Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You May Not Be a Racist, But Your Logic Needs Work

Dafydd (via) can prove he's not a racist:
To be a racist, one must, at the very least, believe in the concept of race -- where "race" means some discrete and self-perpetuating subgroup of humans, defined by skin color and a certain morphology, but that also affects behavior and (some argue) thought itself. Anybody who accuses (e.g.) Clarence Thomas of "acting white" passionately believes in race-determinism.

This seems accurate to most people; but I simply don't believe in different "races" of Man: The morphology is inconsistent and its connection with behavior and thought is utterly spurious.

It is absolutely true that skin color and morphology are not determinate of behavior or ideology. But it is absolutely false to say that one must hold a belief in such determinism in order to be racist.

[Before we go further, a warning: this is a long post. And it does not address the totality of Dafydd's post; I don't take on his (badly misguided) account of culture, for instance. It has a narrower focus: disproving that not believing in biologically determinate races necessarily makes one "not racist".]

It is notable that Dafydd doesn't provide a definition of racist -- something quite essential to the supposed proof that believing the above proposition (we'll call it proposition X) is a necessary condition for being racist. If "racist" was defined as "anyone who votes Republican" (what I imagine the frustrated GOPer seems to believe is the effective definition for many folks), then not believing X would be quite consistent with being racist. Of course, "voting Republican" is a bad definition of racist. But that just illustrates the need to give a solid definition of racism -- then we can figure out whether disbelief of X necessarily immunizes one to it.

So let's try and nail down what "racism" means. Dafydd doesn't seem to deny that there can be such thing as a racist, he just denies the existence of "races" as he defines them. This indicates that he believes there can be racists in a world where, as a matter of objective fact, there are no "races". The implication is that a "racist" is one who (falsely) believes that there are such things as biological races. This would complete Dafydd's syllogism nicely: Believing in the existence of "races" is not just necessary to be a racist, it is what it means to be racist. If X is necessary and sufficient to be racist, then not-X means not racist. Hurray!

So what's the problem? Well, several, but here's the first: Very few people define "racist" in this way. Racism is generally not thought to be an identifier of (even false) descriptive affiliations (akin to being a "flat-earther"). Rather, it is generally taken to involve certain normative commitments; namely, treating certain (other races) as inferior, or otherwise rejecting the rights and freedom of people on basis of their perceived racial affiliation. Of course, belief in innate behavioral differences between the races is plausibly taken to be highly correlated with such differential treatment. But they're not the same thing, and it is important to be clear about what the actual problem is. Presuming that Clarence Thomas has a normative obligation to hold certain beliefs because he is Black is racist. Presuming that Clarence Thomas washes his kinky hair less often than I do my straight hair is not (even if my supposition is incorrect).

Once we put that view of "racism" on the table, then the shortcomings of Dafydd's logic become quite apparent. We can imagine someone who cheerfully admits the following:
I fully accept that there are no inherent biological differences amongst the "races"; skin color and morphological differences have no bearing on either behavior or ideology. Nonetheless, I still do not believe that people with certain skin colors and/or morphological features, or their blood descendants, should have the right to vote. It's just a prejudice I have. Besides, restricting voting rights to persons with my skin color and morphology means my vote has proportionally more influence -- restricting voting rights along those lines is in my self-interest.

Would anybody hesitate to label this "racist"? Hopefully not, even though the espoused ideology is in no way dependent on racial biological determinism. At the end of the day, we are agnostic as to why a person believes that socio-political benefits should be distributed in ways that track morphology -- we just think it's bad, and criticize accordingly. A hint that this view is correct is how you reacted when you read the word "prejudice". Taking Dafydd's view for all its worth, "it's just a prejudice" would be an argument that what we're dealing with isn't racism, but simple insanity -- a normative stance completely devoid of rational reasons backing it up. But for most of us, "prejudice" is signal pointing towards racism, not its absence. Racism is the expressed normative view, not the putative factual accounts (or lack thereof) backing it up.

Seems like a small outlier? Alright, let's push it a step further. Presumably, part of what is driving Dafydd's intuition is that the only reason one would hold the above normative commitments is if one already has some account of "other races" to treat differently, the very premise Dafydd rejects. Yes, we can imagine someone who is cheerfully agnostic to this question, but surely by and large he's right.

Except not, or at least not necessarily. Now the problem comes in the restrictive definition Dafydd gives to "race" (biological determinants of behavior). I'd argue that most scholars wouldn't define "race" this way, at least not anymore. The general view on race nowadays is that it is a socially constructed form of categorization that has no biological basis, but which has historically and contemporaneously been used as a method for distributing socio-political benefits and burdens (by "socio-political" I mean to encompass both legal rights, like voting, and also social treatment, like stereotyping -- such as Justice Thomas being accused of "acting White" -- or suburban "White flight". I also include economic discrimination, like redlining and employment discrimination.). This definition is perfectly consistent with Dafydd's rejection of proposition X.

