How I learned to confront confirmation bias (by George!)

I can’t believe what I am hearing.

Wallace in the schoolhouse door

“And you will argue against the proposition.”

I don’t want to argue against the proposition, I insist.

“Somebody has to and you”—her glance shifts now to include my two teammates—”are who I picked.”

How can I stand in front of a class and argue against a proposition I myself agree with? Indeed, believe in with all my heart?

How can I in essence defend a man everybody knows is evil through and through?

Everybody I know agrees with the proposition that George Wallace is racist.

It is 1969 and people don’t believe the way he does any more (or so I think).

I look at my teacher and then at my teammates.

And I feel the panic rising up in me.

All that my mind can see is George Wallace in the schoolhouse door.

Look at that ramrod posture, the confident, defiant face. Chin up. Lips pursed.

The man talking to him is Nicholas Katzenbach, Deputy U.S. Attorney General.

They’re standing in the doorway to University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium. It’s June 11, 1963 and they are waiting for the arrival of two black students, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood.

Only after President Johnson federalizes the Alabama National Guard does Wallace relent and let them in.

And I’m supposed to prove he’s not racist?

A library. A very small high school library.

It’s 1969.

There is no internet.

In those days computers still filled entire rooms.

The memory here is a blur.

I remember sitting at a table with notepads in disarray in front of me.

I’m thinking, If George Wallace isn’t a racist, then what is he? Why did he say the words he said (“Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.”) and do the things he did?

Was it because it was the only way he could succeed as a politician?

That would make him an amoral opportunist.

Not a nice person. But not a racist.

Is this even possible?

My resources are sparse.

A couple of encyclopedia articles, none of them sympathetic to Wallace.

Some bound copies of the Washington Post (useless then as well).

I’m reading one of the encyclopedias and I see something I never knew before.

I wish I had the article here. What I remember is that Wallace began political life as a moderate on racial matters. Refused to join the Dixiecrats leaving the Democratic Party. Career as a judge, where he was known for his fairness toward all races.

Then running as the anti-Klan candidate for governor and losing.

Certainly a man of his time, but not nearly as hardcore racist as I’d thought to this point.

Since I don’t have the article with me now and can’t reconstruct it, let me quote the Wikipedia account, which tracks closely with what I do remember, though it adds testimony and analysis I don’t have as I sit in the library.

In 1958, Wallace ran in the Democratic primary for governor. In those days, the Democratic Party was virtually the only party in Alabama, and the party primary was the real contest. This was a political crossroads for Wallace. State Representative George C. Hawkins of Gadsden ran, but Wallace’s main opponent was state attorney general John Malcolm Patterson, who ran with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken against. Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP. Wallace lost the nomination by over 34,400 votes. After the election, aide Seymore Trammell recalled Wallace saying, “Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race? … I was outn_____ed by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outn_____ed again.”

In the wake of his defeat, Wallace “made a Faustian bargain,” said Emory University professor Dan Carter. “In order to survive and get ahead politically in the 1960s, he sold his soul to the devil on race.” He adopted a hard-line segregationist stance and used this stand to court the white vote in the next gubernatorial election in 1962. When a supporter asked why he started using racist messages, Wallace replied, “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n_____s, and they stomped the floor.”

Forget for a moment the good professor from Emory. He’s not in any of the articles I’m reading.

I do have the quotes. And they are gold.

In my mind I start making my case. And I realize that, though I’ve come to believe that Wallace isn’t genuinely racist, it’s going to be a tough case to make.

So I teach my teammates the logic. I give them the quotes. One will present our argument. The other the final statement.

In-between, I give myself the job of rebutting whatever the other guys offer up as an argument.

I figure that should be easy, since I’m pretty sure their overconfidence in what “everybody knows” is going to be their undoing.

And we win.

Here’s what I learned:

And what I’ve embraced in every controversy in the 45 years since this classroom debate:

  1. What “everybody knows is true” is just as likely not.
  2. What I know to be true may not be true—especially if I’ve always known it.
  3. One of the greatest cures for confirmation bias is constructing alternative hypotheticals to what I’ve always believed—and then defending them against my own arguments.

I won the debate—but was I right?

The vow and its result

The turning point

The legacy—”both tragedy and triumph”

Encyclopedia of Alabama: George C. Wallace (1963-67, 1971-79, 1983-87)

In 1982, black voters helped reelect Wallace, giving him one-third of their votes in the first primary. He then increased this constituency to defeat then-Lieutenant Governor George McMillan by one percentage point in the Democratic runoff. In the general election, Wallace carried 90 percent of the state’s black electorate, linking it with rural white voters and members of the Alabama Education Association to form a coalition that defeated his opponent, Republican Emory Folmar, mayor of Montgomery. 

Sue Anne Pressley, Washington Post: At Wallace Funeral, a Redemptive Tone

At one time, his name stood for segregation and racial hatred, the extreme margins of the white man’s world. But when George Corley Wallace was laid to rest today in this southern capital that was his launching ground for more than four decades, he was lauded as a political legend who had overcome his prejudices and redeemed his past….

Wallace spent his later years championing black voting rights. He appointed black officials to state offices in his final term as governor, beginning in 1982, and insisted that he was “rehabilitated,” as he put it. But his legacy will always pivot on a single quote and a single image from the bitter civil rights battles of the 1960s.

At his first inauguration speech in 1963, thrusting out his chest in defiance and shouting in his distinctive drawl, Wallace delivered the message that would mark him forever as a hidebound protector of the old ways: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”

That same year, the photograph that would always haunt him was snapped as he blocked the doorway of the registrar’s office at the University of Alabama, trying to halt National Guardsmen who were there to help enroll the school’s first two black students….

…Jesse L. Jackson, who had sparred with Wallace during civil rights demonstrations in Alabama in the 1960s, described the governor as “a figure who represented both tragedy and triumph.”

I still don’t know.

To be honest.

waphotowallacehs0

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