In St. John’s gospel, the evangelist says of the wondrous deeds of his Master that so great are they in number that not all of the books in the entire world could contain them. It seems something similar could be said with respect to the virtually infinite claims of “racism” to which we are incessantly exposed.
But what exactly is “racism”?
It seems to me that while each admits of a multiplicity of variations, there are essentially but four definitions or models of “racism”: (1) “‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Hatred’”; (2) “‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Discrimination’”; (3) “‘Racism’ as ‘Doctrine of Innate Inferiority’”; (4) “‘Racism’ as ‘Institutional Racism’”. For convenience’s sake, unless otherwise stated, I will refer to each model in terms of the following abbreviations: (1) RH; (2) RD; (3) II; and (4) IR. However it is specifically understood, in the popular consciousness as well as in the precincts of contemporary politics, the media, and academia, there is something on the order of a consensus that “racism” is something at once pervasive and immoral.
In what follows, while exploring these four accounts of “racism,” I establish two things. First, they are mutually distinct and irreducible to one another—i.e., “racism” isn’t the unitary phenomenon that the singularity of the term suggests. Second, and most importantly, each model, beset as it is with perhaps insurmountable difficulties, fails to accommodate the conventional conception of “racism.” Because of spatial constraints, however, I will have to consider only some of these problems.
“‘Racism’ as ‘Racial Hatred’”
On its face, this seems as obvious a definition of “racism” as there is. Yet intellectual seriousness demands that we look beyond surface appearances. When we heed this call, what we discover is a model of “racism” that gives rise to more questions than answers, questions that, I submit, it cannot adequately address.
To my knowledge, in spite of its central importance to the RH model, this question has never been raised by any of its proponents. It is not hard to see why.
In posing this question, the defender of RH is thrown onto the horns of a dilemma from which there is no escape. If he grabs the first horn and takes the position that racial hatred is immoral because hatred itself is immoral, then the fact that the hatred is racially oriented is incidental and, as far as its moral worth is concerned, irrelevant: it is the hatred, regardless of the reason(s) underlying it, that is immoral. “Racism,” thus, loses the distinctive moral significance that had been attributed to it.
If, on the other hand, our proponent of RH opts for the second horn and denies (what most religious and moral traditions outside of Christianity deny) that hatred itself is not always impermissible, but only racially-oriented hatred, then he risks similarly relegating “racism” to the moral periphery, so to speak. Racial hatred is usually condemned on the grounds that race is as irrelevant a characteristic as eye color or left handedness and, thus, undeserving of hatred. But if this is what makes racial hatred immoral, then it is not racial hatred itself that is objectionable, but hatred invoked by anything irrelevant. In keeping with our examples, racial hatred—“racism”—is neither more nor less objectionable than hatred of brown-eyed and left-handed people.
So, regardless of which horn the defender of RH embraces, he inevitably marginalizes the distinctive moral significance typically attributed to “racism.”
“Racism” as “Racial Discrimination”
The first thing to note here is that this model in no way relies upon the forgoing and, in fact, denies the latter: “hatred” is but one motive among many in which a person could engage in racial discrimination, but it is in no wise necessary for it.
That being said, insofar as the conventional wisdom as well as most of the proponents of this model deny that “racism” is unconditionally unacceptable, the model itself fails, for there is scarcely a person with an iota of intelligence willing to deny that “racial discrimination” can, under some circumstances, at any rate, be permissible. Who objects to the owners of Chinese restaurants employing Asian workers so as to add an air of authenticity to the atmosphere? Or who would object to Epcot Center at Disney World hiring only people of the related ethnic backgrounds to work at its various “Lands?” In fact, the most zealous of “anti-racists” are especially disposed to favor racially discriminatory practices under what they deem to be the appropriate conditions.
“Affirmative action”—race-based policies favoring non-whites, particularly blacks, over whites—is a legalized form of racial discrimination. Whether this type of racial discrimination is justified or not isn’t a question with which I am currently concerned. The point, rather, is that the “anti-racists” who demand “affirmative action,” asserting not just that it is morally permissible but morally obligatory, acknowledge, then, that racial discrimination can be morally legitimate. But insofar as they unequivocally condemn “racism,” they concede, however implicitly, that “racism” and “racial discrimination” are two distinct phenomena, the one at all times immoral, the other not at all times immoral.
In response, it could be said that it isn’t always “racist” to discriminate on the basis of race, but only when race is as “irrelevant” as eye color or left handedness.
There are two quick counter-responses to this objection.
First, the notion of “relevance” is anything but self-interpreting. A white employer may concede that any given black applicant is just as qualified as any given white applicant to do the job that he is searching to fill. However, he may, reasonably enough, find the races of the respective applicants to be of extreme “relevance” if he is concerned about avoiding the astronomical costs in time, money, and reputation that would accrue to him in the event that the black applicant files a frivolous “discrimination” suit against him. Or maybe for fear of merely being suspected of being a “racist” by a prospective black employee he may decide to avoid hiring him. On the other hand, a black employer, though aware that the job description in question is race-neutral, may nonetheless prefer a black candidate over a white one because he suspects that the latter will ultimately not be as harmed by being denied this one opportunity because of the more abundant opportunities that he thinks exists for whites.
Second, if we accept that racial discrimination is immoral when race is as “irrelevant” as eye-color or left-handedness, then, as is the case when “racism” is equated with “racial hatred,” “racism” loses its distinctive moral significance, to say nothing of its special awfulness, for it is the “irrelevance” of the characteristic being exploited for discriminatory purposes and not the characteristic itself that assumes moral import.
“Racism” as “Doctrine of Innate Inferiority”
The belief that the members of one or other races are innately inferior to one’s own need not be accompanied by either hatred for those people nor even a willingness to “discriminate” against them. Similarly, hatred for others and a disposition to discriminate against them need not be attended by the belief that they are innately inferior.
