Prejudice by Another Name

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink! It reinforced what psychologists have been saying for years: sometimes we aren’t even aware of the reasons for our decisions. Gladwell writes about times when we make decisions literally within the blink of an eye. Evidently, those judgments sometimes turn out to be as accurate as those on which we spend a lot of time. (Or, as my former teaching colleague Jerry says, “When you study long, you study wrong.”)

This article is about what I believe is a form of prejudice. This is an area which I think it’s best to approach with humility: those of us who have our favorites in this Presidential campaign may have made up our minds months or even years ago for reasons we’ll never know. I’m pretty sure that the reasons why I’m supporting a white candidate have nothing to do with her race; but if Gladwell is right, I may never be sure.

It’s tempting to take the position that our true motives are unknowable, so any time spent on knowing them is time wasted; but I think we have an intellectual and moral responsibility to try to understand our motives. And I think that’s especially important for Democrats this year because the sex and race of the candidates are more important in this primary than they have ever been before.

This phenomenon is being called “identity politics.” The Web site quotes the American Heritage Dictionary as defining identity politics as “political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of social groups identified mainly on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.” (It’s worth a trip to Wikipedia for more on this phenomenon.)

I must confess to some discomfort when I hear Hillary Clinton’s supporters pointing out how wonderful it would be to elect the first woman to the White House. To me, that was never much of an argument, and I’m equally unimpressed by the equivalent argument being made by Barack Obama’s supporters. Both arguments are appeals to identity politics.

Earlier in the primary when several white male candidates were still running, if supporters had ever suggested voting for one because he is a white male, observers would rightly have condemned the suggestion as racist and sexist. But political leaders and regular citizens alike say openly that they’re supporting Clinton because she’s a woman or that they’re supporting Obama because he’s black. Allegedly that’s identity politics and it’s OK, but to me it’s just prejudice by another name.

I wrote in a previous post that our challenge is to vote for the person we believe will make the best President. We can honorably reach different conclusions about whether that’s Clinton or Obama, but I think we are obliged, to the extent that it’s possible, to make that judgment independent of the sex and race of the candidate.

As someone who is neither black nor female, I hope a final observation will be appropriate. To me at least, it is clear that being a woman has been a far greater burden to Clinton’s campaign than being black has been to Obama’s. I have never heard anyone suggest that Obama’s race makes him unfit for the Presidency, but I have heard plenty of people suggest that Clinton’s sex is an obstacle. If she appears sensitive, she’s weak; if she appears tough, she’s a lesbian. Obama hasn’t had to contend with anything remotely like it. I have a friend who believes that many white voters who tell pollsters that they would vote for a black candidate actually won’t. He may be right, and racism may hide below the surface. But evidently sexism doesn’t have to stay below the surface: it can be indulged in openly and without penalty.

The implication–and it comes as a surprise to me–is that at this point in our journey as a society, sex is a far more potent political force than race.

This historic primary has revealed things about us that we might prefer to have kept secret; but we’re better off for knowing them, and we’ll be better off if we can acknowledge them honestly, openly, and fairly.

We’re Electing a President

I have a lot of friends (and at least one family member) supporting Barack Obama for President. That’s their right, and if the Illinois Senator becomes the Democratic nominee I’ll be happy to support him against either of the Republican candidates.

I went through a period of indecision, but everything became clearer when I realized that my choice was actually pretty simple. The choice we all face is simple and yet profound. Our responsibility is to vote for the person who will make the best President. Period.

  • We can’t vote on the basis of who’s more electable. To do so is to allow our political adversaries to make our decision for us.
  • We can’t be swayed by the chance to be “a part of history.” Any Presidential election makes history, and everyone who votes is part of that history. (I’ll write later about “identity voting,” which I think is simply prejudice dressed in political correctness.)
  • It doesn’t matter which candidate is perceived as more likable. Millions of people thought they liked George Bush more than Al Gore or John Kerry: how’s that working out?
  • Without attention to where it’s heading, why it’s important, and how it’s to be accomplished, “change” is an empty promise.
  • Substance is more important than style. Rhetoric is valuable only when employed to communicate a meaningful message. The best speaker isn’t always the best President.
  • Even the ability to run a good campaign seems to be a poor predictor of success in office. Bush ran a better campaign than Gore or Kerry, but has been a disaster in office.

Most of the people I know who are supporting Obama seem to be doing so for one of the reasons I’ve just listed; I seldom hear anyone suggest that he’s more qualified or that his positions on issues are superior to Clinton’s.

