What is Racism?

What is Racism? June 3, 2008

Previous in Series: Prolegomena

Sections 1934 and 1935 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church read as follows:

1934 Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity.

1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.

One might well conclude from this that racism consists in the denial of this equal dignity, and/or the fundamental rights that flow from it. And certainly to deny such rights to members of a certain race based on their race and/or claim that the members of certain races lack this equal dignity would seem to be a paradigm case of racism. But if this is all racism consists of, then a great many things typically regarded as racist would turn out – at least potentially – not to be so.

The fact that all human beings have equal dignity is not inconsistent with there being certain groups of people who have lower levels of certain skills, talents, or positive qualities such as intelligence than others (as in the case of individuals with down syndrome), or who have higher rates of all sorts of negative traits or behaviors (as in the case of alcoholics, or for that matter people who have been to prison). Nor is it inconsistent with believing that these differences have a genetic origin (as in the case of down syndrome). If racism consists solely in a denial of equal dignity, then there need not be anything necessarily racist about making parallel claims about a particular racial group (I want to be clear that I’m not endorsing any such factual claims, only noting that they are not, of themselves, inconsistent with the idea that all human beings have equal dignity).

Likewise, the fact that all human beings have an equal dignity does not preclude treating different people in vastly different ways and to do otherwise is not so much as conceivable. It doesn’t preclude, for example, treating the innocent differently than the guilty or treating one’s children differently than other people’s children. So again, if all it is to be racist is to deny the equal dignity of all human beings on account of race, then there need not be anything necessarily racist about preferring the well being and happiness of members of one’s own racial group to the well being of members of different racial groups.

Nor can such implications be avoided by noting that the equal dignity of human beings entails an equality of fundamental rights, and that therefore it is racist to deny people their fundamental rights on the basis of race, even if this is not done explicitly on the grounds that certain races lack equal dignity. Whatever fundamental rights human beings have, if they flow from the equal dignity of all humanity then they must be such as can apply equally to the tiniest infant and the hardest criminal. Any such rights will have to leave a lot of wiggle room for people to be treated very differently depending on the circumstances, and any claim that membership in a particular racial group is never or almost never a relevant circumstance will be question begging, as there is nothing in the concept of equal dignity itself that entails this. If racism is to be more than an empty formalism, therefore, one must rely on some principle beyond notions of equal dignity to given the concept some real application.

There is an obvious candidate for such a principle: the principle of colorblindness. In my next post, I propose to examine that principle more closely, and to show why that principle is not up to the task.

Next in Series: Against Colorblindness

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  • Mark DeFrancisis

    So again, if all it is to be racist is to deny the equal dignity of all human beings on account of race, then there need not be anything necessarily racist about preferring the well being and happiness of members of one’s own racial group to the well being of members of different racial groups.

    Yes, not necessarily… But often a strong identification with “one’s own racial group” to the extent that it includes the preference of its well-being over another “racial group”-implicitly includes a correlative judgment about relative dignities.

  • jonathanjones02

    One important distinction is equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes. Measuring racism by equality of outcomes is significantly problematic.

  • Blackadder

    Jonathan,

    Yes, but as I’ve noted previously, equality of opportunity is also a problematic idea.

  • Gerald Augustinus

    – segregation, apartheid, affirmative action

    I just love how well Asians are doing, really mucks up the liberal ‘narrative’

  • Starting with your discussion here, it seems to me that there are several levels of characteristics that would tend to rule our interractions with another:

    -innate human dignity of all people
    -personal characteristics and tendencies (age, temperment, disabilities, etc.)
    -relation (family, community, culture, language, nationality, etc.)

    Perhaps racism is the imputation of certain characteristics based on race (assuming that someone is not intelligent, is short temptered, is prone to crime, likes to dance and eat watermelon, etc.) or the refusal to acknowledge (or develop) relationships because of race (not considering an in-law of another race to be “really family”, not considering people of certain races to be part of the local community, etc.)

    The difficulties in these would be that there are certain probabilities tied in to race that people often can’t help acknowledging. I seem to recall reading somewhere once that Jess Jackson had said that nothing was more shameful than the fact that he himself was relieved when he heard footsteps behind him on the street at night and turned around to see that it was a white man rather than a black one.

