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What is a racist?
Like nervous children who hear a monster in every creaking floor, many journalists and academics see a racist in every joke or story that does not conform to current progressive sensitivities.
Written by Bo Winegard.
Few epithets inspire more terror in Western societies. To be a racist is one of the great evils of our time, a sin so dark and deplorable that it not only defiles the racist himself but also those who have associated with him. Because of this talismanic power, “racist” is an ideologically useful accusation, a smear like “communist” or “groomer” that is used to stifle debate by sullying a person’s reputation rather than addressing his arguments. But despite its popularity in mainstream outlets and conversations, its meaning is so vague and protean that it is virtually useless for serious intellectual discourse.
The haziness of racist is not caused solely by malice or subterfuge. Satisfactorily defining terms is notoriously difficult, a fact long ago highlighted by Socrates, the famous Athenian gadfly, who consistently vexed those who claimed to have knowledge by interrogating and deconstructing the meaning of pivotal words such as “justice,” “knowledge,” or “courage.” Those who have watched or participated in modern philosophical debates know that the Socratic method remains popular. Definitions are offered, inspected, debated, updated, again inspected, again debated, and so on. At times, the Sisyphean task of establishing semantic uniformity can become almost droll in its futility, a fact which inspired Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic definition of philosophy as a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
But even if few definitions can survive the crucible of sustained dialectic, the attempt to define can clarify, purify, and—more important for our purposes—draw attention to ideologically motivated ambiguity.
The goal in this essay, thus, is not to forward the single, eternally true definition of racist, for no such thing exists, but to inspect and criticize current definitions, both implicit and explicit, whittling away denotations and connotations that are untenable. Perhaps we will decide, at the end of this largely critical undertaking, that the word “racist,” although not meaningless, creates more confusion, more rancor, more resistance than it is worth.
Below are some common definitions. The first three strike me as severely and perhaps irremediably flawed, whereas the last two are plausible.
1: Somebody who believes that race is a real, biological phenomenon and that races are different from each other.
2: Somebody who believes that some races have higher average socially desirable traits such as intelligence and self-control than others.
3: Somebody who treats members of one race differently from members of another race.
4: Somebody who dislikes members of other races.
5: Somebody who advocates for differential treatment under the law for different races.
The first definition, that race realism is inherently racist, is quite common, though rarely explicitly articulated. Among educated elites, the prevailing idea of race is that it is a social construct; therefore, educated elites generally believe that those who propound race realism are either regrettably confused or motivated by antiquated beliefs in racial hierarchies. However, despite its apparent popularity, the view that race is entirely a social construct—a social construct like a chair, a promise, or a marriage—is not just implausible, it’s virtually indefensible.
Undeniably, human populations are different from each other because they were subjected to slightly different selection pressures for thousands of years. And these differences are non-randomly related to the environment and geography of a population’s ancestors. One does not need an invidious mind to notice that Northern Europeans are reliably and predictably different from East Asians. In fact, if one’s cognitive and sensory systems are normal, one cannot help but notice such differences. People categorize by race not because they have been bamboozled by bigots from the Enlightenment, but because human populations differ in noticeable and systematic ways.
Debates about race realism thus often metamorphose into esoteric debates about taxonomic nomenclature. Are human differences large enough to justify racial divisions? If so, how many? And while these debates are not unimportant, calling somebody a racist over a dispute about nomenclature seems impudent and antithetical to the spirit of science. Certainly, few would apply these standards of décor to the myriad disagreements about species and subspecies that enliven the biological literature. Taxonomical discourse may remain perpetually divided between lumpers and splitters, but such a divide, important as it might be to those involved, is not so crucial or morally charged that it should lead to accusations of perfidy or treachery.
Besides, all of this is quite academic. A quibble about taxonomic terminology is hardly enough to sustain a charge as serious as racism.
