It's become fairly common to say that voting for someone because of their race is just as racist as voting against them because of their race. The same is often claimed of voting for someone because of their gender.
I think this view is incorrect and here's why.
Moral decisions are made in a historical and moral context. Here's one that comes up in ethics classes: Suppose it's WWII. You are a Jew in Europe, and some Nazis are coming through the neighborhood. You and your family are hiding in a hidden room of someone who's trying to shelter you. As the Nazis come in to the house, you have an infant that starts to cry. If the crying continues, it's virtually certain that you will be found and everyone in the family is likely to die in the camps. So you cover the baby's mouth. You have to cover the baby's mouth for so long that the baby dies. (Ignore whether or not it's possible to leave the nose uncovered.)
Was this the right thing to do? It's at least a tough call, isn't? The baby was going to die if he cried, and this way you saved everyone else. Morally upstanding people can disagree about this, but even if you think that covering the mouth was the best that could be done, it doesn't mean you support killing infants. The context matters.
And it matters in elections as well. The reason that gender and race are not supposed to be factors in deciding how you vote is because they shouldn't make a difference to who is the most qualified. Being a general or a secretary of state or a senator or a governor are real qualifications for the Presidency. They demonstrate what you can do. Race and gender are not supposed to be like this. When you want someone to lead your war, you don't find the best male general or the best female general; you just get the best general.
But we don't live in a world where race and gender don't matter. We live in a world where the simple right to vote was not even granted to most adult Americans for most of the nation's history. We live in a world where people took hoses and dogs to citizens who sat at the wrong lunch counter. And while those particular events occurred a few decades ago now, there remain clear differences between people of different ethnicities and sexes in the country. Women are still paid, in many instances, less for the same work than a man is. Death penalties are applied far more often to black convicts than to white ones even in the same sort of crimes. A popular leader who is black is still often considered a black leader rather than an American leader. The end result is that a lot of people in this country don't ever really think they could be President of this nation based solely upon their skin color and sex.
So let's now compare voting for someone because they are black or a woman and voting against them because they are. Do they really seem so equal?
The against-vote says, "a woman could never be a good leader of our nation because women just aren't capable of this." The for-vote is saying something like, "if I vote for a woman for President, she can serve as a reminder to half of the nation's children, that they are not second-class and that they too can work hard to be anything they want to be. I hope it will inspire them for years to come."
Is the second view just as sexist as the first? I think not. It doesn't work of course for white men precisely because we didn't pop into existence yesterday. White men have always been in charge of stuff and every single President ever has been a white man.
Now, am I saying that one should completely base their vote upon someone's race or gender just to cure historical ills? Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely not. Did I say "absolutely" enough yet? In case, absolutely not.
It becomes just one voting issue among many. Actually having a black President will inspire many Americans to raise their expectations. And it actually could enhance our status among many other nations who still view America through the lens of the Civil Rights era. A few weeks ago I read a post on "Watching America," which is a site that translates various foreign press articles and opinions, and after Obama's nomination, a French commentator was openly reflecting on the fact that, while the French criticize American racial history routinely, they've never had a single black leader in their own nation, and there are large numbers of French people with Algerian, Cameroon, and other African backgrounds.
So there could be a slight advantage to electing someone just because of their race. Slight good could come of it. And yet, it is indeed slight. It would be the rare instance in which the good things that come out of voting for someone because of their race or gender are more important than everything else they stand for. Inspiration is nice and all, but if they are going to attack your constitutional rights, wreck the economy, use the military in detrimental ways, or mismanage the executive branch, who cares anymore about slight good will? Those things completely overweigh the race/gender issue. Very likely, at the Presidential level, it would never occur that race or gender becomes important enough to base your vote on it more than anything else.
However, still, a vote for and a vote against are not the same thing morally. To make the two equivalent is to make ethical decisions based on lists rather than the world.
**Practicing my polemical essays.