The Malia/Racist Situation: The basic questions

When a friend sent me the link to the story (, I asked her at first if she’d be offended if I didn’t read it. I could see from the title that it wasn’t going to improve my day or my feeling of solidarity with the human race. A day later, in a “car-crash-you-can’t-avert-your-gaze-from” sort of way, I read the story and followed up on some of the surrounding context. While it didn’t improve my attitude any, it did get me thinking. How can people, who live around me and probably seem like decent people most of the time, think that it is OK to write hateful, racist things about an eleven year-old girl? How can anyone ever think that’s an ethically acceptable thing to do? There are (at least) two answers to that question, one contextual and the other a matter of reflection (or lack thereof).

The contextual answer has always been both the explanation and the excuse for racism and hate that have their roots in social and economic alienation. People who are economically and socially alienated, especially those who have not always been thus, particularly those without fairly sophisticated critical thinking skills, tend toward extreme small-c conservatism. This is to say that change, since it brings us farther away from a situation that was perceived to be better for the group or class that the perceiver belongs to, is by nature bad.

In this case, white working-class men (and increasingly some women) look back to a period when it was possible for a working class man to support his family and have a comfortable lifestyle whilst working a blue-collar job. As was the experience in my own family, a sheet-metal worker in the fifties through early nineties could support a family, send his kids to college, and retire at 60 to a comfortable lifestyle. The combination of global socioeconomic shifts (outsourcing, labour arbitrage, industrial base being exported to the Far East/Pacific Rim) and current deep recession have made that all but impossible. While to some degree the conservative worship of the 50s as the golden moment of US history is the result of some retrospective rose-coloured glasses, it is certainly true that there are far fewer opportunities for those without advanced education and that the world of Ward and June is gone, not to return.

When this sort of alienation occurs, those so alienated frequently view any change at all as a cause of their alienation. I think much of the outright hate of Barack Obama has its genesis in exactly this dynamic. On any objective measure, President Obama would be a hard man to hate. You could hate his politics, for sure, but he seems like an awfully nice person. And an eleven year-old girl? Who could possibly have hateful things to say about her (except her parents…I have an eleven year old myself). What these people hate is not really President Obama or Malia. What they hate is the fact that the world is changing and it has eliminated the privilege white working- and middle-class men have had (or felt they have had) for some time. Even though President Obama is only a symptom of that change, their animus falls on him and now, reprehensibly, his daughter.

I don’t think my analysis so far is new or particularly novel. It’s only a slightly updated version of the traditional sociological understanding of racism among poor whites. What is new is the way the hatred has been generalized in one sense and made more specific in another. The important thing to realize here is that while this explains what’s behind the actions of people who call an 11 year-old girl who goes to one of the best schools in the country “ghetto[sic] trash”, it does not excuse it. Additionally, I think it is incomplete because there is something missing from the personal decision-making process of someone who could write something like that.

I remember once whilst in high school driving around with a bunch of friends. Putting aside the fact that four seventeen year-old boys are the dimmest creatures on the planet (when young men travel together their IQs are divisional rather than average, i.e. 5 boys with an average IQ of 125 actually act like they have an IQ of 25), I remember that we did something like steal a mailbox or something like that (I don’t remember exactly these decades later) but I remember thinking to myself “I just acted like an idiot. I was just playing the part of stupid frat guy in a John Hughes movie”. It was years later, in a philosophy class, that I found out that this is an essential reflection that can lead people to act as their best selves.

This reflection is central to what is called “virtue ethics”. It’s one of the primary ethical traditions in the west, one that was first explained by Aristotle. Rather than ask “is what I’m about to do right” (deontological ethics), or “does the society in which I live think this is the right thing to do” (social ethics), the virtue ethicist asks “would a virtuous person do this?”. My “16 Candles” moment was of just this variety and I think it is one of the main things missing from people who can despicable things around an 11 year-old girl that they don’t know. I’m pretty sure that people who do such things haven’t stopped to asked themselves “would a person who I consider virtuous call the President’s daughter ‘ghetto trash’”. It’s a version of “What Would Jesus Do?”. I think it’s safe to say that almost no one would think that Jesus or any other virtuous person would do these things. Further, anyone who reflects on this would see this too.

This is why I suspect that, along with sociological and economic alienations, there’s not a lot of ethical reflection happening as some of these people are writing their blog comments. It’s probably something we could all use with a little more of.