Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Individualism as Racism?

Eugene Volokh links to the Seattle Public School's definition of racism, which includes the following:
Cultural Racism:
Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as "other", different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers.

I understand why Volokh would be upset: being a libertarian, he probably would identify as an individualist, and does not like that being equated to "racist." As for Critical-Race-Theory-Hack me, I think this definition oversteps itself.

The last stop on my intellectual voyage prior to landing on Critical Race Theory was non-interventionist liberalism that was slowly spiraling into libertarianism. I didn't actually like libertarianism that much, and was glad to be rescued from what had seemed logically infallible but morally intolerable. However, this doesn't mean I condemn individualism. On the contrary, enough John Stuart Mill runs in my veins that I'd be very hard pressed to express hostility toward individualism on the whole. What Critical Race Theory taught me was that an individualist paradigm cannot "see" all forms of racism. So remaining excessively committed to individualism means consenting to the preservation of racial hierarchy.

But one can concede that and still "emphasize" (Seattle's words) individualism over collective ideologies. Collectivist mentalities, after all, can miss racism too--an "all for the corporation" mentality might explain the firing of a Black worker on the grounds that his productivity was sub-par, not noticing that he had a racist manager who was constantly harassing him (even while putting in great work of his own). Or a viewpoint that examines racism solely through groups can overlook individual acts of prejudice that fall outside "normal" structures, institutions, or cultural memes, but still exert significant negative impacts on their targets.

Within this paradigm, people will disagree about where the line should be drawn between collective and individualist ideologies. But merely deciding to "emphasize" individualism is not so clearly beyond the bounds as to be unquestionably deserving of the tag "racism."

Volokh also registers at least a theoretical opposition to Seattle's claim that listing only Whites as the greatest composers or writers is racist. This seems a bit tougher to defend. There is no objective way of determining who the "best" writer is. And I have a lot of trouble conceptualizing a criteria choice that a) excludes all minorities, b) has no racial component at least implicit, and c) falls within a sensible definition of the term "greatest." For example, saying "the greatest writers are those with the greatest impact on the world," and including only Whites, seems difficult to justify without denying the historical, political, and cultural importance of the non-Western world. I suppose stretching to the limits of abstractness, I can imagine a list that includes only Whites that has no racial element to it whatsoever. But pragmatically, I'd ascribe only a minimal probability to that being the case for any given list that excluded all minorities, and my default assumption would be that any such list is tainted by some manifestation of racial hierarchy..


Stentor said...

I don't read the definition as saying that individualism is itself intrinsically racist, any more than it's saying that white dialects of English are intrinsically racist. To me, it's saying that treating (a certain form of) individualism as normal and common-sensical and collectivism as deviant is racist, just like treating white English as normative is racist.

Anonymous said...

What about the idea that racism _itself_ is a form of collectivism? That is racism judges a person not as an individual as themselves, but as a member of collective and emphasizes your own collective (your own "race") over your individual free will. Opposition to racism (that is racism in principle, rather than one specific instance of racism) is then in principle individualist: it stresses that individuals should be evaluated on their own, not in regards to a specific collective (either your own or the other person's race).

Anonymous said...

The Seattle school district has a nasty, insane message for civil libertarians, budding entrepreneurs, and free market enthusiasts: your belief in individual rights or individual initiative brands you as a racist.

The Seattle Public Schools define individualism as a form of “cultural racism,” declaring that “cultural racism” includes “emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology.”

On their web site, they also define racism to include stereotypically white traits such as “future time orientation,” which is a pejorative word used for studying and “acting white” to reap future advancement, rather than devoting one’s energy to being hip or cool and enjoying the moment.

It is racist for the Seattle schools to stereotype achievement as a “white” characteristic. Plenty of non-whites study and exercise self-discipline. No school system should disparage student studying and achievement. That is at odds with a school system’s basic educational mission.

The Seattle schools also declare “equality” of treatment to be a form of racially-biased assimilation, favoring instead affirmative action in the form of “unequal treatment for those who have been disadvantaged over time,” to give historically oppressed groups “special programs and benefits.”

The “equality” they deride – the notion that “people who are the same in those respects relevant to how they are treated in those circumstances should receive the same treatment” – is the same notion of equal treatment whose infringement is the basis for a disparate-treatment discrimination lawsuit under the federal civil rights laws, under U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

In an apparent conflict with federal law, the Seattle schools deny that whites can be the victims of racism. They define racism as limited to acts against groups that have “little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites).”

By contrast, federal appeals courts routinely rule against institutions that fire or harass white employees, recognizing that whites can indeed be victims of racism. See, e.g., Bowen v. Missouri Department of Social Services (2002) (racial harassment of white employee by black co-worker); Taxman v. Board of Education (1996) (termination of white teacher instead of black teacher). And the Supreme Court held that racial discrimination against whites by local governments is generally illegal in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (1989). Affirmative action is only permitted in order to open doors (hiring and promotions), and can’t be used to justify terminating or harassing an employee.

The Seattle schools’ racist policy, which appears to condone unlawful racial discrimination and retaliation against whites, is on the web site of its Equity and Race Relations department, directed by Caprice Hollins, a politically-correct self-proclaimed multicultural “educator.” Some education. There's nothing multicultural about the Seattle schools' crude racial stereotyping.

It appears that the Seattle schools would rather spend their time teaching (and practicing) racism, rather than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Anonymous said...

Sure, it is a matter of arbitrary artistic preference to value Beethoven over, say, the vocal music of the Cheyenne.

But while Beethoven was working so also was Karl Gauss; is it racist to exclude native Americans from the list of greatest mathmeticians of the 19th century?

Anonymous said...

While prefering Mozart to P-Diddy isn't "Racist" racism can, and often does, manifest itself in a knee-jerk aversion to most traits asssociated with the disliked race.

For instance, when a person says something to the effect of (going from memory here) "I don't like rap music because rappers look stupid with their baggy pants and gold chains and gold teeth. Yo Yo lets collect our welfare checks Niggaz!" it is pretty obvious that the person s attitude of rap MUSIC has little to do with the music itself (although he definitely proclaimed how bad it was) and more to do with his reaction to its image. This doesn't prove racism itself - some "elitists" disdain what they consider "lowbrow" - but if the same person also loves low-brow country music....... I call em like I see em.