Thursday, June 14, 2007

The ineluctability of racism

Arthur Silber writes about racism—and by extension homophobia and presumably sexism—in his recent essay Of Faggots, Freaks and Niggers.

[Update: For those of you coming from Arthur's blog, I've responded to his criticism.]

Before I talk about the essay itself, let me briefly discuss a few points which should be trivially obvious to any thinking, feeling human being with an IQ significantly above an under-watered houseplant.

For anyone who values ethical universalism—that ethical standards ought to apply equally to all human (or all sapient, self-aware) beings—racism, sexism and homophobia are—by virtue of creating separate ethical categories within humanity—prima facie incoherent.

Ethical beliefs are also normative: They assert better/worse comparisons about choices. Attaching normative standards to ineluctable characteristics such as race, sex and sexual orientation are prima facie incoherent.

Most importantly, racism, etc. are all false-to-fact: The relevant biological facts have no causal relationship at all to anything ethically important, directly or indirectly. Drawing any sort of ethical distinction on a causally irrelevant criterion is irrational, and—to everyone who values rationality—ethically wrong.

Even if there were—as some assert—real statistical differences of relevant properties, such as intelligence or character, it is still absolutely fallacious to make ethical or objective judgments about individuals on the basis of statistics: An individual is not the population. Even if there were some enormous statistical difference, even if it were true (and it's obviously untrue) that 99.99% of black people were stupid, lazy and/or thieving, it would still be completely irrational to judge any individual black person on the basis of his race rather than on his or her actual individual characteristics.

Of course, making individual distinctions on the basis of the most insubstantial differences (e.g. about 10-20 points of mean IQ) that could be granted only on the most bend-over-backwards charitable reading of the most biased studies is not merely mistaken but rather completely moronic.

And, of course, racism, sexism and homophobia are all very strong in Western societies and cultures.

The roots of racism, sexism and homophobia are pretty obvious. Human beings in general are exploitive: Many people will coercively exploit to the point of slavery anyone who cannot physically resist. Whites exploit blacks because white Europeans—by virtue of accidents of history, geography and local ecology—developed technology before black Africans did so[1]. Men exploit women because women are usually physically smaller and pregnancy places enormous physical burdens on women. Straight people exploit[2] gay people simply because straight people outnumber them ten to one. Racism, sexism and homophobia—the notions that there are ethical (or ethically relevant) distinctions between races, sexes, and sexual orientations, are obviously ex post facto rationalizations of the exploitation caused by accidental differences in coercive power.[3]

Really, all of these points should be crystal clear to anyone with even minimal intellectual capacity and the most basic modern, humanistic ethical beliefs. I mention these obvious points because I want it to be absolutely, explicitly clear that I am not arguing with the social conclusions of Silber's essay and Madeline Smith Moore's essay, Why I’m a Racist, which Silber approvingly cites.

Let me say it again: Racism is irrational, therefore ethically wrong, and it is in fact pervasive in all Western societies. Any person of even basic ethical character should oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, as well as any number of related irrational superstitions. Furthermore, the amount of suffering these irrational superstitions have caused justifies[4] legally coercive opposition, in the context of both civil and criminal law. Overt discrimination on the base of race, etc. should incur legal penalties; criminal acts so motivated should receive at least special police attention, if not enhanced penalties. Covert (or not legally actionable) racism, sexism and homophobia should receive universal, uncompromising social opprobrium.

These truths—and their ethical implications—are so trivially obvious that I am no more interested in discussing their merits than I would be interested in discussing the truth that objects fall when you drop them or that it's wrong to kill people for fun. If you disbelieve the former you are irredeemably stupid; if you do not hold the latter I'm going to discuss the situation with the police, not with you. So don't even bother to contradict me here: I'll probably just delete such comments[5]; if not you'll receive only gratuitous insults.