The history of race in America is one in which such benefits and burdens were so distributed. The category doesn't depend on whatever faux-biological rationales were originally given for it. A mistaken biological belief may have gotten the ball rolling, but now it has its own momentum. Indeed, while I'm willing to concede arguendo that race gained its original salience through bad scientific beliefs, I don't have to: We can imagine a situation where elites conspired to simply make up biological racial determinism and spread it amongst the people to justify enacting racist policies, never actually believing it themselves (highly unlikely), or where people deluded themselves into believing in biological racial determinism as an ex post facto way of rationalizing the creation of a state of affairs they'd otherwise consider to be unjust (far more likely). Both permutations demonstrate the unnecessary nature of a metaphysical underpinning for a race to have salience.

So if race doesn't correspond to a real biological thing, what is race? Simple: Race is race; that is, race is that which we have described as and made policy based upon its identification as race. There is nothing but the edifice. That it turns out there is no biology underlying the whole deal doesn't cause the schema to snap out of existence, it just emphasizes that there is nothing beneath the construct.

Race can be thought of as an building. Perhaps some unenlightened people would think that the building was a natural feature of the world; there from creation. As it turns out, we know that it was, quite literally, socially constructed. But that constructed quality (distinguished from being metaphysically grounded) doesn't make any less "real". Calling out the building as being "constructed" doesn't itself do anything; it doesn't cause the edifice to come crashing down, it has very little effect on whatever social or political arrangements have developed around the building. Same with concepts. Whether the categorization schema continues to have salience ("as a method for distributing socio-political benefits") is completely divorced from whether the belief that originally motivated its creation was ever factually correct, whether anyone still holds it today, indeed, whether anyone ever genuinely held the view at all. Call it a simulacrum, call it hyperreality -- big words for a not-actually-that-controversial position. Now let's be clear, it could be that the categorization system of race no longer does have salience. Buildings don't last forever; the point of the analogy is simply that you have to do work beyond a mere expression of disbelief to bring them down. Whether race continues to have salience in the distribution of socio-political benefits and burdens, as it had done for many, many years, is an empirical question.

That was a tragically long diversion: I apologize. So let's circle back to the supposed topic of the post: the possibility of being racist without believing in biological racial determinism. What we've accomplished is clarifying our terms. "Race" is not a descriptor mapping onto any brute biological race, race is a socially constructed categorization schema which at at least some historical point salience as a manner of distributing socio-political benefits and burdens, one that has no content but that which we've created for it (which doesn't mean we can simply declare, ala Santa Claus, our disbelief in it to make it disappear). Empirically, we then have to look to see if the system still is active -- if we still do, in fact, distribute benefits and burdens in way that tracks the lines the system draws. The evidence here is overwhelmingly that yes we do; this post is too long already for me to elaborate beyond that.

And what is a racist? I'd say a concept or argument or behavior is racist if it causes or reinforces unequal inegalitarian distribution of benefits and burdens on racial lines. It's not any descriptive beliefs, it's not the mere usage of race, it's not even the existence of the category -- it's the perpetuation of inequality on lines tracking the category. Calling a person racist probably means they have a normative commitment to such a state of affairs; the question, really, is at what level of knowledge we demand: to borrow from criminal law, is it intent, knowledge, recklessness, negligence, or absolute liability? I can't resolve that question.

I will say this: people, including people who believe themselves to be non-racist, act in ways that discriminate on basis of race -- they adhere to the categorization schema. The literature on subconscious racism is overwhelming in this respect. Regardless of whether we label them "racist" or not, what is clear is that the cognitive state of believing that race "doesn't exist", or believing oneself not to be racist, has very little to do with whether the categorization system of race maintains its salience; assuming that one has an obligation to be anti-racism, not just "not racist", this is a damning moral flaw. More likely, trying to restrict the field of racism so narrowly to outdated questions of biological determinism is generally a signal that one is unwilling to look at the question in its full breadth or depth, meaning that one is unlikely to have much of an effect on dissipating it.

So here are the conclusions:

(1) Logically, it is pretty much just wrong to say that a belief in biological racial determinism is necessary to be a racist, unless your definition of racist simply is "one who believes that";

(2) The likelihood that someone who does not hold that belief is a "racist" is highly dependent on our definition of racism; and

(3) There is virtually no reason to believe that not believing in racial biological determinism will do anything to break down the continued salience of race as a categorization schema, which to my mind is a far more pressing issue than whether we get to use the word "racist" or not.


