»  Taki's Magazine

November 10th, 2011

  Are Blacks Natural Pols?

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Reading Seth Forman's book American Obsession: Race and Conflict in the Age of Obama, I got to the part in Chapter 5 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. Seth Forman points out that: "At the time of [Gates'] 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: that blacks may be natural politicians.

Cambridge, Mass. is, after all, only 8.7 percent black. Massachusetts is less black than that: 6.6 percent. The U.S.A. 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, as in any other, you need certain skills, aptitudes, and personality characteristics — certain gifts. You need to occupy a certain particular region in the many-dimensional space of what psychologists call the ABC clusters of traits: Affect, Behavior, and Cognition.

Is that region of psycho-space "blacker" than others? There are natural pols in any population, of course, but are there more in populations descended from sub-Saharan Africans?

[Here I have to insert a public service announcement: some boilerplate, like those legal disclaimers you get at the ends of corporate emails. I have to say a thing that 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, or else people get mad and scream abuse at you.

Here goes: In any human population of more than a few ten 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.

As I said, 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: well, if you add that, people get mad at you anyway.

The average height of a Dutchman is 6ft 0.8in; the average height of a Japanese 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: that the kinds of gifts a politician needs are particularly widespread in black culture. Those are mostly skills in the presentation of self — oratory, mimicry, empathy, charm, 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 salesman especially persuasive.

It helps of course 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 real good at math.

Suppose I'm right about this. Is this a thing we should, as we nowadays say, "celebrate"? Let's see.

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, of course, correct) belief that certain ethnies are, in the generality, 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 vs. 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 does seem, for example, to be an ethical gap. At one point two years ago, all seven of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives 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.

Blacks themselves — the minority of them, I mean, who don't just squeal "racism!" when you bring up this sub-topic — point out, what is true, that every rising ethnic group in U.S. 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, come to think of it, science — inches its way forward. If I'm right about a black aptitude for politics, though, a 2012 Cain-Obama contest (no, I'm not betting on it either, but you never know) would be a clash of titans.