Topic: Government & Politics

Race-baiting in Missouri
(9/20/2006)

Is race baiting as ethically offensive in an elected official as dishonesty? Can a candidate who employs this tactic still be a good and trustworthy U.S. Senator?

Missouri’s Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Claire McCaskill, recently decided to recycle one of the most unfair and insidious accusations that came out of the Hurricane Katrina debacle, telling a meeting of Democratic party leaders in St. Louis that “George Bush let people die on rooftops in New Orleans because they were poor and because they were black.” Maybe Kanye West* is on her campaign team, but it still is a despicable thing for any candidate for high office to say.

Is it still unethical for McCaskill to say such a thing if she honesty believes it? Yes, because she didn’t frame the statement as her opinion. She stated it as fact. There is no evidence that supports her statement as fact; it can only be asserted as a theory on the basis of suspicion, ill will, or blatant campaign opportunism. There is evidence of incompetence; there is evidence of poor judgement; there is evidence of insensitivity. But there is no evidence of racism, and unless and until there is, the only way that McCaskill can make such a claim is to state that it is her opinion. There is a danger to that approach, for it exposes her to legitimate questions about how she reached her conclusion, such as: “Historian Douglas Brinkley’s recent book about Hurricane Katrina shows New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, a black man, was far and away the public official most responsible for the botched evacuation efforts, the slow first responses to the tragedy, and the failure to organize effective rescue efforts. Are you saying that when a black man botches a rescue it is because he is inept, but that when a white man does the same it is because he is trying to kill black people? If so, defend that distinction, please.”

As the Ethics Scoreboard has pointed out more than once, it is unethical and unacceptable for politicians to attempt to win support by undermining the already tenuous state of trust between black Americans and their elected government through the use of rumors and unfounded accusations. The willingness to use such tactics not only demonstrates a lack of responsibility, but also reveals an individual so callous and reckless that she will exploit and increase racial tensions in order to gain power.

McCaskill may be immune to bribery, corruption and conflicts of interest; she may never say something she does not believe is true. But her race-baiting shows that she is willing to harm her state and the nation in order to win votes. She believes, in other words, that the ends justify the means. Of all the unethical states of mind that can infect a political leader, that is by far the most dangerous.

Missouri voters beware.

*Rapper West delivered an impromptu rant on last year’s Katrina Aid telethon accusing President Bush of not caring about black Katrina victims, as comedian Mike Myers stood next to him looking as if he was trying to will himself invisible.

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