EXCLUSIVE: Interview With Kwame Anthony Appiah On Sununu And Race’s Role In The Election

This Thursday, Romney campaign co-chair John Sununu said that former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed President Obama because both were African-Americans, despited Powell’s stated justifications being based on Obama’s foreign and economic policy record. Sununu’s comments (which are par for his course) brought the simmering racial subtext in this election to the fore: anti-black prejudice has spiked since President Obama’s 2008 victory, when the President likely lost three to five points in the popular vote as a consequence of racist voting.

To discuss the complex questions surrounding race, identity, and voting, ThinkProgress reached out to Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and African Studies at Princeton University and one of the world’s most prominent scholars of race, identity, and politics. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

TP: How does this assumption that African American voters think principally in racial terms work to define race in the United States?

KAA: Well [laughs], that’s a complicated question.

Look… I think that it’s …many people who voted for President Obama the first time around had in their minds the fact that they were voting for the first African American president and thought that was a consideration in favor for doing so, and that applies to lots of white people, as well and lots of black people. And in a country with our history, it’s not an unreasonable thought if somebody’s acceptable on other grounds as a president, that that should weigh in his favor. It’s true that President Obama has gotten a larger proportion of the black vote, I believe, than most Democrats. On the other hand, most African Americans vote overwhelmingly for white Democrats, as well as black ones. And the reason for that is that African Americans think Republican Party is less friendly to advancing the causes of black people and doing something about our history of racial inequality than the Democrats are.

And, so, I think that’s the context within which one has to think about the fact the president has done very well with black voters. The situation for minorities in general is such that they’re likely to value the thought that somebody of their own identity is a serious candidate for office. And not just minorities. It applies to women, as well, in country which has a long history of keeping women out of high places. Women have sometimes thought that the fact that someone was a woman was a consideration in favor for voting for her, as indeed have many men who think that the history of exclusion of women from power is a bad thing. And so I think that the identity of a candidate, especially if it’s a minority identity or a historically excluded identity, can be a reasonable basis for voting for them. I’m pretty skeptical that the reason Colin Powell endorsed President Obama was, as it were, simply that he was black. Colin Powell belongs to –- or used to belong, I don’t know what his current party affiliations are –- the moderate wing of the Republican Party and if the moderates in the Republican Party were attending more carefully they would notice that many, well if all of them were attending properly, they would notice that President Obama’s actual policies are pretty close to the polices that have historically been favored by moderate Republicans [laughs].

So I’m sure that Colin Powell would not endorse someone for president whom he didn’t think was not doing a good job for reelection to the presidency, who didn’t think he was doing a good job on domestic and foreign policy, and that I suspect is the main reason why he endorsed him.

TP: Right. And of course, those were his stated reasons, which is sort of why this remark has generated controversy because Sununu is implying that his real reasons are hidden and they really must have to do with race. What’s going on there? How would you analyze this assumption that everything must be about race in context of America’s racial history?

KAA: I think, as I say, it’s inevitable, given our history, that it’s one of the things you think about when you have a chance to elect a man who’s black or a woman. You think about what that means, and a lot of politics is about the meaning of things as much as about any particular matter. But as I say, someone like Colin Powell, who’s been so close to the circle of government most of his adult life, is in a good position to evaluate…whether he thinks the President is doing a good job on the issues he cares about.

And even if it’s the case that Colin Powell’s endorsement and support for the President has an element in it of believing that it’s good a good thing for the country to have a black president, I think that’s a reasonable thought. But it’s rather odd to reduce it to that. And in fact, frankly, I’m more worried about people who vote against President Obama because he’s black than I am people who vote for him because he’s black. [laughs] My guess is that there will be more of those on Mr. Sununu’s side than in the Democratic Party voting against him because he’s black.

I know the President’s people –- I don’t know if the President himself has spoken about this –- the President’s people believe that these two are a wash. That is, the number of people who vote for him, as it were, solely because he’s black is about the same as the number of people who vote against him because he’s black. And what they think is most Americans are smart enough to figure out that can’t be the only question.

TP: I think that’s a very interesting point, especially given a recent analysis that suggested that white voters are at least as likely to vote for white candidates than black voters are for black candidates. We talk about how women vote for women, African Americans vote for African Americans candidates and — I’m Jewish — how Jews vote on Israel, for Jewish candidates, or other identity-related concerns. Why do we not have that conversation about white voters voting for white candidates?

KAA: Well, most of us make a moral distinction between preference for people of your own identity and racism, which is hostility towards members of other races. Even if they can lead to the same act, they are very different. And if you raise a question of whether an upper middle class white man is voting for another upper middle class white man because he’s an upper middle class white man, you raise the possibility that you’re accusing him of being a racist.

Now, I think in a country with our history and given the fact that there is privilege associated with being a man or being white…it’s sort of less excusable to vote for someone on the basis of class or gender or race identity if you’re an upper middle class white man, but it’s understandable. What I think is inexcusable is voting against somebody because they’re not a white person, just as I think it would be wrong for someone to vote against Governor Romney because he’s a white person, or for that matter because he’s a Mormon.

