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What is Racism?


Charles M. Blow

1,571 words

One of the essays I have returned to most frequently in the last several years has been George Orwell’s “Politics of the English Language [2].” Much of the much-maligned polarization in our civic culture comes down to unstated disagreements on the meanings of terms, and as Orwell said, our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” In his time, “fascism [3]” was the confusion of choice. Today, however, no word in the Western World is as divisive and confounding as “racism.”

A recent demonstration: on January 14, The New York Times—seemingly in contradiction to its apologetic promise [4] to return to objective journalism—returned once again to the idea that President Trump is, indeed, a racist [5].

This strategy proved to be disastrous during the campaign, as the expansion of the meaning necessary to include Trump meant that the tarring label smeared millions (perhaps billions) of people who are demonstrably and discernibly not evil in the manner that most people associate with “racism.” This expansion had such a diluting effect on the seriousness of the word that people who otherwise held themselves to egalitarian, color-blind moral standards cheerfully took on the label of “evil racist” ironically. They did this because they knew that the expansion was ridiculous, and forcing the media to swallow its own uncut definition and chew on it for a while was both amusing and just.

All of the political and rhetorical posturing, however, does not resolve the question of what “racism” actually is. Even Wikipedia [6], which has tended towards left-wing ideological convergence in recent years, admits that “[t]oday, the use of the term “racism” does not easily fall under a single definition.” What does “racism” mean?

The aptly-named Charles Blow of The New York Times defines racism in the following manner:

Racism is simply the belief that race is an inherent and determining factor in a person’s or a people’s character and capabilities, rendering some inferior and others superior. These beliefs are racial prejudices.

Two errors immediately leap from the page. The first is the labeling of these beliefs as prejudicial. Most definitions of prejudice describe it as a belief that is not based on facts or experience, and is, in other words, irrational. But noticing patterns of distinctions between things clearly can be based on experience and facts. Even if a belief cannot be guaranteed by certainty, it is important for humans to be able to make inferences based on the information we do have, since no amount of information can guarantee truth. In this sense, an attack on prejudice can sometimes expand into an attack on learning itself [7].

Related to prejudice, attacking a claim for appearing to be based on prejudice in this context also makes assumptions about the motivations and reasoning of others, which by definition cannot be known with certainty.

The second error is the assertion that differences between nature renders superiority and inferiority. Admittedly, this error is contingent upon the objectivity of the claim to superiority. No one would doubt, for instance, that wood and stone are different materials. A bunker or a castle made of stone will be stronger than a similar structure made of wood, and therefore, superior for its purpose. A wooden telephone pole, by contrast, is cheaper, lighter, and faster to erect than a stone pole built for a similar purpose. Thus the wooden pole is superior to the stone equivalent for its purpose.

Which is superior, stone or wood? The question itself is a category error, because asking about the relative superiority or inferiority of an object necessarily presumes a single point of reference by which comparisons can be made. Making generalized comparisons between two objects that share a plethora of differences, and which fundamentally arose in different environments around different strategies for survival, is simply a pointless thing to do. What is a better animal, a lungfish or an army ant?

There are plenty of ways that Blow could have ended his sentence about the superiority and inferiority of groups and individuals based on race. If for instance, he has said “…at running (on average),” or “…at math (on average),” or “…at shooting (on average),” most people would immediately think of East Africans, of East Asians, and of Russians. These generalized differences do not tell us anything about any given individual, but they nonetheless represent observable patterns that most people acknowledge, and even joke about. Many people who believe in equality before the law and the sanctity of every human life have no trouble noticing these differences, because contextual superiority does not equate to moral or legal superiority for most people. If this were the case, we would have to open up entire legal departments to deal with such inarguable differences as height and weight.

The point is not to portray these observations—and the different conclusions people derive from them—as right or wrong. The point is to notice how sloppy the term “racism” is. We are supposed to believe that racism is both accidentally complimenting someone in a way that tips our hat to a benign stereotype, and also slaughtering people by the hundreds of thousands.

If racism is simply the belief that people are different, then the vast majority of people in the world are racist. If it is the belief that because people are different, my people are objectively superior and have the right to dominate and destroy every other kind of people on the planet, then virtually no one is a racist. Nevertheless, much of today’s conversation on the subject fluidly conflates definitions of “racism” as radically different as these. This pattern of conflation makes leftists look ridiculous, for the reasons described above. However, it also hurts the right, whose advocacy of a realistic perspective on differences between groups can now be misinterpreted as a call for genocide by well-intentioned people who have been given a sloppy word to categorize virtually anything that has to do with noticing racial differences.

To borrow some prescient verbiage from Orwell:

It will be seen that, as used, the word [racism] is almost entirely meaningless […] To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define [racism] satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the [racists] themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.

However, I think we can help Mr. Blow stop “fighting against the water until you drown,” because I agree that there is almost nothing more useless than debating the existence of “racism,” for the reasons above. In this spirit, I propose a short alternative list of words which will cover the spectrum previously held up by “racism” alone.

  1. Racialism [8]: the belief that there are biological differences between groups. This may or may not impact the racialist’s political or social views.
  2. Nativism [9]/Tribalism [10]: the preference for one’s own group or nation over others. This may or may not imply a hatred of others, but does imply some difference in how the nativist thinks of others or behaves towards them.
  3. Supremacism [11]: the belief that one’s own group is objectively superior to others.

A few points should be made. First, there is no word necessary for what social justice advocates have come to call “aversive racism [12],” because by their own admission, everything is racist (and sexist [13]). In other words, we can just call aversive racism “normal” and move on.

The reasoning behind the idea of normalcy is that intent is best determined by real-world outcomes. Therefore, since everyone is essentially the same in their potential, any discrepancy in outcomes is evidence of bias and racism. Since differences in outcome are, and always have been, universal [14], there are two possible solutions: either the world is fundamentally and irrevocably unjust, or the premise that everyone is essentially the same is not true.

Secondly, it should be noted that an individual could in principle be any combination of these three (or four, if we include “normal”) traits. Someone could believe that he and his family are superior to everyone else (supremacist), but that it derives from a spiritual or historical distinction (non-racialist) and that nothing follows from that (non-nativist). Another person could believe that her country comes first (nativist), but that this is only based upon a universal human imperative, and not on any important racial distinction (non-racialist) or on the superiority of her own nation (non-supremacist). Yet a third person may view xir race as distinct (racialist), but that no specialness (non-supremacist)—indeed, no borders at all (non-nativist)—follows from xir belief about xir race.

Perhaps xe is a libertarian.

In any case, I think if we can agree to discuss behavior and beliefs in terms of “racialism,” “tribalism,” and “supremacism,” rather than the broad and ambiguous term “racism,” much confusion and impotent drown-fighting can be avoided. Needless to say, all three of these terms are themselves up for debate. But old words get overladen with baggage, and no one can drag them up from the depths to figure out exactly what they mean. New words breathe new life into the discussion, and Mr. Blow—along with much of America—is no doubt dying for a breath of fresh air.