Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Brief Word About The Word

First of all, I want to thank Creek Running North for hosting this "blog against racism" day. I am a firm believer in discussing racial issues, and judging by the responses, CRN has managed to bring a wide swath of the blogosphere together on this topic. So kudos.

It may seem rather churlish, then, for me to take issue with the post that started it all. But in order to "blog against racism," we have to define what "racism" means. And that's a difficult proposition.

Racism is a nebulous concept. In the modern era, everyone agrees that to be "racist" is a very bad thing. But that's about as far as we get. "Racism" has been defined as deviating from the color-blind principle, intentionally discriminating against a minority group, prejudice against someone on account of race, stigmatization on account of race, and acting to preserve racial hierarchy, to name just a few. Significant cleavages have formed those who measure racism by intent and those who measure it by effects, those who see it as individualist and those who see it as structural, those who see it as theoretically neutral and those who see it solely as part of an exercise of power. One could quite easily be racist under one definition but not racist under another, indeed, at times the definitions are mutually exclusive (consider Affirmative Action, necessary to dismantle racial hierarchy, but a clear violation of color-blindness).

There are costs to this confusion. First, obviously, it makes it difficult for anti-racism activists to train their fire when we're not sure what the target is. Second, though, I believe this ambiguity plays a deep role in the reticence of many people to enter racial conversations in the first place. As long as the term "racism/t" possesses the two qualities of being a) absolutely evil and b) definitionally contested, a discussion on race becomes akin to walking into a minefield. Given the scant hope that any individual conversation will be the racial breakthrough we've all been looking, a rational actor easily could conclude that the risk is too high. And indeed, that is a relatively accurate description, in my opinion, of how many Whites view the topic of Race today.

In this context, then, it is very tempting to try and distill "racism" down to some core essence--a particular definition that can become the center of the debate and clear the air. And that's what Chris Clark attempts to do with his "effects" definition. He makes his argument thus:
But it increasingly clear to me --and probably has been for some time to people smarter than me--that many folks think of the word "racist" as meaning something akin to the word "evil." Thus the defenses of the cartoon that focused on the artist's intent. If his intentions were benign, then he is not evil and thus not racist.

Anyone who's studied the history of racism can trot out numerous examples of racist behavior committed with allegedly good intentions, from Moynihan's "benign neglect" to the myriad acts of condescension by white liberals toward their black acquaintances. I assume, people being more or less the same now as they were two hundred years ago, that there were a number of slaveowners who told themselves they took wonderful care of their chattel property.

Ask a Klan member whether he or she has good intentions. I guarantee you the answer will be in the affirmative, even as the cross is lit.

Intentions are all well and good, but more important are the assumptions from which those intentions spring. Garbage in, garbage out: bad information times good intentions equals bad results. And those results are the most important thing of all. A cartoon depicts stereotypical dark-skinned tribes as cannibals? That's racism. The poor people who could not flee a flooding city because they had no access to transportation or a lifetime of mistrust of authority were almost all Black? That's racism. People advocate locking up enemy nationals, defined by ancestry? That's racism.

I agree that this represents a serious problem. Many scholars have documented the shortcomings of "intent" as a measure of racial discrimination. The past few decades have showcased amply that neutral actors making good faith decisions can still preserve a racially stratified society. Some measure of effects is clearly necessary if we are to change the status quo.

At the same time, problems with a pure effects test are readily apparent as well. For one, it labels nearly every human being (of any race) as a racist. Studies have shown that both Blacks and Whites subscribe, at the subconscious level, to negative stereotypes about African-Americans. The famous "doll experiment" cited in Brown v. Board is perhaps the most prominent of these studies, but other more recent and more chilling findings have been made--for example, both Blacks and Whites are more likely to interpret an ambiguous action by a Black male as aggressive or hostile; a finding that raises serious questions about racial profiling and police violence. Clearly, Blacks don't "intend" to subscribe to stereotyping that keeps their race under the heel of brutal criminal sanction (and, I'd argue, neither do most Whites). But the effect is still present. These mindsets cannot be excised easily or quickly, which means that for the short to mid-term we have to basically conclude that the entire United States--Black, White, Asian, Jewish, whomever--is racist.

