[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. Men exploit women because women are usually physically smaller and pregnancy places enormous physical burdens on women. Straight people exploit 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.
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 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; 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. 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?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?)
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.
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.
 See Guns, Germs and Steel for an thorough substantiation of this position.
 Humiliation and oppression of a minority group for the purpose of maintaining majority group cohesion or to assuage one's irrational phobias constitutes exploitation.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 I'm nowhere near a competent enough scholar to formally substantiate this interpretation.