If a representative of our generation was made to stand before an alien tribunal and identify the worst of evils, there can be no doubt that it would be “racism” to which he would allude. It would be better for a person to be convicted in the court of public opinion of child molestation (to say nothing of murder or rape) than to be judged guilty of “racism.” This is particularly true if the person is regarded as white (witness George Zimmerman).
“Racism” is of a uniquely evil nature. Of this, we are sure. But what exactly is this most incendiary of crimes against humanity? What exactly is “racism?”
“Racism” as Doctrine of Innate Inferiority
Originally, “racism” is the term that was reserved to describe the position that individuals were intellectually and morally superior and inferior to one another depending on the racial groups to which they belonged. Thus, a white person who regarded all black people as inferior to himself simply and solely because they were black would be considered a “racist.”
The problem, though, with defining “racism” in terms of this belief is that while the doctrine of innate inferiority is doubtless false, it is not clearly evil. It would be evil, though, if one of two things were true.
(1). If all false beliefs were evil, then this false belief would be evil.
However, the idea that false beliefs are evil because they are false is ridiculous. Furthermore, if it is the erroneous nature of the doctrine of innate inferiority that renders it immoral, then there is nothing uniquely, or even distinctively, about it that makes it so.
(2). It may be argued that the doctrine of innate inferiority is evil because it is the basis for racial persecution.
This line too is dubious.
Whether this doctrine is either necessary or sufficient for racially-motivated hostility is an empirical question that has never been asked, though it has been answered. Conventional wisdom aside, thoughts are not always “the basis” for our actions. Think about it: a stranger cuts you off on the highway and you envision doing all manner of evil to him. But just because you have these ugly thoughts running through your mind at the moment, do you ever truly think that there is any real chance of your acting on them?
Thoughts are not always the basis of our actions. But let’s, for argument’s sake, say that they are. Why assume that the doctrine of innate inferiority will necessarily translate into racial animosity and cruelty? After all, we encounter beings, whether humans or animals, who we judge to be inferior in some respects or other all of the time. I do indeed hold that the man who is chronically unfaithful to his wife is morally inferior to I who am faithful to mine. And I believe that I am morally and intellectually superior to my goldfish. This, though, does not in the least motivate me to treat anyone or any thing cruelly.
In any event, it is the conduct that warrants praise or blame—not the ideas accompanying the conduct.
“Racism” as Racial Hatred
Some say that “racism” is a matter of hating the members of other races.
First of all, unless “hatred” is always evil, there is no a priori reason why this type of hatred is evil.
Second, just because a person hates all of the members of another race does not mean that he will then make it his life’s mission to persecute the objects of his hatred. Hatred, like any other emotion, expresses itself in numerous ways—none of which can be determined in advance.
Third, presumably, racial hatred is immoral because race is a morally irrelevant concept: an accident of birth like race is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. Well enough. But this being so, then it follows that “racism” is not uniquely horrible, for it is the irrelevance of race that renders racial hatred impermissible. This means that hating people on the basis of race is no more and no less evil than hating people who are left handed, short, tall, obese, thin, pimple-faced, etc. Thus, there is nothing distinctively, let alone uniquely, evil about hating others on the grounds of race.
“Racism” as Racial Discrimination
To discriminate on the basis of race—now this is “racism.”
Not so fast.
The problem with this approach is that it is indiscriminate in its application of the term “discrimination.” Is there something especially evil about using race as a criterion when making a decision? Or is it only evil when race is permitted to trump all other considerations?
Considering that there isn’t one among us who hasn’t assigned racial considerations some role in some of our decision-making—just think of the decisions to date, marry, and procreate—I think it is safe to conclude that the racial discrimination to which the champions of this understanding of “racism” object consists in relying upon race as the sole, or even primary, standard in life. Or so they’ll say.
So be it. The next question is: Why is it abominable to use race as the primary or sole standard in decision-making?
The answer, I would think, is that race is as irrelevant as eye color. Yet if this is so (and it is far from obvious that it is), then there is nothing particularly horrible about racial discrimination or “racism.” It is the irrelevance of race that renders the latter immoral.
Racial discrimination or “racism,” then, is no more and no less immoral than discrimination on the grounds of eye color.
From this analysis, there are a couple of deductions that we can make.
The first is that “racism” is most definitely not a unitary phenomenon. The forgoing accounts of “racism” are irreducible to one another: each stands by itself.
Secondly, upon considering each statement of “racism,” we are compelled to paraphrase the author of 1 Corinthians and cry out: “Where, oh ‘Racism,’ is your sting?” Each of these readings fails to accommodate the notion that “racism” is something especially awful.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.