We need to distinguish, as it were, between the negative role of identity, the xenophobic side of identity and the preference for one’s own kind side, which we think needs to be kept under control but is at least sometimes morally permissible. And I think we don’t raise the issue about white men voting for white men is because it seems likely that that will be read as an accusation of an impermissible kind of racism.

TP: And why do you think we’re so afraid of having a conversation about that impermissible kind of racism, even though, it seems to me, based on the evidence that we have it certainly does play a role in voting in the United States, that there is racism.

KAA: Yes, well, there is. I mean, I think it’d be an odd claim to deny it. Look, one reason is of course, there’s much less of it than there once was. It’s also much less likely to be articulated as it used to be. And in general, nowadays, if you accuse someone of racism, they don’t usually defend themselves by saying, “Yeah, that’s right” and “that’s what I think.” They offer some explanation or excuse. And I think once you raise questions about racism, you get various kinds of defensive responses. There’s a question of political wisdom about how helpful it is to point racism out when you think it is a political motive.

But I want to be clear, the scale of the phenomenon as simple racial hostility as a reason for not voting for the president is not anything like what it would have been. I’ve seen estimates it’s as low as 3 percent of people for whom that’s the issue so I don’t want to overstate the extent to which there are people I think that’s the only thing they’re thinking about.

But there’s no doubt that I think it’s a plausible view that there are some people, some white people, who are made uneasy by…not that they’re voting simply on the basis of race, or even that they’re very conscious of it, but that they’re made uneasy by having a confident black man in charge of things, which is something, you know, large numbers of Americans aren’t used to, though more and more of them are because there are more and more African Americans in positions of leadership in the Army, in business life, in universities, and so on.

So I think it’s sort of complicated disentangling the question of how much racial attitudes are –- in relation to voting –- simply racist, and how is much more complicated psychological things.

And on the whole, you know, my own inclination, apparently Mr. Sununu doesn’t share this, is to focus on the reasons people give in political society to decide whether those are good or bad reasons, rather than trying to psychoanalyze them. I mean, I don’t think it’s helpful to psychoanalyze the president, I don’t think it’s helpful to psychoanalyze Mr. Romney. I think it’s better to see what they say and whether you think it’s persuasive or not. But, my impression is that Mr. Sununu has a tradition of sort of shooting first, as it were, and thinking after, and I suspect his correction probably reflects his considered view. [laughs]

TP: That’s a very fair view. I wanted to go on the other side briefly and focus less on the negative aspects and more on the –- I don’t know if positive is the right word –- perhaps constructive. From some of your work that I’ve read, you’ve argued African American identity is shaped and determined not just internally inside the African American community, but by broader social forces inside the United States. I’m curious about what you think the role of voting is, or voting for President Obama particularly, in the contemporary construction of African American identity.

KAA: You know, there’s no doubt that many people were moved by the election of the first black president, and by many, many people, I mean many people of all races. But it’s obviously particularly significant in the way in which the election of the first woman to the presidency or the first Jewish president will be significant to people who identify to women and people who are Jewish. And I think that it’s just the fact of how we are and it’s not, I don’t think, an unattractive feature of how people are.

So yes, black people have an investment, had a particularly substantial investment in the president when he was first elected, and they continue to feel like in part because I think they think he’s done a good job. Not just because he’s black, but because they think he’s done a good job, that he’s sort of an impressive person.

And the judgment that he’s an impressive person is one that you may think is also shaped by identification. It may be we are more inclined to see people as doing well if we identify with them than if we don’t. And that’s very evident in response to the president. After all, Democrats are inclined to think the president is doing well, and Republicans are inclined to think that he isn’t, and one of the reasons is that they’re Democrats and Republicans. [laughs]

We are a species whose social psychology is shaped by an insider-outsider tendency, which means that we think the worst of people who are “them” and we think the best of people who are “us.” That includes on racial grounds in many contexts –- especially on the positive side –- I think we’re particularly inclined to think well of people we identify with. But it applies also very much, and I would say in the case of elections even more strongly, to political identities.

If you think of yourself as a Democrat you’re likely to evaluate things done by Democrats in the most charitable light and to evaluate things done by Republicans in the least charitable light. And vice-versa. It’s true of Republicans thinking about Democrats. It’s just a fact about how we are.

Do not get me wrong, I think this is a problem that we are like this. I think it would be better if we were better at saying, “Okay, I support him generally, but that wasn’t a good move” or “I disagree with him mostly, but on this thing I think he’s right.” I think if we did more of that, we’d be better judges of politics, but that’s not how we are.

So yeah, African Americans have an investment in the president, they think better of him, I’m sure, on average than people in general in the United States, and I’m sure part of that is that they think of him “as one of us.” And that would apply that applies…there’s lots of examples that kind of thing Southerners are often particularly inclined to think well – southern white people, anyway, of Southern whites when they’re in national office.