The second definition, that a racist is somebody who believes that some races have more or higher socially valued traits than others, judiciously limits and clarifies the first definition, which, as noted, is unhelpfully capacious. Thus, merely believing that race is a real biological phenomenon is not racist but thinking that one race has “better” traits than another is. So plausible is this definition of racist that many dictionaries include some version of it. Here is Merriam-Webster: “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
But although this definition is superficially reasonable, it is not without serious and potentially fatal flaws. Consider a different but comparable (and germane) topic: Assessments of the intrinsic abilities of men and women. Although some activists may contend (or wish to contend) that men and women have equal athletic abilities, few ordinary people believe this. Even fewer would disagree with the claim that men are at least naturally stronger than women, even if not more athletic in general. If one accepted and applied the definition of racist from above to sex differences, one would be forced to conclude that most people, including most scholars, are misogynists since they believe that men and women are different on at least some socially valued traits, e.g., physical strength. Strength may not be as socially valued as intelligence or eloquence but ceteris paribus being strong is better than being weak, and extraordinary strength is often handsomely rewarded.
Put more philosophically, the problem with this definition of racist (or sexist) is that it suggests that having accurate beliefs could itself be racist (or sexist), a possibility which must strike anybody who embraces the values of science and the Enlightenment as disqualifying. The truth may be many things—uplifting, exciting, unpleasant, ugly, depressing, tragic—but it cannot be immoral, bigoted, or hateful. Of course, this raises the question: Do human races vary in socially valued traits? Are some races blessed with more desirable traits than other races? This is difficult to answer and would require its own essay, but I will attempt an abridged response since it is crucial to my criticism of this definition. After all, if races were the same, even a charitable person might question the motives of somebody who persisted in arguing otherwise.
Consider intelligence, perhaps one of the most socially valued traits. Although it causes tumult in the mainstream media and shocks (even horrifies) those who are unfamiliar with the literature, the claim that intellectual capacity currently varies among races is not disputed in serious scholarship. Even mainstream textbooks, a genre not known for forwarding radical or divisive claims, accept and report this:
“The facts concerning racial and ethnic differences in IQ and similar test scores are clear. The causes and implications of these facts are not at all clear.” (Hunt, p. 407).
“It should be acknowledged, then, without further ado that there is a difference in average IQ between blacks and whites in the USA and Britain.” (Mackintosh, p. 334).
“The bell curve for whites is centered roughly around IQ 100; the bell curve for American blacks roughly around 85; and those for different subgroups of Hispanics roughly midway between those for whites and blacks. The evidence is less definitive for exactly where above IQ 100 the bell curves for Jews and Asians are centered.” (Mainstream Science on Intelligence, p. 14).
Whatever the cause or causes of this disparity, Whites have higher average cognitive ability than Blacks (as measured by IQ and other cognitive tests). Therefore, believing that Whites have higher intellectual ability than Blacks (right now) is accurate. And this, according to an expansive reading of the second definition, would qualify as racist.
One might contend that a more charitable and plausible reading of the second definition requires a person to believe in innate differences in socially valued or desirable traits; therefore, one could accept the consensus on disparities in IQ while not being racist by believing that they are entirely environmental in origin. But although certainly more plausible than the expansive reading of this definition, an innatist understanding of racist runs into the same objection and inevitably discourages epistemic openness and possibly intellectual honesty.
The probability that some of the differences in desirable traits between Blacks and Whites (or other races) are (partially) innate is high. Therefore, although this definition of racist may appear reasonable, it comes with great risk, for if genes do explain some of the differences among races, it forces a choice between the truth and one’s moral reputation.
One last point about this definition. Debates about this conception of racist often include the adjectives “superior” and “inferior,” as in “He’s a racist who thinks that Black people are genetically inferior to White people.” The purpose of using such incendiary adjectives is almost invariably to impugn somebody’s reputation by making their views seem especially abhorrent.
