Hyman’s on.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.51 (although the entire editorial is actually one big false appeal to authority)


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