A Black Gift for Politics?

November 10, 2011

Multiple Pages
A Black Gift for Politics?

In Seth Forman’s book American Obsession: Race and Conflict in the Age of Obama, there’s a section about the 2009 incident in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when major-league professional black guy Henry Louis Gates was arrested trying to break into his own house.

Forman notes:

At the time of [Gates’s] arrest, the city of Cambridge had a black mayor and was located in a state with a black governor with a black president.

That brought to mind a thing I’ve often found myself thinking: Blacks may be natural politicians.

Cambridge is, after all, only 8.7 percent black. Massachusetts is less black than that: 6.6 percent. The USA is 12.6 percent black. Mayor Simmons, Governor Patrick, and President Obama are clearly successful politicians.

Politics is a line of work like any other, and to be successful in it, you need certain skills, aptitudes, and personality characteristics—certain gifts. You need to occupy a particular region in the many-dimensional space of what psychologists call the ABC clusters of traits: Affect, Behavior, and Cognition.

“There are natural politicians in any population, but are there more in those descended from sub-Saharan Africans?”

Is that region of psycho-space “blacker” than others? There are natural politicians in any population, but are there more in those descended from sub-Saharan Africans?

[Here I have to insert a public service announcement, some sort of boilerplate, like those legal disclaimers you get at the end of corporate emails. I have to say what has been blindingly obvious to every one of us since we were in pre-K, but which, for some reason I don’t understand, you have to say explicitly when discussing this topic.

Here goes: In any human population of more than a few tens of thousands, most traits, including those ABC traits, exhibit variation. Some members of the population are taller, some shorter; some are thinner, some fatter; some are more susceptible to diabetes, some less susceptible; some are outgoing, some are introverted; and so on.

Nothing could be more obvious to anyone who has mixed with his fellow human beings at all, but if you don’t spell this out, people get angry with you.

If you then add this other obvious thing—that none of the foregoing excludes the possibility of intrinsic and intractable differences in the statistics (averages and such) of different populations—people get mad at you, anyway.

The average height of a Dutchman is 6ft., 0.8in; the average height of a Japanese man is 5ft., 7.4in; but there are giants and midgets in both nations. Trust me on this.

End of public service announcement.]

So here’s the proposition: The kinds of gifts a politician needs are particularly widespread in black culture. Those are mostly skills in the presentation of selforatory, mimicry, empathy, charm, and salesmanship. Like everyone else, I’ve interacted a lot with salespeople; and though I strive to be impartial in one-on-one encounters, I always seem to find the black salesmen especially persuasive.

It helps that black Americans face a majority population whose wits have been addled by racial guilt. Seth Forman’s book shows, and we all knew anyway, that no white politician with Barack Obama’s wafer-thin résumé and shady associations could possibly have gotten elected president in 2008. Obama was wafted upward, as he had been all his life, on thermals of white guilt and patronage.

Sure, it helps. I believe, however, that blacks would be successful in politics anyway. It’s an occupational niche, and the skills you need to wriggle into that niche are typically black skills. Not that other races don’t have them, but proportionally more blacks have them, just as proportionally more East Asians are really good at math.

Suppose I’m right about this. Is this a thing we should, as we nowadays say, “celebrate”?

We’ve all heard the quip—it has innumerable variants—that “Heaven is an English policeman, a French cook, a German engineer, an Italian lover, and everything organized by the Swiss. Hell is an English cook, a French engineer, a German policeman, a Swiss lover, and everything organized by the Italians.” It expresses the common (and correct) belief that certain ethnies are generally good at certain things and bad at other things.

Politics isn’t quite like cooking, loving, or policing, though. We all know what it means to be good at those things, but what does it mean to be good at politics? Good at getting elected? OK, and then…? Are there orthogonal sub-skills here—getting elected versus getting things done? To put it slightly differently: If blacks are good at politics, are blacks good for politics?

There are some negative indicators. There seems, for example, to be an ethical gap. At one point two years ago, all seven US House of Representatives members under investigation by the House Ethics Committee were black. It’s the same at the local level: Every one of the six New York pols mentioned in this story about corruption via bogus charities is black.

A minority of blacks—the ones who don’t just squeal, “Racism!” when you bring up this sub-topic—point out that every rising ethnic group in US history goes through a spell of public corruption. Didn’t the Irish give us Tammany Hall? On the other side of the nature/nurture divide, some of the bolder kinds of evolutionary psychologists have speculated about evolved racial differences in morality.

I suppose we shall learn more about these things as history and science inch their way forward. If I’m right about a black aptitude for politics, a 2012 Cain-Obama contest (I’m not betting on it, but you never know) would be a clash of titans.


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