    I’m not sure one would necessarily say it was racism to have a probability-based reaction like that, but it seems like it would be racism to assume that any given person you knew was more likely to commit a crime, be unintelligent, lose his tempter, etc. based strictly on his race and not your personal experience of him.

    Similarly, to the extent that historical divisions between races have resulted in different cultures, it seems like there’s a certain sense of the alien that would not be a racist reaction, and yet a conviction that “he can’t be like us” or “she isn’t one of us” would.

    It’s a hard thing to put your finger on. I’m looking forward to the rest of your series. (And I think the variety of people who are doing so speaks well to your reasonableness.)

  • Daniel H. Conway

    Asians historically have done well in the US, but the more recent rise of Asian gang violence is a problem foreshadowing a more difficult future for these immigrants, and Asians have had a longer history of violence and chronic poverty in Australia.

    Asian immigration here may be very selective.

  • Gerald Augustinus

    well, I guess “Asian” is a wide term. Chinese at California U’s, for example. Indian doctors all over the place here.

  • RR

    Asian gang violence always existed. More so in the 80’s and early 90’s when gangs in general flourished in the US.

  • Daniel H. Conway

    In Australia, Asians have the same meaning as in America.

    I maintain also, that drug abuse in China(phenomenally high, particularly in the south of the country) is done by Chinese. That crime in China is done by Chinese.

    Who comes to a country and for what reasons determines immigration consequences. And this is a different phenomenon in this country than race consequences of Jim Crow laws and our original sin of slavery. And the impact of this is not just on African-Americans. The “secret tapes of Exxon” suggest that the consequences of this bigotry leaves an imprint on the whites, that derogatory considerations, dismissals, and comments are present at all levels of economic structures. The Exxon tapes were not a distant past phenomenon as many would like to consider the consequences of Jim Corw laws (“They were my parents’ problem.”) They were from the Clinton era.

  • The difficulties in these would be that there are certain probabilities tied in to race that people often can’t help acknowledging. I seem to recall reading somewhere once that Jess Jackson had said that nothing was more shameful than the fact that he himself was relieved when he heard footsteps behind him on the street at night and turned around to see that it was a white man rather than a black one.

    I’m not sure one would necessarily say it was racism to have a probability-based reaction like that, but it seems like it would be racism to assume that any given person you knew was more likely to commit a crime, be unintelligent, lose his tempter, etc. based strictly on his race and not your personal experience of him.

    Darwin — I have trouble with your distinction here between “probability-based reactions” and racism. You seem to be claiming that the former is acceptable or at least understandable because it is in some sense right, while the latter is indefensible because it is clearly wrong, and results in prejudicial belief and/or discriminatory action. But isn’t even a correct “probability-based reaction” likely to lead to these kinds of problematic characterizations of individuals based on ideas about the group before experience of the individual? Aren’t “probability-based judgments” (whether right or wrong) in fact the very definition of prejudice, and the royal road to discrimination? Perhaps you are claiming that we can reach such probability-based judgments in the abstract and somehow never have them affect our experience of the individuals from these judged groups whom we come in contact with? If that’s the claim, I’m skeptical to say the least.

    A less significant point since I presume this was NOT your intention: your comment reads as though you think greater criminality among blacks is an accurate “probability-based judgment.” If I am wrong about that and you DO in fact think that this is so, at least explain the evidence by which you get to that conclusion since the supposed propensity of blacks for violent crime has been one of the enduring tenets of American racism.

    Regarding Jesse Jackson: This quote can be found in a recent article in href=”http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=buried-prejudice-the-bigot-in-your-brain&print=true”>article in Scientific American on the neurology of racism. The point was not that Jesse Jackson thought this was a reasonable supposition, but that racist ideas with no basis in reality or our conscious value systems can be lodged deep down in the mind of even a noted Civil Rights leader.

  • RR

    A black guy told me once that even black people expect poor service from all-black establishments. Living where I live, it’s virtually impossible to not notice and even act on it. The contrast is just too great to ignore. If that’s racist, is it still racist if I don’t attach the same stereotypes to black immigrants?

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