Superior and inferior, in a strictly logical sense, are descriptive terms that have objective truth values; however, they are also morally loaded and emotionally potent. Like calling somebody ugly, stupid, or retarded, calling somebody or some group inferior is impolite and boorish, even if it is technically true for some particular trait or another. Therefore, rephrasing the assertion that some groups are faster or smarter, on average, than other groups as the assertion that some groups are inferior or superior to each other is unhelpfully polemical. (The difference between “Your son has intellectual challenges” and “Your son is a f**king idiot” is real, even if both sentences forward the same proposition.)
The third definition, that somebody who treats members of one race differently from members of another race is racist, seems more persuasive than the previous definitions and is a commonly and plausibly cited definition. Nevertheless, it too is not without flaws.
While the precept that we should treat people equally regardless of race, sex, or other immutable characteristics is strongly supported in rhetoric, it is not supported in practice. For one of innumerable examples, few people treat a large, burly man and a small, waifish woman approaching them on a dark street at night equally. Instead, they are more leery and more cautious of the man since he is more dangerous and more likely to attack than the woman. This disparity between word (treat people equally) and deed (don’t treat people equally) is not a consequence of a regrettable human frailty. Rather, it is a consequence of possessing a brain that assess risks rationally without concern for prevailing moral attitudes.
Because individuating information is often imperfect (or unknown), reasoning should be sensitive to probabilities and base rates. Stated abstractly, this might seem obvious. But when it is applied to humans, it becomes more controversial. Therefore, it might be best to consider an innocuous example first. Suppose that we are playing a card game, and our goal is to get the highest score possible, but we can only see the front, colored side of the card (and the number is on the back). There are five colors: Red, blue, green, yellow, and purple. There are one hundred cards. We get to choose fifteen. At first, we selected randomly. A yellow with a three on the back. A red with a ten on the back. A green with a one on the back. Another green with a two on the back. Another red with a nine on the back. We notice patterns, though they are not invariable. Treating the cards as individuals at this point would be irrational; instead, we should select red cards (or whatever color, on average, offers the best return).
Mutatis mutandis, what is true of the cards is true of humans (though, of course, human interactions raise important ethical concerns that cards do not). Suppose that we are building a basketball team and that tall players on average are better than equally talented and qualified short players. That is, if a tall player and a short player have the exact same resumes (college stats, et cetera), the tall player will generally be better. If our sole goal is to create the best basketball team, we should not treat tall players and short players as individuals; rather, we should prefer tall players.
One might accept this concession to reality in professional sports since they are inherently unfair and notoriously competitive. Few people, after all, are born with the natural gifts to play shortstop for the Yankees or point guard for the Warriors. But one might be reluctant to accept this concession in everyday interactions and attitudes or especially in something as consequential as policing. At best, it seems unseemly. And at worst, it is bigoted.
Certainly, many people from all sides of the political spectrum would argue that people should be egalitarians in the sense that they should treat people as individuals; indeed, this claim has become a bromide in modern discourse. Many people, therefore, contend that we should override the brain’s natural propensity for extrapolation and generalization about other people because it is immoral and unbecoming of a civilized man or woman. But, even if this were possible, it would be patently unwise, for, among other things, it would dramatically increase one’s risk of being violently victimized (or even murdered). Few things reliably refute a bad but socially applauded philosophy. The threat of death is one of them.
In major cities in the United States, Blacks (especially young Black men) are vastly more likely to commit violent crimes than other demographic groups. In some cities, for example, Blacks are over twenty times more likely to commit a homicide than Whites. In such a city, the assertion that a person, let’s say a naïve tourist who is unfamiliar with the city’s layout, should treat everybody as individuals is not only unhelpfully abstract and disconnected from reality, but also obnoxiously high-minded (and likely hypocritical). People in such situations treat Blacks differently from Whites because Blacks are more likely to be dangerous than Whites (holding other variables constant). This may be (and probably should be) jarring to discuss, but it is true. And to claim that having a normally functioning brain, one that extrapolates from limited data to make actionable (and often helpful) generalizations is racist is to claim that rational thought itself is racist.
