No easy answers regarding racism

Nationwide protests and their opponents are debating how to respond to racism. The problem is that racism is such an unclear notion that the debaters are likely talking past one another.

Recent anti-racism protests involve marches, speeches, arson, kneeling, looting, and pulling down statues. Consider, for example, attacks, destruction, or movement of statues of Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and George Washington. The three best-selling non-fiction books are Ibram Kendi’s “How to be an Anti-Racist,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” and Ijeoma Oluo’s “So you want to talk about race.” At schools and universities, there is a good chance that a student will either read Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” or discuss her ideas.

Congressman Al Green (D-Texas) recently put forth a resolution that declares unconditional war on racism and invidious discrimination in America and calls for a cabinet-level Department of Reconciliation. This department would seek to eliminate racism and invidious discrimination and have a budget that is 10% of the Defense Department’s budget. Our leading political figures (Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Donald Trump) label people and statements racist.

All this talk of racism presupposes we know what racism is. We don’t. Underlying the different theories of racism is the notion that racism is false, bad, and wrong. One theory is that racism is a belief that one race is superior to another. Often the theory requires that basis for the superiority be biological. Superiority might be filled out in terms of importance or consideration/respect people are owed. A second theory is that racism consists of attitudes other than beliefs. Consider, for example, dislike, fear, hatred, preference, and repulsion. A third theory is that racism is a type of action aimed at members of a race rather than a way of thinking about them. Consider, for example, antagonism, avoidance, or discrimination.

None of these theories is correct. Consider the notion that racism is the belief that one race is — on average –biologically superior to another. If this were correct, then whether racism is true would depend on whether differences in criminality, education, intelligence, out-of-wedlock births, welfare use, etc. are due purely to the environment rather than a mixture of the environment and genetics. If this theory of racism were correct, then the truth of racism would depend on the outcome of contested scientific debates. It does not. Whether racism is true does not depend on whether Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s findings in The Bell Curve hold up. In addition, someone who thinks that one race is superior to another, but attributes it purely to environmental effects, might still seem to be a racist.

More generally, members of races do not have equally valuable lives. The value of an individual’s life depends on how well it goes for him and what effect he has on others. People do not have lives that go equally well for them. Some people have lives that go better because they are longer, happier, and contain more objectively good things (for example, knowledge and love). Some people contribute more to the world than others (for example, by having five children rather than one). It unlikely that on average members of different races have equally valuable lives. On average, whites live longer and are happier than blacks. This makes their lives go better for them.

Consider next the notion that racism is a difference in attitude toward members of different races. Such a difference does not make one a racist. Consider, for example, someone who prefers one race over another (or, perhaps, dislikes one more than the other) because of perceived differences in criminality, English-speaking ability, insularity, loudness, or obesity. This is not racism. Rather, it is a rational preference based on a perceived difference in features. On a side note, some of these perceived differences are statistically correct generalizations. For example, the rates of obesity and incarceration for racial groups in the US occur in the following order: blacks, Hispanics, whites, and Asians. Nor is it racism to discriminate on the basis of these perceived differences.

What, then, is racism? I don’t know and neither do you. I doubt that many members of even extreme groups (for example, Aryan Brotherhood, Black Hebrew Israelites, and Nation of Islam) think that every member of their group is better than every member of another group. Some likely have a more nuanced view that relies on a perceived difference in features and a mixed explanation of what causes the difference.

Because racism is not a coherent notion, we shouldn’t spend so much time and effort trying to eliminate it. This is especially true when we could instead focus on inner-city problems such as broken public schools, out-of-wedlock birth rates, and the scourge of overcriminalization of American life accompanied by an ocean of incarceration.

More generally, it’s time to eliminate the diversity-industrial complex because it focuses on racism and discrimination. Academia and the corporate world spend an enormous amount of money fighting against them. The money would be better spent elsewhere. The Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald points out that the University of California at Berkeley diversity bureaucracy costs $20 million per year. UCLA has a Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion who alone makes over $400,000 per year. Clearly, she notes, this money would be better spent subsidizing the tuition of dozens of students. Writing in MarketWatch, Jeanette Settembre notes that American companies spend up to $8 billion a year on diversity training. During a recession, this is an abomination.

Everyone claims to be an expert on racism and yet no one knows what it is. This is a good reason to focus on other things. One way to do this is to stop pouring money into the diversity-industrial complex.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com


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