Following up on my post about the weird "random" comparison warning that a Deval Patrick administration in Massachusetts would show what a Barack Obama presidency would look like, the author of the article (Jules Crittenden) doubled-down in my comments and claimed my post was itself foreshadowing Obama's White House reign. Specifically, he claimed that it indicates that any criticism of Obama would immediately be met with cries of racism. I want to interrogate that claim for a little bit, because I find it interesting.
Let's start with what should be an uncontroversial assumption: In an Obama administration, there will be some criticisms that will be legitimate and others that will be racist (regardless of what we think the actual proportion of each will be). Furthermore, we can be assured that there will be some errors of misidentification--legitimate criticisms tagged as racist and vice versa. Operating from the null hypothesis that "X criticism of Obama is not racist", there are two types of errors we can commit. A "Type I error" would be rejecting that hypothesis when it is, in fact, true--e.g., falsely claiming racism when there is no racist element. This is the type of mistake Mr. Crittenden is worried about. A "Type II error" is the reverse: accepting the null hypothesis when it is really false--e.g., deciding that a criticism is not racist or motivated by racism when it was.
My first observation is that Mr. Crittenden seems utterly unconcerned with the potential for Type II error. That is, he seems quite confident that all or most accusations of racism are false positives, and that it is highly unlikely that they have any grounding in reality. Yet, this seems to be somewhat of a leap--surely, America's history with racism is not so far removed that we can so sure that racism actually is not playing a role in these critiques? That's wildly optimistic in my view, and not born out by the relevant data on how race and racism continues to play a role in modern society. Second, it mistakes how these accusations tend to play out in the media. With rare exceptions, the original claim of racism does not "stick". What does stick is the claim that a Black politician is "playing the race card." In other words, the general public is overwhelmingly likely to accept the null hypothesis (even when it is explicitly challenged), making it more likely that Type II errors are occurring relative to Type I errors. Obama is particularly vulnerable to this, as his status as a Black politician with "cross-over appeal" to Whites makes any accusation that he's lapsing into old "race-card" politics particularly damaging.
Also, I'd like to make a comparative point with how race is being used here. The comparison I'm going to make is to accusations of disloyalty. That is, the claim that X criticism of a Repubican Presidency is a disloyal act. Certainly, it happens (see, e.g., here for Richard Nixon; here, here and here for Bush). And like with race, when the accusation is leveled without cause, it should give us pause--false claims of disloyalty are serious offenses that undermine the political process and pervert democratic legitimacy. So if we are more likely to make false IDs of "disloyal" criticisms compared to false IDs of "race" criticisms, then we should be more concerned with candidacies that seem likely to exacerbate this pre-existing bias.
Again, of all the criticisms, there is some proportion that are in fact "disloyal" and some proportion that aren't. Of course, an actual case where a disloyal or treasonous criticism is made is quite serious (just like actual racism is quite serious). And likewise, there are undoubtedly cases of false positives where a critique is tagged as "disloyal" but really isn't. With a null hypothesis of "X critique is not disloyal", we can apply the same Type I/Type II error question and see how it stacks up with race.
A quick look at history shows that accusations of disloyalty rarely actually pan out. Across the Red Scare, Japanese Internment and McCarthyism (to name a few), the trend has generally been that we've accused people of being disloyal when there was no grounds for it (Type I errors). There's no reason to think differently of the modern day--for all the talk about Democratic disloyalty, Nancy Pelosi has not been caught spying for al-Qaeda and Baghdad Bob was not Harry Reid in disguise. With race, by contrast, we historically make Type II errors--that is, the historical trend is for America to claim it isn't acting racist when it in fact is. Even in the depths of Jim Crow, you'd be surprise how often die-hard southerners would claim that, no, their laws weren't racist, they were perfectly neutral, constitutional statutes and any disenfranchisement of Black voters is pure coincidence.
Basically, historically we've been more likely to "miss" real acts of racism and less likely to falsely identify legitimate acts as racism. Conversely, we've also historically been more likely to falsely identify "traitors" than we have been to miss real Benedict Arnolds. But despite being more rational, this fear that electing GOP officers raises the likelihood of criticisms being silenced under the guise of "disloyalty" is rarely brought up vis-a-vis the constant fretting over the race card. I'd assert that this, in of itself, is indicative of racial bias--we over-estimate the "threat" of a Black president ("We couldn't challenge him--everything would be called racism!") compared to threats associated with other more mainstream actors.
Special shout-out to my Statistics 115 class for giving me the tools to write this post!