N. Friedman said...


I was with you until you reached this line: "I'd say a concept or argument or behavior is racist if it causes or reinforces unequal distribution of benefits and burdens on racial lines." I think this this definition is not only racially conscious but often racist in practice. Perhaps, I am not correctly interpreting what you write or perhaps you have not written clearly. I am only going on the words I read.

What is behavior or concepts that cause the "unequal distribution of benefits"? My best guess is that it is a definition which would, in practice, often cause racism by creating race based determinations on the distribution of benefits by means of determinations that use race to discriminate while seeming to be neutral. Which is to say, it is not only race conscious but, inevitably, racist in practice. The best explanation I can give comes from my family's experience in the USSR.

There, Jews, a defined nationality under Soviet law - a race, as understood by people on the street - , were officially entitled to their share of spots in higher education (i.e. at universities). Jews were, let's say, 1% of the Soviet population. As a result, Jews were entitled to 1% of the spots at universities. In that upwards of 95% of the Jewish population was qualified, by merit based determinations (i.e. the entrance exams to university), to go to universities, Jews, as a defined nationality - i.e. a race - were denied an education. Yet, by your definition, this is not racist. The distribution is, after all, equal by race. It is the same outcome for each race: true equality.

Now, the real reason that Jews were kept to 1% quotas included the perceived opportunity to extract payoffs from Jews, who were thought to be secretly wealthy. And, on top of that, there was great resentment of Jews - who were hated for being Jews -, which the Soviets gave up fighting and, by creating the quota system, allegedly to enshrine equality, instead enshrined a system that greatly discriminated against Jews, both by adding a cost paid by Jews to go to university and by keeping out qualified Jews because of their "race."

So, right from the beginning, I cannot agree with your view that one avoids being racist by race based concepts and behaviors that prevent differences in outcome, something that your definition requires.

Racism, in the form we understand it, has its origins in Spain, being a useful vehicle for what is known as the "Old Christians" to discriminate against - ultimately to visit unspeakable horrors upon - the "New Christians" (i.e. in Spanish, "conversos"). The ordinary hatreds that people have against each other are not subject to elimination and making race part of society system to determine outcomes is a disaster.

Now, this is not to suggest that race used for the limited and short term purpose to undermine specific past discrimination ought not be government policy. That is different from a permanent policy that turns race into government policy - racist by the dictionary definition -, whether in order to enshrine "equality" or not.

Extending racism to include any minor difference in outcome is, in my view, racist. Such a view says that an ideology that believes that merit should determine who gets jobs is racist if one race ends up with proportionately more jobs than the other. That definition, of course, fails to consider other possibilities, such as the possibility such as class, such as culture, such as accidental differences.

David Schraub said...

I don't endorse strict outcome inequality; you are correct to critique it. I'm using equality/inequality not in terms of equality of outcomes, but in what Dworkin calls "treatment as an equal", someone of equal worth and dignity as everyone else.

It's a latent ambiguity in the word "equality": you can say it's "unequal" to admit Jews beyond their proportion of the population, you can also say its unequal to deny Jews, strictly on basis of their Jewishness, opportunity to meritocratically compete for a university spot. The latter is inconsistent with "treatment as an equal".

What I'm opposing in terms of "on racial lines" is the degree to which racial categorization causes one, in the grand scheme, to either get or not get social benefits and burdens. Perhaps "inegalitarian" would be clearer than "unequal" here.

N. Friedman said...


The wording that got my dander was the phrase "unequal distribution of benefits." That, to me, necessarily implies equality of outcome.

As now corrected by you, I will only say that the above phrase was an unfortunately choice of words.

I might suggest, as one interested in racism, that you read The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain by Benzion Netanyahu. It is surely one of the all time masterpieces on racism. It discusses racist arguments in detail - hundreds of pages, out of its more than 1,200 pages, devoted to the details of the arguments for and against the conversos being an inadmissible race. I learned a great deal about racism and about the role, in old-style Christianity, of Jews in Christian thought. It is not remotely what I thought it was. And, the history of how the societal role of Jews and then conversos was undermined and, ultimately destroyed in Spain is just fascinating - from kingmaker to despised enemy of Christianity. As I noted, race played a major role in what occurred.

Netanyahu has failed in Spanish History said...

Benzion Netanyahu's racial & anti-Semite origins of the Inquisition have been complete and decisively refuted in Spain itsef. See GARCÍA OLMO, Miguel Ángel, "Las razones de la Inquisición española" (The reasons of the Spanish Inquisition), edited by Almuzara, Córdoba, 2009.