However, there is an element in Moore's essay—which Silber quotes approvingly—that is both simply false and ethically indefensible:
This situation will never, never improve until whites can admit to themselves that they are by definition and innately racist. ... If you are born white, you are born racist.
Presumably by extension, if you are born male, you are born sexist; born straight, born homophobic. But, just like it is the case that "Blacks like me become racist in defense," women become sexist (only) in defense and gay people become anti-straight only in defense.

This position is arrant bullshit.

First of all it's obviously racist in itself. It's trivially hypocritical for Moore to condemn racism itself out of one side of her mouth and assert it out of the other side. If Moore wishes to directly condemn the exploitation, oppression and social marginalization of black people—which do deserve condemnation—without condemning the underlying racism, that's one thing. But to condemn racism per se in whites while justifying it in blacks is indefensible.

If racism were really an ineluctable, innate characteristics of white people, then it would by definition be excluded from normative ethics and render irrelevant all the normative psychological apparatus, notably guilt and shame. I categorically refuse to feel the slightest bit of guilt and shame about who I am; I will in principle feel guilt and shame only about the choices I make. If I were actually innately racist, then there it is, no more deserving of shame or pride than the fact that my penis affords me the ability to write my name in the snow.

But of course the idea that white people are innately racist is just as absurd as the idea that black people are innately anything. Are the children of my colleague—with one parent white and the other black—half racist? Does the white blood taint them irretrievably? Does the black blood excuse them? I'm a quarter southern Italian. Are southern Italians brown or white? Were they innately brown when they were marginalized and discriminated against, but now innately white now that they're mostly accepted? The whole notion is—for all the same reasons I cited at the beginning of this essay—irrational and absurd.

To the extent that people are capable of rationality (and on bad days I suspect that rational thought is not universal in ordinary human beings) all irrational superstitions—including racism, sexism, homophobia, religion, and sports fandom—are socially constructed. And what can be socially constructed can be socially destroyed. What is innate, though can only be killed.

Moore vehemently demands
Blacks do not want your love. Your like isn’t even important. And your understanding is not necessary. We don’t even care whether or not you smile at us. What we do want is that you not stand in our way. What we do want is equal justice by law, no favors. And just for the record, affirmative action is just that, not a favor.
Of course. But I do not need to identify with my innate racism to accede to these demands. Indeed if I am innately racist, I cannot accede to these demands and stay in the same society with black people: I cannot simply stand out of their way in the literal sense, and the metaphorical sense of this demand is to not be racist, which, if my racism were truly innate, would be impossible.

Of course, no one wants condescension. But "condescension" is a tricky word. The original meaning of this word denoted a virtue, the ability of an a priori social superior to interact on an genuinely equal basis with an a priori inferior: The ability—in a limited context—of nobility and royalty to genuinely treat a commoner on a temporarily equal basis[6]. Given that few explicitly hold the notion of innate class distinctions, the meaning has evolved into attempting to treat another as an equal while implicitly asserting superiority. (What is condescending today would, in the historical sense, be considered a failure of condescension.)

Silber gives an excellent example of such loathsome condescension, quoting presidential candidate John Edwards:
O'BRIEN: Do you think homosexuals have the right to be married?

EDWARDS: No. Not personally. Now you're asking about me personally. But I think there's a difference between my belief system and what the responsibilities of the president of the United States are.
In other words, "I personally believe that I'm superior, but I will pretend to treat homosexuals as equals." Oh yeah, John, you got my vote. (Where's the <sarcasm> tag when you need it?)

To avoid this sort of obvious condescension, I don't talk about all the good I do for blacks, women, gays, atheists, etc. I don't do good things for blacks, etc.; what good I do, I do for my fellow human beings as human beings. It's also a reason that I don't strongly self-identify as "feminist". It's not that I oppose equal rights for women, it's just that (for a man) feminism, like atheism, "is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of" sexist bullshit (to paraphrase Sam Harris).

