Racial "Codes" and Self-Serving Arguments

Chris Matthews lambasted Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program this morning. If you can stand it, here it is:

Now, as a general rule I try to avoid watching Chris Matthews. When I have seen him rambling on MSNBC I have been tempted to pay him the compliment of assuming that he is drunk. In this clip he appears to be sober, which makes his monologue far more offensive because he is without even that excuse.

The argument is that the Republicans are playing the "race card" in the Presidential campaign. They do this by using racial "codes." In particular, Matthews is in full righteous indignation mode that Mitt Romney had the gall (the gall!) to make a joke about his birth certificate.  Okay. Whatever. What a humorless man.

But then he goes on to say that when Republicans argue against removing the work requirements for welfare, it is a racial "code" designed to appeal to racist voters. This is a stock left wing argument, and it is important to understand how intellectually bankrupt it is.

Matthews thinks it is self-evident that talking about work-for-welfare is a racist code (I guess only black people are welfare recipients in Chris Matthews's mind. How's that for soft bigotry?). He doesn't argue the point; he asserts, re-asserts, indignantly re-asserts, and then dogmatically re-asserts the point ad nauseam. Note to Chris: repeating one's conclusion is not an argument. You then look like a complete buffoon when you respond to Priebus's admirably restrained refusal to get into a shouting match with you: "That's because you're losing!" Hardy har, har. You're quite the intellectual heavyweight, Mr. Matthews. Nobody goes toe-to-toe with you! 

If something is a "code," then it serves as a proxy for something else. It is not the thing itself. Therefore, it is simply not self-evident that it is racist. If it were, then it would not be a code. A racial "code" occurs when voters are told a non-racist message that "stands in" for an underlying racist message. By definition, then, arguing for work requirements to receive welfare, if it is a "code," is not itself racist.

Here's the intellectual problem. In order for a political position (e.g., requiring work for welfare) to be a racist "code" it has to: A) truly be a "stand in" for racist views, and B) the position itself has to actually be racist. The only way for (B) to be established is to demonstrate that there is no other principled reason for holding the position other than racism. In this case, it is patently absurd to think that there is no reason to require work for welfare that doesn't have at its root a racist motivation. It would take a great and futile amount of work to actually argue these points, and I understand that it is far easier for an intellectual like Chris Matthews to simply skip all this exhausting thinking stuff and just shout his conclusion. But it is intellectually bankrupt.  

Gerard Alexander puts it this way in a fine essay in this book:

[C]ritics want to have it both ways: they acknowledge that these views [e.g., work for welfare-bgm] could in principle be non-racist (otherwise they wouldn't be a 'code' for racism) but suggest they never are in practice (and so can be reliably treated as proxies for racism). The result is that their claims are non-falsifiable because they are tautological: these views are deemed racist because they are defined as racist. This amounts to saying that opposition to the policies favored by today's civil rights establishment is a valid indicator of racism. One suspects these theorists would, quite correctly, insist that people can disagree with the Israeli government without being in any way anti-Semitic. But they do not extend the same distinction to this issue. This is partisanship posturing as social science.

I'm not at all sure Chris Matthews could follow a brilliant paragraph like that, and it is too bad that it would be too much a mouthful for Reince Priebus to articulate on a morning talk show. Especially with Chris Matthews refusing to let you talk.

That leaves it to blog posts like this to set things straight.

Brian Mattson