It is worth noting that many people find this argument less alarming when it is applied to men and women (or Pit Bulls and Labrador Retrievers) instead of Blacks and Whites. Because men commit violent crimes much more often than women (and are physically stronger), people are more afraid of them, a fact which feminists often discuss candidly. In the proverbial dark alley, most people would be more suspicious of an advancing man than an advancing woman. This is not evidence of pervasive misandry; it is evidence that the human brain is sensitive to base rates and to threats. The same, with appropriate qualifications, applies to Blacks and Whites. (Or to Asians and Whites et cetera.)
This third definition is perhaps salvageable if one precisely and (perhaps pedantically) rephrases it as “A racist is a person who treats members of different races differently solely because they are members of other races and after possessing enough individuating data to ascertain a person’s traits reliably.” This would eliminate the rational justification for differential treatment (which is not a justification for differential treatment under the law, of course, but only in certain interactions). But even this circumscribed version of the definition is vulnerable to reasonable criticisms.
For reasons still debated in the literature, humans have slight but measurable preferences for members of their own race. These are not so powerful as their preferences for close family members, but they are difficult (though not impossible) to eradicate. Without being too polemical, one could argue that these racial preferences are legitimate and consistent with liberal norms, which protect crucial individual freedoms such as speech, inquiry, and association. Thus, one could argue that if a Black man in Harlem prefers to associate with other Black people, an Asian in San Francisco prefers to associate with other Asians, or a White person in Des Moines prefers to associate with other White people, they should be allowed to act on those preferences so long as they are not violating other people’s rights. (These preferences cannot, of course, affect decisions in public or other institutions that are regulated by the Civil Rights Act.)
Similar considerations apply to immigration policy and demographic concerns. In the past fifty years, immigration has transformed the demographics of the West, especially the United States. Once predominantly White, the West is now racially diverse, and the United States will be “majority minority” by roughly 2050. For some this is cause for celebration. For others, it is cause for anxiety.
The mainstream media and popular journalists often criticize those who are worried about demographic change, arguing that attachment to the majority ethnic group is racist, but they fail to apply this same logic to those who celebrate diversity and the decline of the majority ethnic group. For if it is racist to celebrate White majorities, then it must also be racist to celebrate the decline of White majorities since both behaviors (and the attitudes underlying them) are about race and require treating one race differently from another race. Diversity, after all, is a racial preference, and trying to create a diverse institution or country that was once homogenous inevitably requires favoring some racial groups over others—if only in the act of celebrating the successes of one race more than another. After all, writing an article about the first Black person to achieve this or that is treating that Black person differently because of his or her race.
It is important to be clear before proceeding. The above is not about treatment under the law. One could accept everything I have written (or at least find it plausible) while believing, as I believe, that advocating differential treatment under the law is, in fact, racist. (Such advocacy is also virtually nonexistent in public discourse.) The possible exception is immigration policy.
Many would contend that pursuing racial preferences in immigration is racist. However, if desiring slower demographic change is a reasonable and morally legitimate preference, then an ethnically conscious immigration policy should be legitimate as well since immigration is a major source of demographic change. Many immigration restrictionists are indeed driven by ethnic concerns, though they often veil those concerns with rhetoric about wages or social stability since those are more socially acceptable worries. As noted, many elites promote double standards about immigration since they upbraid conservative Whites for fearing demographic change while simultaneously applauding the decline of the White majority. The double standards should be dropped. If the preference for diversity is not racist, then neither is the preference for homogeneity.
The fourth definition, that a racist is somebody who dislikes members of another race simply because they belong to another race is not only plausible, but virtually unassailable. One might counter that some races have more undesirable characteristics than others (in the same way that one sex might have more undesirable characteristics than the other) and therefore that it is not racist to have general attitudes about racial groups, positive or negative. This is a reasonable claim (though I would argue that it is not edifying to share such views publicly), but it is beside the point since the definition refers not to general attitudes but to disliking individuals solely because they belong to a particular race. If, for example, John Doe dislikes Jina, a nice, funny, morally upstanding person, simply because she is Korean, then that is racist, and John Doe is a racist.