The original meaning, though, still lingers on. For a white guy such as myself to say that black people are equal to whites in all respects, good and bad, is—if one assumes the innate attitude of my own white superiority—condescending in the original sense. We see evidence of this conflation in Moore's own essay: Affirmative action is simple justice on the one hand and "a fit of panic and pseudo-generosity prompted by fear" on the other. The former is unobjectionable; the latter evidence of objectionable condescension. But even if the latter were also correct, so what? Justice is justice, and little (if any) justice has ever been prompted by more than fear. If I arrest your murderer just because I'm afraid he will murder me, is my action any less just? Is reciprocal altruism—incoherent absent the reality of mutual coercion—dismissed as condescending "pseudo-generosity"?

Make no mistake: Racism, sexism and homophobia are very real and very wrong, and the fact that Silber and Moore draw the wrong conclusion from the mountains of evidence in no way contradicts the evidence itself nor the accurate conclusion that socially constructed racism, etc. are enormously prevalent in our society.

But I am not in the least bit convinced that these characteristics are in any way innate or ineluctable.

[1] See Guns, Germs and Steel for an thorough substantiation of this position.

[2] Humiliation and oppression of a minority group for the purpose of maintaining majority group cohesion or to assuage one's irrational phobias constitutes exploitation.

[3] It could be argued that racism, etc. represent a tiny bit of ethical progress, at least insofar as they result from the denial that one may justifiably exploit another simply by virtue of superior physical power. Be that as it may, it it still at best only a tiny bit of progress, and would in no way excuse the effects.

[4] No, perezoso, there's no contradiction between this position and my general position of meta-ethical subjective relativism. I'm stating my ethical opinions, those opinions I'm willing to vote into law or otherwise apply socially acceptable pressure. An no (cough Fuller) using superficially objectivist language as an obvious metaphor does not entail a commitment to real objectivism.

[5] If you think that "free speech" entails that I have to supply a platform and readership for your incoherent, despicable ramblings, you can get your own blog and argue your case there. I will assure you, my comments will be interesting.

[6] I'm nowhere near a competent enough scholar to formally substantiate this interpretation.


  1. Dammit, Larry, get out of my brain! I've been drafting an essay on this very subject inspired by the same Silber essay. It should come as no surprise that, in fact, the same line of arrant bullshit raised my ire. Ascribing inherent racism to whites is the exact same kind of racial paternalism that led to the British constructing classifications (such as Gurkhas and Sikhs as "martial races") or that led Webster's to define "Negro" as "lazy, deceitful, etc..." This is the same kind of bullshit I was subjected to for two years of graduate school. I didn't take it then, and I'm damn well not going to stand for it now.

  2. I think all humans (of whatever race) are born innately racist in the weak sense that all humans have some innate tendency to form "us-and-them" opinions/beliefs (although there is individual variation), and the "them" label tends to gets applied to groups of people who are somehow definably different from "us". So the differences involved in the definition (which do exist, like sports affiliation, nationality or skin colour) get extended to other differences which are assumed to exist on little or no evidence.

    The innate tendency is suppressed or enhanced by environmental effects to a greater or lesser degree. So if you are brought up and live in a society with people of lots of races and a specific ethos of racism being bad, you don't end up racist. (Whereas if you are brought up in China, for example, you may well have some racist views).

  3. BTW, does it count as racist if you automatically expect a person to have a good characteristic based on (correct or incorrect) asumptions about population averages and the (innate although statistically of course totally incorrect) heuristic of judging individuals based on assumptions about population averages?

    If I expect a new person who I have just met who is ethnically Chinese to be clever, is that racist?

  4. potentilla: You bring up some good points. I'll post my thoughts later on the relationship between racism and tribalism, provincialism and the formation of in-groups in general.

    anonymous: Yes, that seems racist to me, as well as an irrational use of the statistical fallacy.

    I style myself a relatively clever fellow—I can get my shoes on the correct feet with consistent accuracy—and I would very much prefer, if someone thinks I'm clever, that they think I personally am clever, not clever by virtue of my race, nationality, etc.