I’ll readily concede that Republicans and independents hate Clinton more than Obama and that he seems sincere and likable, promises “change,” makes great speeches, and has run a fabulous campaign. None of that matters, because on the basis of her experience and the substance of her proposals, Hillary Clinton offers a greater likelihood of success as President.

That means that she deserves–and gets–my vote.

The Candidates on Education

I’ll admit it: I’m almost a single-issue voter. For me, where there are clear differences, public education tends to trump most other issues.

While voters always say that education is among their top concerns, they generally don’t vote like it. I think that’s because candidates on both the right and the left have had a tough time coming up with a message on education that really provides much traction with voters.

The fact is that Americans are highly conflicted on education. Culturally, we detest snobs and intellectuals. Many of the greatest figures of our national folklore are self-made women and men who rose despite their humble beginnings–not those who took advantage of a great education.

These days, only about 20% of households have children in school, and a study I read some years ago estimated that about 25% of parents have never entered their children’s schools. We Americans say that education is key thing that we can do for our children, but we don’t vote like it, and sometime I think that because we don’t really believe it.

On education, here’s where the candidates stand.

Righter: Clinton

Just how bad is the 2002 ESEA reauthorization, commonly–and obscenely–referred to by the Bush campaign slogan “No Child Left Behind”?

The answer to that question is best reserved for another column. Suffice it to say that I believe what’s wrong with it cannot be fixed. It is profoundly anti-education and anti-child, substituting shallow testing skills for true learning and ignoring what we know is best for children. I believe that tomorrow’s parents will hate learning and disrespect schools in ways we can only dimly imagine today. NCLB should have been strangled in its crib.

On NCLB, Clinton’s issue statement on education says it simplest and best: “As president, she will . . . [e]nd the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.”

Notice that she doesn’t say she’ll fund it, which admittedly would be better than what the present administration has done. She says she’ll end it. One can only hope.

You can see parts of Clinton’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Surprisingly right: Huckabee

Give him credit. Mike Huckabee, whose issue statement on education proudly proclaims that he has “been a strong, consistent supporter of the rights of parents to home school their children, of creating more charter schools, and of public school choice,” spoke to delegates to NEA’s Representative Assembly in July.

Delegates aren’t used to seeing Republicans, because Republican candidates generally don’t even seek dialogue with NEA. He was warmly received, as he should have been.

The distinction between “public school choice” and “school choice” couldn’t be greater. “Public school choice” refers to the ability of parents to choose the public school best suited to their children’s needs. “School choice” is simply a euphemism for school privatization, including school vouchers.

For my taste, Huckabee’s a little too enthusiastic about charter schools: “As Governor, I fought hard for more charter schools, with their strong parental involvement and their unique ability to serve as laboratories for education reform, and for the rights of parents to home school their children.” But his statements can coexist with public education: I’m a pretty rabid supporter of public education, but even I would agree that parents have the right to home-school their children. And many public educators were interested in charter schools back when the idea was to use them to try out new techniques, not to bust unions, teach wacky curricula, and resegregate students.

I’m most concerned about what Huckabee’s statement doesn’t say. I wish it condemned voucher schools, but it doesn’t mention them. And I’ve heard that he says that he doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, but his Web site doesn’t take a position on the movement to teach creationism along with evolution–a movement that in my mind is just nuts.

His statement does say, “I am proud that my three children attended public schools from K through twelve, as did my wife and I”–which is something even the Clintons can’t say.

You can see parts of Huckabee’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Wrong: Obama

Barack Obama supports merit pay.

His issue statement on education says, “Obama will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. Districts will be able to design programs that reward accomplished educators who serve as a mentor to new teachers with a salary increase. Districts can reward teachers who work in underserved places like rural areas and inner cities. ” These are generally good ideas, although as usual federal education proposals ignore the overwhelming role that state and local funding play in public education.

But he saves the most troublesome item for last: “[I]f teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.” This is merit pay.

Teachers I know are divided on just how troublesome merit pay is, but virtually all have problems with it. At its worst, it sets up two tiers of teachers: those who are are favored and those who aren’t. It rewards teachers who teach the best and brightest and punishes those who work with students who require the most intervention. And it turns schools, which ought to be learning communities in which educators work collegially to help improve the performance of all, into competitive enterprises in which anybody with a good idea is actually discouraged from sharing it.

You can see parts of Obama’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Wrongest: McCain

Like most Republican candidates, John McCain refused to appear at July’s annual meeting of the National Education Association. So much for “straight talk.”

John McCain’s issue statement on education says that “Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses.” So despite all the talk about his being less conservative than many Republicans would like, he still supports the privatization movement, which would eventually, inexorably dismantle America’s system of public schools.

You can see parts of McCain’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by–oh, that’s right, you can’t: he stayed away.