This is problematic on two levels. Pragmatically, saying "everybody's a racist" will prove a major barrier to engaging the country (especially Whites) in a serious racial dialogue. Either they'll ignore the message as hyperbolic, or worse, they'll take the message and use it to dilute the moral valence of racism. Either way, the net effect is negative. We have to remember that the goal of these projects is not to develop some fuzzy theory that makes us feel morally righteous. It's to bring about real change in the real world, and that's going to require compromises. Second, on a moral level the effects test places a ethical burden on individuals that is impossible to fulfill. In his essay "Saints and Heroes," James Urmson notes:
If we are to exact basic duties like debts, and censure failures, such duties must be, in ordinary circumstances, within the capacity of the ordinary man....So, if we were to represent the heroic act of sacrificing one's life for one's comrades as a basic duty, the effect would be to lower the degree of urgency and stringency that the notion of duty does in fact posses. The basic moral code must not be in part too far beyond the capacity of the ordinary men or ordinary occasions, or a general breakdown of compliance with the moral code would be an inevitable consequence; duty would seem to be something high and unattainable, and not for 'the likes of us.'

We want to think that an "effects" test of racism will alert the general populace that they are complicit in a racist society and encourage them to change their behavior. More likely, though, they'll just conclude that not being racist is an impossible goal and abandon the quest all together. That would be a death knell for the movement.

So if I don't like "effects" as a definition of racism, and I don't like "intent" as a definition of racism, then what's my response? I'd argue that the problem isn't with any particular definition. Rather, the problem is that "racism" is a term being asked to do far too much work. There is no way that a single word can encompass all the meanings that "racism" needs to juggle. To borrow from Lawrence Blum (whose spectacular book, "I'm Not a Racist, But...", heavily influenced this post), we need a more complex vocabulary to talk about race. We need words to condemn the shocking acts of intentional discrimination, stereotyping, prejudice, and violence that still occurs today. At the same time, we need vocabulary that can both alert unenlightened Whites about the current racial status without immediately placing them on the defensive. As I wrote in a paper I am in the midst of preparing:
Whites tend to define racism as consisting of "only the most extreme example[s]...rabid[] hate [or]...violence." This obscures the myriad of ways in which racial prejudice and inequality acts as a barrier to minority success even amongst people who abhor violence and profess equality of opportunity. At the same time, others define racism as any type of racially-charged action or mentality which causes ill effects. Such an expansive definition "will not help bring whites to the reconciliation table and may only foster resentment." Operating between these two poles is a position which uses a variety of terminology beyond the simplistic "racist/not-racist" dualism to deal with racial questions. Lawrence Blum argues that "'[r]acism' and 'racist' should be reserved for certain especially serious moral failings and violations in the area of race. They should not be permitted to include everything [racially related] that someone might justifiably disapprove of.

For better or for worse, "racism" is a term that is value-laden, it simply can't be used to describe more mundane acts of racial import. This isn't to trivialize them--only focusing on the most extreme cases won't bring about substantial cases when the majority of racial disparities come about via actions not deemed "extreme" but normal. However, as a tactical matter, anti-racism advocates need to diversify their arsenal. We should preserve "racist" for the worst of the lot, and condemn the rest, not necessarily as "racist" acts but as acts that preserve racial hierarchy. That should be seen as a moral wrong that exists independent of racism, but does not come with the personalized condemnation that is concurrent with the term "racist." To talk of racial reconciliation requires that we expand our horizons beyond just one word. Rather than blogging against "racism", we might blog against racial hierarchy--a status propped up by many pillars. Racism is indeed one of the more invidious among them, but it is not the whole edifice.

Being a devoted fan of Critical Race Theory, I've blogged on the topic of race and racism quite often. Here are a few posts from my archives:


Race, Education, and Society

The Internal Critic and Intersectionality: Who's Looking Out For The Minority Right?

Standpoint Theory, The "Voice of Color", and "Uncle Toms": Positioning Conservative Minorities

Dissections of Power: Can Blacks Be Racist to Whites?

1 comment:

Chris Clarke said...

A very thought-provoking post!