So, if the belief in the innate inferiority of races other than one’s own need not translate into bitterness and cruelty toward their members, then how or why can the mere possession of this belief be immoral?
Now is neither the time nor place to explore the complex relationship between belief and action, but suffice it to note that it is to our actions primarily that we ascribe the properties of “moral” and “immoral.” Our beliefs, we ordinarily think, may be “true” or “false,” “correct” or “incorrect,” but not “moral” or “immoral.”
Take, for example, the belief in “equality.” As the (black) author, Thomas Sowell, noted in his book, Black Rednecks, White Liberals, this belief has been enlisted in the service of such just and noble causes as the abolition of slavery, but it has also been used to justify the worst sorts of abuses in societies throughout the world. Whether the belief in something like (moral, not arithmetical) equality can be said to be true or false depending on whether it has produced good or bad is a separate question; what seems more clear is that there is no way to ascribe any moral weight to the belief on the basis of what has been done in its name.
As I said, the relation between belief and conduct is a vexed question, and I am not sure whether I am altogether convinced that beliefs in themselves are devoid of moral value. However, one powerful consideration in favor of the view discussed here is the phenomenon with which mostly all of us are all too familiar. As we grow older, most of us realize that much of what we previously took for granted is false. In fact, in looking back over the history of our nation and the world, we realize (or at least believe) that much of what whole peoples in past eras and other places have thought is simply false. If the possession of just one false belief, to say nothing of many such beliefs, is sufficient to convict one of immorality, then there is not one among us who can escape condemnation. Ptolemy was no less immoral for having held that the Earth was at the center of the universe than was Hitler for believing that the Jews were the ruin of Germany.
The proponent of the II model of “racism” is in a dilemma. If he concedes that beliefs are of no moral import, then he must admit that “racism,” contrary to conventional wisdom, is not a moral phenomenon. If, on the other hand, he maintains that false beliefs are immoral by virtue of their falsity, then like his counterparts, the proponents of the RH and RD models of “racism,” he robs “racism” of its distinctive and particularly dreadful character.
From this dilemma I foresee no escape.
In order to sustain their charge, in the face of an ever shrinking number of instances of overt racial hostility toward blacks, that “racism” remains a nearly insurmountable obstacle to black success, the proponents of the IR model have shifted their focus off of individual white “racists” and onto something more abstract, less visible, but potentially much more formidable: society’s fundamental institutions.
The reasoning here is basically as follows. While individual whites may be (at least) consciously filled with nothing but good will toward blacks (and other minorities), the very institutions of which American life is constituted and within the framework of which its citizens’ worldview(s) have been formed are profoundly “racist.”
So, “racism,” then, requires neither hatred nor a willingness to discriminate nor a conscious belief in the innate inferiority of other races. In ways of which the best of intentioned whites are utterly unaware, their society’s institutions, like the Devil in some imaginings of the Christian narrative, determine their every wicked thought, word, and deed. The comic Flip Wilson used to say when he succumbed to temptation: “The Devil made me do it.” Apparently, whites can say when others accuse them of “racism”: “Social institutions made me do it.”
This theory of “racism” is immune to refutation. This isn’t because it is true, though. It is immune to refutation for the same reason that Solipsism, the theory that only one’s own mind is real and everything else but figments of it is impervious to refutation: it is designed to absorb all criticisms. There are, however, damaging claims that can be made against it.
First, institutions, though human, are nevertheless impersonal entities. The three branches of government, the family, and boxing, are alike institutions. To impersonal entities it is improper to ascribe moral characteristics, whether positive or negative. The persons who engage in those institutions may be “just” or “unjust,” “virtuous” or “vicious,” “right” or “wrong,” “racist” or not, but the institutions themselves are “useful” or “useless,” “efficient” or “inefficient,” “antiquated” or “novel,” “necessary” or “gratuitous,” etc.
In other words, this model of “racism” involves a fundamental confusion of categories. It makes no more sense to speak of an impersonal institution as being “just” or “racist” as it does to speak of an impersonal knife in these terms.
Second, the IR model relies on persistent statistical disparities between blacks and whites with respect to a number of social indicia—rates of crime, illegitimacy, unemployment, education, incarceration, etc.—where the former is at a disadvantage relative to the latter.
Analyzes of this data are in no short supply, so I won’t bother reiterating in detail what has been said already. But plenty of respectable thinkers, black, white, and other, have shown that the categories “black” and “white” are fictional monoliths that obscure crucial intra-racial differences that, when taken into account, produce a dramatically different picture from that painted by the proponents of the IR model. For instance, when blacks and whites of the same description—e.g., married, college-educated, etc.—are compared, such statistical disparities nearly vanish completely, and in some instances, blacks fare better than whites. Economist and nationally syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams, for example—a black man—showed over ten years ago that for every $1.00 earned by college educated white females, their black counterparts earned $1.25!
The IR model of “racism,” like the others, flounders.
The aforementioned models or accounts of “racism” I contend are comprehensive. Every notion of “racism” is some variation or other of one or more of these four models. I argued that each is distinct from and irreducible to the others, and none of them are adequate. Where does this leave the concept of “racism?”
It is undeniable that racially-oriented injustice is a real and dreadful phenomenon that has plagued our world for as long as there have been distinct racial groups. Yet the term “racism”—understood as denoting a phenomenon that is at once pervasive and immoral—is a word whose time has expired. It should be retired, for it possesses no clear meaning and it is much more often than not employed as a rhetorical device whereby whites are bullied and intimidated into making concessions of various sorts to the uncompromising demands of our “politically correct” orthodoxy.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.