    It takes neither complex scientific investigation nor deep ethical philosophy to conclude that it's best to always treat individuals as individuals, not as exemplars of stereotypes.

  5. anon was me too, accidentally.

    I agree that the judgment in my example is fallacious, and also that it is racist, I think. I just wasn't sure whether the term racism implied that one had to be ascribing some sort of negative characteristic to a race.

    However, I do think its an evolved heuristic to make snap judgments about people - before you even have any evidence about whether they can put their shoes on right. Or maybe not even judgments - just to have weak expectations and to experience a fleeting moment of suprise when the expectation is contradicted by experience.

    For instance, I used to work in the City of London which, contrary perhaps to received opinion, is a pretty meritocratic place. If I met a black person (I mean, of sub-Saharan ancestry), I had an unconscious expectation that they would have a London accent and experienced a fleeting moment of surprise if, in fact, they turned out to have any other kind of accent. Is that racist?

  6. Nice post. I fully agree with your premise. I participated in a thread at TG's where I was accused of being a racist simply for being white, and was rather lambasted for then calling someone else a racist for doing so (i.e. calling me something specifically for my race and nothing else) and was attacked for that as well.

    The usual explanation of all of this is that one can only be 'racist' if one has 'power' - what do you say to that? I think it is a bogus argument for many reasons. I addressed some of that on my blog back in my earlier entries. TG did even eventually respond, though when I answered her response she never replied - so that has always felt like it has been left hanging. I guess I just had a bunch of drive-by comments. Or maybe I drove them all away by being too argumentative or something ... who knows... ;)

    My post was here and followed up here - well, there are other posts as well but I don't want to fill this up with them.

    One thing I keep wanting to do is a critique of the concept of 'privilege' and the rather convoluted definition given to it (like in the 'knapsack of privilege' article).

  7. Attaching normative standards to ineluctable characteristics such as race, sex and sexual orientation are prima facie incoherent.

    Nyet, and not only nyet, but more evidence of your day-to-day inconsistencies in regards to what you take to be "ethics."

    X meets 100's of Tasmanians (say he lives in Tasmania Town in some large urban area), and the great majority of them are violent, stupid and lazy. X then quite reasonably begins to form a hypothesis: Tasmanians are, more likely than not, violent, stupid and lazy. So he then shapes his actions accordingly, and is a bit wary when in Tasmania Town. That sort of inductive reasoning may not fit in the liberal schema very well, but humans do think in those terms, and they are often justified.

  8. I mentioned "a few points which should be trivially obvious to any thinking, feeling human being with an IQ significantly above an under-watered houseplant." And along comes Xerxes, a.k.a. Perezoso to prove my point (hint: think contrapositive).

  9. DBB

    The usual explanation of all of this is that one can only be 'racist' if one has 'power' - what do you say to that?

    There's a decent point in there, albeit poorly expressed. Certainly the racism of those with power is going to have a worse effect than that of those without power.

  10. potentilla: I'm not an expert at making these super-fine distinctions on racism. I just do my best to treat people as individuals; when I fail to do so and I'm consequently surprised, I simply consider it a mistake and immediately correct it.

  11. But that is not what they say - they say that those without power BY DEFINITION can NEVER be racist, and those with power, by definition are all racist.

    (Of course, then they double the offense by saying everyone with a particular race has power by virtue of their race, thus, if you are white you have all the power and are by definition racist). Obviously, this is a notion I not only reject, but find racist in itself.

  12. "But that is not what they say..."

    Of course not, hence my qualifier "poorly expressed."

    You're probably right though: There's a lot of irrationality on this subject floating around, right and left.

    I try to stay out of it, though; I have enough mind-space only for one class of irrational stupidism, so I focus on theism.

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  14. You are probably wise to limit yourself to one degree of stupidity - it is easily to get burned out and cynical of you try to rail against all of the bullshit in the world, or even just in this country.

    I did see your qualifier, I just disagreed with it - I don't think that it is that they are trying to express what you said, but do so poorly, I think they mean exactly what they say.


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