Notice that this is about John Doe’s attitude. He might be perfectly fair and cordial in his dealings with Koreans though he privately disdains them. One might argue that condemning a person’s private beliefs is unfair, even vaguely sinister. Three points. First, people commonly form moral judgments about other people’s “private” beliefs. Second, if those beliefs are known, as they must be if they have been condemned, then they are not truly private, for a truly private belief is unknown and therefore uncondemnable. And third, that the belief or attitude does not affect public behavior is mitigating even if not exculpatory. People correctly denounce immoral behavior more enthusiastically than immoral beliefs or preferences.
A deeper consideration of the ethics of belief, a subtle and complicated topic, is of course beyond the scope of this essay. But I should address the “thought police” argument that it is antithetical to liberalism to condemn a person for his or her thoughts more thoroughly. Some might contend that even if we often judge people for their private beliefs, we shouldn’t. Private thoughts are sacrosanct—beyond the punitive reach of the state or the scowl of a morally disapproving neighbor. And they should remain that way. What matters is public behavior.
This is true if the belief is actually private. A person who fantasizes about murdering other people will not be punished or judged so long as his fantasies remain private. However, once he expresses those fantasies publicly, people will judge him. And rational people might decline his invitation for a secluded skiing trip in the mountain. A publicly expressed belief or desire is fair game for judgment and censure. Nothing is authoritarian about that. (What is authoritarian is compelling somebody to confess private beliefs or to believe patent falsehoods as in Nineteen Eighty-Four.) In fact, it is coercive (and morally dubious) to suggest that people should not make judgments about publicly expressed beliefs, desires, and preferences.
The fifth and last definition, that a racist is somebody who advocates for differential treatment under the law for different races, is the most incontrovertible and therefore paradigmatic definition of racist that I can imagine. The differential treatment of races under the law is not only antithetical to liberalism, but also deeply offensive to most people’s sense of fairness and decency. In fact, this definition is so sound and reasonable that I cannot imagine a credible counterargument to address. (This may reflect a failure of my imagination, of course.) Therefore, I will leave this definition alone, comfortable that most readers will assent to it.
We thus have two plausible and indeed reasonably secure definitions of a racist: A racist is somebody who dislikes members of another race solely because they belong to another race and/or somebody who advocates for the differential treatment of races under the law. If this is correct, then racist is not necessarily a meaningless slander, for racists do exist, just as communists, groomers, and fascists exist. However, its reference group is much smaller than mainstream discourse imagines. Like nervous children who hear a monster in every murmuring pipe or creaking floor, many journalists and academics see a racist in every joke or story that does not conform to current progressive sensitivities about race. And this bloats and strains the functional definition of racist.
In the increasingly multiracial West, racial strife threatens always to dissever whatever political unity remains; therefore, racism is particularly corrosive and morally abominable. It should be condemned unequivocally. However, many people, especially conservatives, have become suspicious and even hostile toward the term racist, seeing it as a weapon in a broader culture war, not a legitimate moral accusation. Their concerns are quite reasonable. As I have argued, of the five commonly used definitions of racism, only two can withstand scrutiny, and those refer to a vanishingly small category of people.
Nevertheless, legitimate racists do exist. And having a term of censure for them is useful, perhaps even necessary. At the beginning of this essay, I noted that we might conclude that racist is too vague and divisive and degraded to use and therefore should be eschewed. Although I sympathize with this conclusion, I do not think it is the correct one. Ideologues will always abuse language, but the correct response is not to abjure the terms that they have defiled; rather, it is to purify those terms by using them prudently and precisely. Language is the most important public good, and we should remain vigilant against its abuse. To that end, the Socratic method, obnoxious as it can be, is indispensable, for the careful inspection and criticism of prevailing definitions, like the culling of weeds in a public garden, is an often tedious but necessary form of maintenance.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.
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