The Strawman Fallacy

DCF 1.0

This is the third in a series of posts that will break down the vocabulary for techniques and fallacies that racists use when confronted with their racist actions and ideals.

If you have attempted to have conversations with people about systemic racism in America at any point since 2016, there is a good chance you have heard a variation of the following statement:

“America is not inherently racist. We elected a Black man as president–twice!”

This is an argument which is used time and again to shut down anyone who claims that America is inherently racist because of the systems which have been in place since its formation. However, when we look at this and similar arguments, it is easy to see why they are false. The person making these false claims is using a common technique used to quiet the opposition.

This type of argument is called a strawman fallacy. A strawman fallacy is a tactic where one side takes the view of their opposition, oversimplifies it, and then uses that false oversimplification to point out why it is an untrue statement. The false oversimplification “knocks over” the argument easily, much like a straw effigy is easily knocked over with the slightest bit of force. Children are known to use this argument quite a bit. An example of this can be as follows:

Child: Can I go and play at my friend’s house tonight?

Parent: Not tonight. You haven’t finished your chores.

Child: Ugh. That’s not fair! You NEVER let me have any fun!

The child is ignoring the parent’s argument (she hasn’t finished her chores, so therefore she cannot go and play at her friend’s house) and is falsely claiming that she is never allowed to have any fun. This paints her parent as the bad guy and (in her mind) proves that she is right, and her parent is wrong. 

When people use blanket statements such as, “We can’t be inherently racist, we elected a Black man as president,” or “Black people are inherently violent—just look at Black on Black crime!” they are either cherry picking data and focusing on only facts that support their claims (while ignoring data which supports the other side) or they are using anecdotal stories to support their racist viewpoints.

Another example of a strawman fallacy is when people victim blame. This happens all the time in the media. Every single time a Black man is murdered by a police officer, people excuse the death because of something that happened in the victim’s past. We saw this happen when George Floyd was murdered in 2020. Even though his “crime” was a simple misdemeanor (using a counterfeit bill to make a purchase at a convenience store), people justified his murder by bringing up crimes he had allegedly committed years before. The strawman is stating that George Floyd (or any Black man who may have at one point broken the law) is inherently “bad” and therefore his murder is justified.

How can we combat this type of fallacy? By bringing the person making it back to the facts. This can be difficult as often discussions surrounding racism can become heated and emotional (especially if you have directly experienced racism). However, if you are not directly affected (aka, if you are white) it is important for you to speak up. If someone misrepresent data, or makes blanket statements about a group of people, or tells an anecdote in order to justify the mistreatment of someone, bring them back to the facts. A simple, “Well, data shows that…” or “It sounds like you are misrepresenting the argument. Here are some good resources for you to read.” Then circle back to the original topic.

At the end of the day, it is important to understand tactics people use to falsely defeat facts. When we have the knowledge of how to argue back, we are empowered to speak up against racism.